by Christina Stalnaker, SPP Roots of Success Coordinator and Graduate Research Assistant. Originally written for and published by SPP. 

“In this potentially volatile environment, how is a Roots course able to generate productive discussions?” -Christina Stalnaker

I’ve had the privilege of working with and visiting several prison classrooms delivering the Roots of Success environmental literacy curriculum.  I’m encouraged to see inmates challenging themselves with material designed for graduate students (some lessons are similar to what we are learning in our MES core classes). Yet I am even more struck by the classroom atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie.  These prisoners come from many different backgrounds and their identities often pit inmate against inmate.  I can’t help but ask myself: In this potentially volatile environment, how is a Roots course able to generate productive discussions?

One unique aspect to the program is the teacher. The course is lead by inmates trained as facilitators, similar to the model for the Redemption Project. I’ve heard from pupils of both programs that they prefer to learn from other inmates. They feel the message delivered is more genuine, and not driven by authority. Chadwick Flores, Deputy Director of Roots of Success, refers to these instructors as “internal advocates.” The facilitators become supporters of sustainable practices within the prison system and inspire other offenders to work in the green economy, start green businesses, and consider how their own actions impact the environment.

Roots brings inmates from all walks of life to focus on the health of our environment. The many environmental issues we face today are sometimes overwhelming, yet they are issues that we all face. The environment is a common denominator across these diverse populations: a better future for all provides enough reason to set aside our differences and learn how to find solutions to these problems together.

Jason McDaniels teaches the Roots of Success curriculum to fellow inmates at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC). Photo by an inmate at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

Mr. Youngblood, Roots Instructor at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, shared with us the unique dynamic of their classroom:

Roots of Success is not about getting an A+ on a test, making the Dean’s list, or getting a degree based on the number of credits you have compiled. This is real education—student-centered learning in an environment where “Each one, Teach One” is our Mantra. The students are inspired to “be more” simply because they are involved in the process of their own learning.

In the instructors evaluation there is a question that asks: “What is the single most valuable thing you gained from teaching?” My response follows: I was amazed at the dynamic that developed… students from different cultures, races, religious beliefs, and even gang affiliations all came together and worked as a team. That was and is truly invaluable.

Coyote Ridge’s Roots instructors stand in front of an SPP banner created by one of their peers; Mr. Youngblood is on the right. Photo by Joslyn Trivett.