(2) Community Building with the BEJI

Community is not something that can simply be taught; it must be practiced. At Brandeis, we see community take real form through the actions of professors and students alike in cultivating spaces for sharing, growth, and togetherness. In a year of online classes and social distancing during the pandemic, Brandeis was able to maintain and foster a warm community for its students both in and outside of the classroom. Whether it was professors sharing family recipes with our class to enjoy over break, or pairing students up as check-in buddies amid early days of quarantine, our classrooms shifted and evolved to find new ways to be together. This community nourished and sustained me in ways that were of great significance. As I began to look for summer work, I knew it would be important to find an organization that held the same views on community as I hold personally.

Community-building at Brandeis begins before students even arrive on campus through the help of orientation leaders. And the community-building done at Brandeis has long-lasting impacts as can be seen through its expansive alumni networks, and the effort folks put in to remain involved with campus culture after graduation. We see communities built in the classroom that take on legs to lead groups out far beyond those academic settings. Challenging Brandeis and holding the university accountable have been major results of community-organized efforts for campus-based changes. Community looks different everywhere. But through intentional planning and self-reflection, community has the capacity to be generative in ways individualist and fixed mindsets never could.

Working with the BEJI this summer has meant merging the needs of several communities in order to conduct successful programming for our students and community partners. Bridging the ideas and needs of undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, and faculty into one comprehensive curriculum is no small task. Beyond this, our thirteen-week long workshop is a course taught by Brandeis students and offered to previously incarcerated adults. The diversity of thought and lived experience present in these classrooms demand a level of community-building that my time at Brandeis has well prepared me for cultivating. Taking what I have learned about community from Brandeis has both informed my thinking about my organization and has altered my approach to this internship.

I was at first apprehensive about the services offered by the BEJI. There are real considerations to be made about the efficacy and ethics behind bringing those privileged with access to higher education into learning spaces with those for whom education has been temporarily denied to them due to incarceration. What would this mean for how we would facilitate courses? How would we best be able to know and respond to the needs of our students? As I pondered these questions, I felt encouraged by the virtues of community as demonstrated to me by Brandeis. Community has a large and rather abstract definition. There is strength to this vagueness in that it allows wide-open space for creativity and construction. As I dove into this work, I informed my decisions through the lens of what I thought would best bring about community. 

The act of building community within the BEJI has taken on many forms. Sometimes it’s as small as the ice breaker we lead every session with or the question we discuss in breakout rooms. Though subtle, this act of interpersonal communication is the very work of community-building that initially grew my confidence to participate in college classrooms. In practicing openness and vulnerability with our students, we have created a brave space in which productive and difficult learning can progress effectively.

More explicit examples of the community include the weekly pedagogy conversations I introduced to our team meetings. Attended by our entire team, I saw these meetings as a crucial place to introduce mindful community action. Each week, a member of the team shares out resources ahead of time on a certain topic of pedagogy that relates to identity and incarceration. We then all engage these materials and come prepared to celebrate our facilitator and converse on the topic. These conversations redefine our commitment to our work and solidify the community investment we have in making change. 

I like to think about community as a network of overlapping lines and arcs. There are no hard edges or dead ends in the paths the communities grow on. In the development of the BEJI this summer, my own community has grown massively. It is my intention to continue this work of community growth and reflection throughout my time with the BEJI, and I believe that doing so will result in an overgrowth of compassion and connection amongst the wonderful folks that make our BEJI community what it is.

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