Avila Now

March 10, 2023

Feminist Theory Class Listens to Better Understand the Dear Neighbor

A photo of Leslie Dorrough Smith, Ph.D. She is wearing a black sweater, has short red hair, and there is a blurred-green background.
Leslie Dorrough Smith, Ph.D.

“It was an eye-opening class that was intense and added so much value and perspective to my life.” For eight years,  Avila students like Eleanor Peoples have visited Journey House as part of a Feminist Theory course to understand the experiences of incarcerated women so that they can link them to the work of feminist theorists and activists.

“I tell students that we’re forming relationships, but we are guests in their homes and witnesses to their experiences,” said Associate Professor of Religious Studies; Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, Leslie Dorrough Smith, Ph.D. As part of the class, Avila students visit the residents of Journey House, the residential arm of Journey to New Life (JTNL)—a program started by some of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Avila’s founders. Students are given a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in someone else’s story–listening to understand and empathize with the Dear Neighbor and upholding the university’s values of the worth, dignity, and potential of each human being. 

“We spend time in this class focusing on a case study: the experiences of incarcerated women. For many women, incarceration is an experience that is profoundly traumatizing and hardly rehabilitative; many leave prison worse off than when they went in. While this is true for many men as well, there are gender-specific dynamics that women experience in jail. We focus on how feminist concerns relate to incarceration by visiting Journey House, a residential transition center for formerly incarcerated women. Residents of Journey House go immediately there upon their release from prison,” said Smith. 

“Journey House, and its partners, offer residents free housing, food, medical care, and a stable and loving place to live until they secure a job and can transition to independent living. The program is successful because it pays attention to the whole person and recognizes that economics, not ethics, is the key to remaining in mainstream society,” said Smith. 

This unique partnership began in 2015. “I was looking for a way to make one of my courses into a Community Engagement course. A colleague told me about her work with Sr. Rose McLarney, one of the founders of Journey House, who has team-taught at Avila on the topic of restorative justice – a technique for dealing with criminal or hurtful behavior that focuses on rehabilitating people who have broken the law. It looks more broadly at how they can mend relationships with those they’ve harmed and the community.”

“It’s an incredibly moving time. Even though I’ve gone to Journey House for seven-plus years, I always tear up when I’m there. All of the women that we meet are exceedingly brave.  It’s usually heartbreaking but hopeful. You can learn a lot about perspective when you meet people who have lost their freedom for long periods. We’ve met several new residents in their first few hours of freedom after 20-30 years of confinement. That is utterly humbling. But it’s not all serious – we laugh – and often quite a lot,” said Smith.

Smith and her students make three visits throughout the fall semester, each of which is about two hours long. There are usually around 20 students enrolled in the course. One of this year’s students, Jacob Kruckenberg said of the experience, “I gained a perspective on how people try to piece their life back together.”

Avila student Eleanor Peoples said, “Our visits to Journey House were my favorite part of the class. We met women from all over Missouri and heard about their lives. We learned about all the terrible things the women went through in prison.  Of them, we got to see progress through the program as we visited. I plan on going back to help volunteer or do whatever else I can do for these women. Everyone take this class or go to journey house in your free time if you can.”

What is the description of your Feminist Theory class?

We investigate the past and present possibilities of the feminist movement, which involves an incredibly diverse group of people committed to gender justice, equity, and human rights for all. Because it’s virtually impossible to talk about any one type of oppression alone, feminist thinkers also discuss how race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc., are all implicated in or influence a person’s gender identity.  

What do your students do at Journey House?

The goal of Journey House was to create a program to help formerly incarcerated people stay out of prison. Many people return to prison because they cannot survive without housing and a job – both can be incredibly difficult to obtain for people with a felony record.

Our purpose for going is to have a discussion: we listen, ask questions, and learn from each other. Residents meet with us by choice. No one has to talk to us, but I think our success comes from the fact that many, if not most, of the women who live there, are quite eager to share. They’ve never had the chance to talk about their prison experiences to an interested audience, and it is often therapeutic to have this opportunity. 

We organize our meetings by time: The first session focuses on what they experienced in the past before they went to prison and in prison. These are almost always stories of trauma.  The second visit focuses on what they experience at Journey House, including conversations about what they’re un-learning from prison and what they appreciate about their new life outside. The final visit focuses on the future, including any new jobs they may have, their goals for the future, reconnecting with their families, etc.  

What is the goal of the visits?

In a purely academic sense, I want them to be able to understand the experiences of incarcerated women so that they can link them to the work of feminist theorists and activists. The women we speak with are like living vessels of experiences that directly relate to feminist theory. But just as (if not more) important is that students understand that incarcerated people have the same hopes and dreams that they do and that they are often far more alike than different. Finally, I want them to consider the social-structural barriers facing these women. That is connected to activist work, certainly, but it is also critical to helping them build empathy. I have rarely (if ever) met a formerly incarcerated person who denies that they did something wrong and deserve punishment. But what happens to many imprisoned women is a systemic cycle of dehumanization, not an experience that will help them make amends or live better lives.


Journey House

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