My CGA Journey – By West

My journey at Common Good Atlanta (CGA) kicked off with my desire as a 3rd year Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) student in the Fall of 2021. It all started when I enrolled in the Social Welfare institution and had the privilege of being taught by Dr. Elizabeth Beck, a highly inspirational professor. And my involvement with Common Good Atlanta (CGA) began. Her teaching style ignited a strong sense of motivation in numerous BSW students, myself included. Deeply moved by her lessons, I reached out to Dr. Beck, expressing my interest in joining her future projects centered around social justice. With great kindness, she welcomed me as a volunteer and invited me to accompany her as a fellow student at Phillips State Prison, where she actively collaborates with Common Good Atlanta as an administrator and the GSU Prison Education Program (PEP) as a professor. Upon exploring the websites of CGA and GSU PEP programs, I was filled with tremendous enthusiasm about collaborating with such an empowering organization dedicated to reducing recidivism and promoting higher education for individuals in correctional facilities. Originally, my presence in the classroom aimed to establish connections between CGA and fellow GSU peer students from Georgia State University. 

Prior to my first day at CGA in the Philips State campus, I was fearful of speaking or acting insensitively as I did not know how my identity as a free 20-year-old Asian female undergraduate would come off to a class of incarcerated male associate students taking a woman gender and sexuality studies course. To navigate this new environment for myself, my initial approach was one of observation, opting to refrain from speaking or taking any action prematurely. During the class, my worries diminished, and I deeply admired the student’s active participation and engaging discussions on feminism. Their eagerness to learn, question, and delve into the subject matter left a profound impression on me. The class was enriched by a diverse range of perspectives and imbued with a collective motivation to delve deeper into global feminist topics. I held immense admiration for the classroom environment fostered by my professor, which lacked traditional power dynamics. The professor instilled a sense of trust and autonomy in the class. It was unlike any conventional college classroom, as students engaged in discussions and were empowered to voice and educate both teachers, peers, and visitors like myself.

Motivated by the class’s content and active participation, I requested with my professor to teach a class on a topic that motivates my passion for social work: the historical context and effects of China’s One Child policy, a policy that has profoundly impacted my own life. During my presentation, I presented the information with a blend of historical background, insights into the lives of Chinese and Chinese adoptees today, and my personal experiences. This opportunity allowed me to feel heard, establish connections with fellow students, and emboldened me to persist in my dedication to social work and teaching. My confidence in my academic abilities and practical experience grew, emphasizing the importance of advocating for myself and other social issues to different population groups. The students were engaged, questioned, and wanted to learn more about the topic. The experience of teaching a class has further fueled my enthusiasm for learning and sharing knowledge with others who are eager to learn.

One year later, I revisited the campus to collaborate with the students in presenting their project at the Georgia State Research Conference for 2023. Among the students, some continued their studies as they had been involved for the past few years, while others had just embarked on their associate degree journey that year. I returned to the campus as I wanted to present my own research in conjunction with the students to have their voices and work heard by the Georgia State University faculty and peers. Although the students in the classroom changed, every student still had engagement and desire to learn from the class and support each other through their journey. After talking to one of the student’s perspectives and desire for further opportunities to work on their academic expansion of prison education, I decided for the research project to be led in conjunction with the students at Philips State campus and advocated for higher education on prison campuses. 

The purpose of the project was to identify and acknowledge the benefits, gaps, and limitations that students experience in the program and how it impacts students’ personal Social Systems Theory. Our group asked, “To what extent does expansion from a two-year program to a four-year liberal arts and humanities undergraduate program in prison benefit or limit students in a short-term to a long-term period in the state of Georgia?”.  While there are many external reasons why recidivism rates are 50% in the state of Georgia, increased government spending to support mass incarceration and prison environments can still promote oppressor and oppressive mindsets that are endured by the incarcerated population. Higher education can be seen as an effective strategy to reduce oppressive environments endured in prison and recidivism rates. The students are more likely to break down the oppressive and oppressed mindset through transformative learning endorsed by postsecondary education and other vocational programs that promote critical thinking rather than “force-fed” correctional behavior. Without these programs, it can be difficult for incarcerated populations to re-enter society. 

Our study is focused on how post-secondary education at Georgia State University’s Philips State campus plays a role in their Social Systems theory. Using Social Systems Theory, we can understand how complex elements within a social system interact, including Individuals (Micro),  Communities (Mezzo), and Societal (Macro). The original research was conducted in combination with an academic literature review. Original research will be conducted on the Phillips State Prison campus of GSU and made up of those who consent to participate in a focus group and survey.  Based on the analysis of the literature reviews and the data of the survey and focus group, it is evident that students benefit from higher education in all three levels of the student’s social system theory such as. 

On a micro level of the students’ system,  students often feel that their education emphasizes their humanity and improves their self-discipline, despite the barriers they experience in prison environments. Students feel that they can be themselves and address some inner conflict that they have been breaking down internally or were never aware of in the first place. On the mezzo level of the student system within their community, it is evident that the change that is seen on a micro level by attending higher education has impacted the people they are surrounded by and/or are supported by.  The students have become leaders in their own community that promote helping other incarnated people to transform their perspective of the oppressed and oppressor mindset in prison and allow growth by breaking the mental cycle of recidivism. Additionally, it played a role in their family and friends influencing them to pursue education and see real change in the student’s perspective. On a macro level of the students within their society, it is evident that it is in the best interest of students and the public to encourage liberal arts higher education on prison campuses. Higher education promotes recidivism, higher employment following release, and taxpayer savings on mass incarceration. In conclusion, it is evident that, while there are barriers and limitations, there are clear benefits in all three levels of a student’s Social System Theory. 

In conclusion of our research, we wanted to advocate for incorporating organizations for higher education programs with a liberal arts focus in more prison institutions. At the Georgia State University Research Conference 2023, our group was awarded 3rd place in our department. The students are remarkable and outstanding in their studies. I have high respect for their work and dedication to engaging with the content and working towards their future. I would love to return and work further to provide more opportunities for the students through CGA and GSUPEP.