Jodi RouahA non-incarcerated student from the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program shares from a semester-end speech about how Parker J. Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness turned her life around.

I am what the program calls an “outside” student. It is a rare opportunity, to be able to enter into a prison and engage with the individuals behind these walls in the way the Inside-Out program has allowed us to do. (Read earlier blog written by a prison inmate.)

The Inside-Out program asks its participants to learn with our whole selves and to welcome transformation. The program has had a powerful response because it emphasizes learning together through collaboration, dialogue, and engagement with others but also within ourselves.

Before the program started we were all made aware of the logistics for participating in the class. First names only, no identifying information shared, and contact prohibited between inside and outside students beyond the classroom. Simple enough, I figured.

As an outside student my purpose was not to study my inside classmates, nor was I there to counsel, teach or advise. This was a little harder for me to grasp because my lovely ego believed that I give some of the best advice a girl can give.

I’m sure the people in my life would tell you that my voice can be pretty strong at times. In fact, I’m sure some of my classmates would tell you that it can be pretty intense, too. However, discovering this about myself has been one of my most valuable lessons I will walk away from this experience learning.

One of our first class readings was by an author named Parker Palmer and his book A Hidden Wholeness. The chapter is “Deep Speaks to Deep, Leaning to Speak and Listen.” I genuinely believe that this class reading literally turned my life inside out.

You know when people tell you that it always gets worse before it gets better? Well, did I ever learn that through the last few weeks. I struggled with this reading at first, and now that I look back at my experience, I would say that I struggled in my first few weeks of class as well.

The chapter refers to speaking one’s own truth and listening receptively to the truth of others, all within a circle of trust, which I might add is quite fitting considering all of our classes take place sitting in a circle formation. The chapter kept screaming at me, or at least it felt like it was, to listen to my own inner teacher, to hear her voice. But about what, I thought?

I received my answer a few weeks later. We were participating in a lively discussion about finding innovative ways to eliminate violence against women. Alliances, conflicts, agreements and disagreements flourished in all different directions, but it got intense and emotional very quickly. I left class that night shaken by my experience. I felt like I was on fire about the issues discussed. Now don’t get me wrong, I was not traumatized. I was doing exactly what I believe I needed to be doing, listening to my inner teacher and trying to hear her voice.

I spent the next couple of days trying to figure out why I was struggling with the events that unfolded in that evening’s class. I went to our teacher the following week, and Shoshana pointed out that I am a very process-oriented person. She agreed that the events of that evening’s class were emotional, yes, but that others appeared to be okay. It was clear that I had to figure out why I was not. I agreed, although frustrated with myself, and walked away believing that with time my inner teacher would tell me what she wanted me to learn.

The creative pedagogy of the Inside-Out program allowed me to examine the composed and readable version of myself that I have constructed and carried around for years. My inner teacher has taught me that I fight very hard to be seen and heard. In recent years I have taken this to an extreme due to some of my oppressive life experiences. Throughout the years, people have made a lot of assumption about me, and I wanted to challenge and prove people wrong.

According to what I understood from Parker Palmer’s book, I was using my speech instrumentally rather expressively, and this extended beyond the walls of Grand Valley Institute. This is how I had been communicating my whole life.

I had been speaking with a goal of trying to influence people with my speech, unconsciously of course, but nonetheless doing exactly what I was asked not to do within this program: counsel, teach, or advise.

Since learning this about myself I have been trying to speak expressively, of my own truth, rather than trying to influence others.

I have even tried to speak less in class or with family and friends. Not because I want to make a point or have people notice a difference in me, but because I want to honor my inner teacher and let her know that I am attending to her voice.

From here, I will always try to speak from my soul rather than from my ego. I believe I have genuinely learned what it means to speak from the center of my own being to the centre of the circle and I doubt that I would have learned that anywhere else but here.

In the past few minutes I have shared with you my very personal journey through this class experience, but please don’t forget that there are 18 other students who have been on this journey with me and who have had their own transformations as a result of the Inside-Out program, continuing to move beyond the walls that separate us.

Jodi Rouah lives in Mississauga, Ontario and is completing a Masters of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Grand Valley Institute for Women, in a class named Diversity, Marginalization and Oppression.