Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funds New Justice in Education Initiative

Thursday, May 7, 2015
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funds New Justice in Education Initiative
The Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, in collaboration with the Media and Idea Lab at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, were recently awarded a grant for $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. These funds will support the “Justice-in-Education Initiative” over the next three years, a collaborative project to provide education to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons and to integrate the study of justice more fully into the Columbia University curriculum. 
“This enormously generous grant from the Mellon Foundation will allow us to expand our efforts to offer college courses in local prisons and to increase the opportunities for formerly incarcerated students to continue their education at Columbia,” said Eileen Gillooly, Executive Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities. “It will also enable us to develop new interdisciplinary courses in justice studies, as well as to draw critical attention to those issues of justice that are everywhere in Columbia’s undergraduate Core Curriculum, though often pedagogically overlooked.”
“The Center for Justice at Columbia seeks to shift the mentality of punishment in the criminal justice system to one of healing and learning,” said Geraldine Downey, Director of the Center for Justice. “The grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Justice-in-Education Initiative is a boon to our teaching efforts in prisons and jails and allows us to develop stronger support networks for people who are or have been incarcerated. The grant also increases the opportunities for Columbia students and faculty to work with community members to understand and help address inequities that underlie the growth of incarceration and the harmful consequences of this growth.”  
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, and Columbia University sits at the heart of our current mass incarceration crisis.  According to the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections, more than 50% of all incarcerated Manhattanites call Harlem home.  Yet statistical evidence overwhelmingly confirms that a college education reduces recidivism, increases employment opportunities, and strengthens communities. The Justice-in-Education Initiative seeks to provide greater educational opportunities to those who are or have been incarcerated, as well as to enrich the academic life of faculty and students wishing to engage in issues of contemporary justice.  
The Justice-in-Education Initiative has four key aims:
  • To offer courses, taught by Columbia instructors, in local prisons and to provide those who have come home from prison with the opportunity to continue their education at Columbia and its partner institutions. 
  • To provide opportunities for jailed youth to reengage with education. 
  • To develop strong curricular support for the effective engagement of Columbia faculty and students in prison and jail education. 
  • To change public and political thinking about the importance of access to higher education for the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated. 
Efforts are already underway to reach the aims set forth by the Justice-in-Education Initiative. Columbia instructors are currently teaching courses in local prisons, such as Professor Christia Mercer, whose op-ed about teaching in Taconic Correctional Facility was published in the Washington Post last month. This summer, the Heyman Center Public Humanities Initiative will enroll a select group of formerly incarcerated persons in a skills-intensive humanities course offered through the Department of English and Comparative Literature.  The Heyman Center is also supporting the development of new course offerings that engage contemporary issues of justice. 
In the coming months, the Justice-in-Education Initiative will bring together Core Curriculum instructors and students to develop an online archive of pedagogical materials that support discussion of contemporary justice issues in the classroom. Columbia faculty and students will also work with community organizations to change the narrative about incarcerated people so as to emphasize their potential to grow and develop. Partnering with the Media and Idea Lab, the Justice-in-Education Initiative seeks to give voice to stories that emphasize the role of education in human development, whether behind bars or in the successful reentry of those coming home from prison.
“We believe that sharing a fuller range of stories and experiences can change the prevailing narrative surrounding people who have been incarcerated from one that says they present an enduring risk to society to one that recognizes each person’s potential to learn throughout their lives and contribute to their communities” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Director of the Media and Idea Lab.
With the launch of the Justice-in-Education Initiative, the Center for Justice and Heyman Center for the Humanities, together with the Media and Idea Lab, are striving to not only make higher education available to a population that has been effectively excluded from it, but also contribute to the growing movement to end mass incarceration. 
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