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By MegAnne Liebsch

“You can’t empathize with somebody else if you’re not looking at them in a human way,” says Mahmood Watkins. “You can’t empathize with people who’ve been incarcerated, or are incarcerated, if you’re not looking at them as human beings.”

Empathy and encounter are guiding principles in Watkins’s classroom, which brings together students from “different realities.” Half of his students are Marquette University undergrads. Half are formerly incarcerated individuals.

Watkins teaches philosophy alongside Dr. Theresa Tobin and Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio in Marquette’s Education Preparedness Program (EPP). At its core, EPP offers educational and career-building services to current and formerly incarcerated (CFI) students. In the five years since its inception, EPP has expanded its partnerships and services to create a supportive community for people impacted by incarceration. “Blended courses” between undergrad and CFI students are foundational to this community.

In bringing together this diverse group of students, EPP is “fostering important life-sustaining relationships that otherwise don’t exist, and we’re doing this through an education model re-conceptualized,” says Xhelili Ciaccio. As a philosophy graduate student, Xhelili Ciaccio began teaching blended classes inside a Milwaukee prison. Now, she co-teaches with Watkins. “[These relationships] can’t be contained in an academic space.”

From left to right: Theresa Tobin, Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio and Mahmood Watkins prepare for their class (Courtesy of Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio).

Watkins and Xhelili Ciaccio see their classroom as a space of transformation. A place where academics and lived experiences collide through discussion — and sometimes discomfort. If EPP courses are the building blocks, then the students are the walls that shoot up from the foundation, taking EPP’s mission to new heights. Watkins and Xhelili Ciaccio see their students as future changemakers — people who have the power to reshape social systems.

“I think that educating the whole person for a meaningful life, which is part of Marquette University’s mission, is what it means to offer this kind of education,” Xhelili Ciaccio says.

Though the courses are rooted in philosophy, Xhelili Ciaccio and Watkins aren’t interested in drilling students on Plato’s philosophical theorems.

“We use philosophy as a discipline, but we talk about the issues of our day,” says Watkins, which he points out is what ancient philosophers did, too. “They talked about issues of their day. It isn’t dry. It’s dynamic, it’s relevant and it’s talking about a lot of issues that are near and dear. Mass incarceration, modernization, racism.”

Course topics run the gamut. In the spring of 2022, students can choose from “Poetry Writing for Change,” “A History of Native America,” or “Surveillance, Law and Society” — to name a few. Regardless of the topic, the classes share a common philosophical thread: how do our social systems and values create the conditions for injustice?

This question is not just rhetorical or academic. As EPP has grown, so has its commitment to tackling systemic issues like mass incarceration and education inequity. The program harnesses the resources of community partners — from the local technical college to prison re-entry organizations and advocacy groups — to support CFI students on- and off-campus. This web of mutual support ensures CFI students can access everything from financial aid and career counseling at Marquette to mental health services and public speaking training at the local ACLU chapter.

An Equal Seat at the Table

Community support is vital for people returning from prison. Re-entry can be challenging and lonely. In Wisconsin, 38 percent of returned citizens will be re-incarcerated within three years. Education is one of the most effective tools in preventing a revolving door of recidivism. People who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated than their peers.

EPP began in 2015 with a blended philosophy course with 12 Marquette undergrads and 12 women incarcerated in a local prison. As the classes drew more interest, the philosophy department teamed up with the university’s Honors Program and the Center for Urban Research Teaching and Outreach (CURTO) to develop a more holistic approach.

They didn’t want to offer “piecemeal” education, says Theresa Tobin, who is a Marquette philosophy professor and one of the program’s founders along with Xhelili Ciaccio, Dr. Rob Smith, professor of History and Director of CURTO, and Dr. Darren Wheelock, associate professor of Social and Cultural Sciences.

EPP students visit a gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum with Theresa Tobin (front row left) and Mahmood Watkins (back row second from right)(Courtesy of Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio).

“We wanted to have a longer continuity relationship with our CFI students, supporting their academic pursuits, their job and career pursuits and their life pursuits,” says Tobin.

But for many prospective students tuition is an insurmountable barrier to developing this relationship. For the last 26 years, incarcerated students were barred from receiving federal Pell Grants, which offer aid to low-income students.

In response, EPP began to partner with the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Part of an experimental pilot program, MATC was one of only 67 colleges to provide Second Chance Pell Grants. The Second Chance Pell was a workaround to the federal ban. It made education accessible for returning citizens, including Watkins.

After his release from prison, Watkins enrolled at MATC with the help of the Second Chance Pell grant. He took Tobin’s blended class at Marquette, and after he graduated, Marquette hired Watkins to co-teach the courses.

For Watkins, taking the job was a “no-brainer.”

“Once you get out [of prison] it’s like you got the mark of Cain,” he says. “You never pay your debt to society. They get to discriminate against you for houses, jobs, just everything.” But getting the job at Marquette was like being told: “What mark? Well, we don’t care nothing about no mark. You have an equal seat at the table.”

Life-Changing Education

Last December, Congress restored Pell grants to all incarcerated students. Now any student can apply for this vital educational funding — regardless of their record. Already, the program has had an outsize impact: during the 4-year pilot, CFI students earned over 4,000 certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

Xhelili Ciaccio and Tobin emphasize that an accessible education is a stronger education. Bringing together students with diverse life experiences “was so important for both student populations,” says Tobin. “The courses allow students to collaborate in re-entry support and build stronger, healthier, better, more vibrant communities that everybody can flourish and can contribute to.”

As Marquette graduate Dan Brophy put it: “I know more from this class than I do from the other nine philosophy classes that I took combined… That type of experience was really life-changing and a changing educational experience for me.”

Students in a Marquette blended class (Courtesy of Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio).

Growing up in a white middle-class neighborhood, Brophy didn’t know many people who were directly impacted by the criminal justice system. But three of his classmates grew up in the 53206 zip code — one of the most incarcerated neighborhoods in the country. Over half of the Black men in Milwaukee have criminal records. Brophy vividly remembers one of his classmates, saying: “In the neighborhood I come from, it was either you’re going to prison or you’re dying.”

The conversation spurred him to investigate his own privileges and social responsibilities.

“You are faced with discomfort, because you’re hearing someone talk about an incredibly cruel experience,” says Brophy. “Being in an uncomfortable environment… you learn much better. You learn much better than when you’re just sitting in a chair learning with a bunch of other people who are essentially like you.”

Heart to Heart

Throughout all my interviews with Watkins, Xhelili Ciaccio, Tobin, and Brophy one word kept coming up: humanizing.

“Education is humanizing,” Tobin told me. “I was humanized in this process.”

Their words reminded me of the well-worn Jesuit phrase, cura personalis or “care for the whole person.” Cura personalis does not stop at connecting a person’s mind, body and soul. It demands relationship and community with others because the whole person cannot be whole by oneself. That’s what Tobin and her team are doing at Marquette.

Their classrooms embody Pope Francis’s vision for a “culture of encounter.” Here, learning is mutual, and all students are pushed beyond their comfort zones. This is a liminal space where barriers fall away and the unknown of human relationship takes place.

Xhelili Ciaccio describes 21st century life as automated, impersonal. The classroom forces her to go off-script. “There’s just an innate vulnerability to the work, and you have to come as a human,” she says. “It’s collectively humanizing.”

As a teacher and formerly incarcerated individual, Watkins says, “I try to show the human side of everybody and every situation.”

Humanizing sounds simple. Aren’t we already human? But our social systems draw very real lines of demarcation. Arbitrary borders drawn to separate people — a physical jail cell or a denied Pell Grant application. The immersive quality of blended classes erases those lines in the most human way possible — a conversion of heart.

“We want to actually engage the person, heart to heart, because if they don’t vibe to it, nothing will happen,” says Watkins. “If the heart doesn’t buy into it, the mind won’t change.”