By Linni Kral
I just celebrated my two-year anniversary as a reader for College Guild, and it has been easily the most rewarding nonprofit work I’ve done. The narrative I often fall back on about joining is, the 2016 election spurred me towards more volunteering. But in truth, the seeds of this work had already taken hold. When I turned to volunteermatch.org in January 2017 to find an outlet for my frustrations, I sort of already knew what I was looking for.
I had just read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, along with Alice Goffman’s book On The Run, and came away questioning what I knew about punishment. I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that a series of mistakes or an unfortunate and at-times unavoidable medley of circumstance could place a person beyond respect, beyond consideration, beyond basic human kindness.
Forgiveness has been an important and healing concept in my life. Over the years, I’ve grown highly suspicious of how much easier bitterness and hatred come than an open-hearted and open-minded consideration of moral complexity, of inevitable human error. Looking at prison this way meant, for me, acknowledging the circumstances that land many there (poverty, untreated mental health conditions, physical disability, arcane bureaucracy, racism) and acknowledging the rights of incarcerated people — the right to learn chief among them.
The importance of lifelong learning became even clearer to me as I watched the people around me grow more polarized and heard claims of “fake news” thrown at anything and everything. I’m a freelance journalist and editor, but as media grew muddier I looked towards education as the silver bullet I’d once hoped the news could be. College Guild provided the perfect outlet for my communication skills, and my desire to give time to people society was attempting to leave behind.
I’ve been the one on the receiving end, though. In my work with CG, I've been exposed to excellent creative writing and stunned silent by new academic insights. I’ve talked about topics like atheism, overfishing, prison recycling, and body image/exercise with people whose opinions I share, and people I couldn’t disagree with more! But it’s always in the spirit of acceptance and open-mindedness—as the motto states, every interaction is about shared respect.
I’ve probably read the Geology unit more than any other—when talking to someone who might be in solitary, looking at not much more than concrete, these lessons feel especially powerful. They ask you to find literally the ground beneath your feet fascinating, to think about how those particles have traveled and been impacted by forces as simple and everyday as wind and pressure over centuries. It lends perspective, and always leads to conversations far beyond rocks.
I can’t recommend volunteering with CG enough—on top of being the least obtrusive and most flexible time commitment, it’s also deeply rewarding and helps me to learn and expand my mind more with every person and every course I interact with. I think our students are incredibly brave to embark on these units with us, and to be vulnerable enough to share this work with complete strangers. I’m grateful to them for putting themselves out there like that every day, and for every bit of work or feedback I get to read.