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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘Telling My Story' gives a voice to those behind prison walls

Inmates from a women's prison in Talca, Chile created self-portraits of themselves in the program

Hernandez is the creator and facilitator of the program "Telling My Story," which brings the arts theater, music and dance into prisons to give inmates a voice and a means of expression. The culmination of Hernandez's involvement in the Chilean project was a highly successful performance put on by the inmates for the entire facility, drawing on the women's lives to create an original theater production.

A similar production, called "Telling Stories for Social Change" and organized through a course taught by Hernandez and English and WGST professor Ivy Schweitzer will also be performed at the Sullivan County Correctional Facility in New Hampshire on May 11 and 12.

"The whole idea of this program is to work with people behind visible and invisible social walls," Hernandez said. "Inmates are the people who are not having their voice being heard."

This winter, Hernandez brought her program to Chile, where she was going to visit her father. Pierce joined the project when she asked Hernandez if she could accompany her and introduce a component of "Telling My Story" through a self-portrait course.

A selection of the final products from the course are on display in the Russo Gallery. After being asked to reflect upon the meaning of self-portraiture, the inmates worked together to create collaborative pieces in the style of famous artists. They then created self-portraits of themselves consisting of four squares, each completed in a different medium and showing different parts of their faces. Their final pieces allowed them to delve more deeply into a single medium and create a final, complete portrait, Pierce said.

Pierce said she has had extensive experience in the arts, having grown up in an artistic family. Before attending Dartmouth, Pierce ran art workshops for a year in Guatemala City. Pierce said she first became interested in joining Hernandez's project because she believed it was a means to give unheard people a vehicle to express themselves.

People tend to "turn a blind eye" to those in prisons, ignoring their attempts at expression because they feel that prisoners deserve the lives they lead, Pierce said. Hernandez's program seeks to combat this silencing by becoming a "catalyst for empowerment," Pierce said.

"[The classes] hopefully cultivate an inner strength and an inner sense of self, even if it's not validated from the outside," Pierce said.

This empowerment and self-realization, not the portraits or the plays or the music themselves, are the goals of "Telling My Story," Pierce said.

"I don't think I've ever judged this kind of art by its quality," she said. "It's more watching the individual growth within each woman."

Pierce's self-portraiture course differed from the usual elements of "Telling My Story" because it was more focused than Hernandez's courses, which include topics such as dance, drumming and theater. Pierce's project created a safe and "nurturing" environment, whereas Hernandez focuses more on collaboration and creating something out of the chaos of a group's sheer expression, Hernandez said.

Although Pierce's self-portraiture and Hernandez's performance projects with the inmates were distinct in their approaches, they were also "interrelated and helped each other" in ways that were not obvious at first but could be seen in the inmates' sense of achievement, Hernandez said.

Pierce said that her self-portraiture project sought to create an environment in which it was "safe to be vulnerable" so that the inmates would be willing to truly express themselves in their art. Although she did not experience resistance to her project, Pierce said that the inmates had difficulty overcoming their own self-doubt in a highly class-based society that does not value their contributions.

"They were resistant to themselves being actually able to accomplish any of it," she said.

The creation of their own works of art, however, gave the prisoners a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that they previously lacked. By the end of the process, they took ownership of their work and wanted to show it off to their friends, Pierce said.

Throughout the self-portraiture process, Pierce said she emphasized a positive attitude and a sense of accountability, both in herself and the inmates. In terms of attitude, Pierce wanted to hold all of the women to the same standard, which was difficult in an environment with women from different backgrounds. As a result, Pierce had to "let go of [her] agenda" and change her own preconceived notions, she said.

Her desire for accountability impacted both Pierce and the inmates. As a prisoner, it is easy not to take responsibility for your actions when no one has ever held you to a high standard before, Pierce said. Similarly, it is easy for an outsider to judge the behavior of prisoners. Pierce therefore learned to "listen in a non-judgmental way" but also to avoid "feeding" the lack of accountability the inmates had been taught by their environment.

In discussing the original "Telling My Story" program, Hernandez emphasized its focus on listening to the voices of the inmates and waiting for them to reveal their stories.

"It's a lot about waiting, because with waiting you learn," Hernandez said. "I don't believe in imposing myself to people, regardless of what power you might have or not have."

Hernandez said that her project seeks to humanize the people who are being dehumanized by modern prison institutions. We are in a "terrible social crisis regarding imprisonment" because the voices of human beings are silenced behind the walls of prisons, she said.

"Everybody has a voice, and what we don't have is the time to let people speak," Hernandez said. "It destroys a lot of lives the disempowerment is not healthy."

As a self-described humanist, Hernandez has made the "Telling My Story" program her passion. Pierce, who participated in the Dartmouth course during the summer of 2010, has since immersed herself in the program, organizing the panel "Telling My Story: Voices Behind Social Walls," which occurred on Monday night in Brace Commons in the East Wheelock residence hall cluster, and brought together former inmates and their families, students, a professor and a prison administrator.