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Department ofEnglish


Exploring Literature and Social Justice at San Quentin

On January 27, 2019, Maura Tarnoff, Cruz Medina, and 16 students in SCU's LEAD Scholars Program participated in a social justice workshop with inmates in the Shakespeare at San Quentin arts-in-corrections program.

By Maura Tarnoff

At least partly because the Shakespeare class visit to San Quentin in March 2018 was an inspiring experience as reported on in the Summer 2018 newsletter, on January 27, 2019, Maura Tarnoff,  Cruz Medina, and 16 students in SCU’s LEAD Scholars Program participated in a social justice workshop at San Quentin with inmates in the Shakespeare at San Quentin arts-in-corrections program.

After reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption in their LEAD Critical Thinking & Writing sequence, the LEAD scholars volunteered to take part in the workshop as an opportunity to take up his argument that mass incarceration isn’t a problem that can be understood at a distance; rather, we need to get closer to it and the people affected by it in order to overcome the fear and anger that perpetuate a broken system, as well as to cultivate the compassion and understanding needed to transform it.  

During the 3-hour workshop, Lesley Currier  (Managing Director of the Marin Shakespeare Company and founder of Shakespeare for Social Justice) guided the SCU participants and inmates in using theater games to introduce each other and interact before working in small and large groups to discuss and act out passages from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. Throughout these activities, the SCU and incarcerated participants listened to and supported one another in exploring the concepts of justice and mercy, both in Shakespeare’s texts and in the context of their own lives. In particular, the inmates spoke about the connections they made between their own struggles and those of Shakespeare’s characters, as well as how the opportunity to study and perform Shakespeare enabled them to re-examine and work through these personal conflicts. For the SCU participants, it was a powerful opportunity to confront and challenge assumptions about who gets to perform and interpret Shakespeare and in which contexts, as well as witness how prison arts programs work----as essential tools for education, rehabilitation, communal healing, and social change. 

After the workshop, the students wrote reflections on their experiences in which they acknowledged and examined some of the media-influenced expectations and biases they had about the prison system and the incarcerated. They also discussed how the workshop enabled them to rethink these assumptions, experience connection and empathy, and achieve a richer understanding of the relationship between the study of literature and social justice. Several of the students’ reflections were selected for publication on Marin Shakespeare’s blog

Travel to and participation in the workshop was supported by grants from the Department of English, the Core Curriculum, the LEAD Scholars Program, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of the Provost.


Maura Tarnoff and Cruz Medina with 16 SCU LEAD students who participated in a social justice workshop at San Quentin