by Casey Black
The summer before I entered my first year at Duquesne, I received an email saying I would need to choose the Learning Community I wanted to be a part of. I had no idea what Learning Communities were or what purpose they served; the names were all in Latin and unsurprisingly, I don’t speak Latin. I quickly chose “Justitia” without giving the decision much thought. Google translated Justitia to something similar to “justice, equity, and rightness.” I learned that the goal of the community was to “search for truth and justice through evidence in the public sphere,” which I thought lined up pretty well with my end goal – attending law school and becoming a lawyer. I blindly hoped my Learning Community would be an interesting experience but I honestly had no idea how deeply impactful this unique opportunity would be. It sounds really dramatic, but I truly have my first year experiences to thank for entirely reshaping my view of the world and focusing the direction I want my life to take after graduation.
Each Learning Community has a community partner for students to interact with through discussion with the aim of forming meaningful relationships. Community partners are not meant to be a form of charitable activity or volunteer work, but a unique experience to develop relationships and discuss critical topics. The community partner of the Justitia community is the Allegheny County Jail. Students of Justitia, including myself were privileged to have two classes with incarcerated individuals. The purpose of our class was to discuss and ponder philosophy and criminal justice. This experience was honestly nothing like I expected it to be and I learned much more than just the subjects of philosophy and criminal justice. What I really learned in this class was the importance of being human, making mistakes, and learning from them. The time I spent in Allegheny County Jail taught me how to look past labels, to engage with people different from myself with a clear open mind, and how I can foster relationships that extend beyond spaces that usually serve as dividers.
In class this semester we have been focusing on reading stories that present experiences much different from our own and critically thinking about the systems of power that operate within them. We set values for our class that serve to ground our reading and give standards for purposeful discussion. A useful term that helps us to challenge common perceptions is that of a ‘single story.’ Coined by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a single story is a dangerous way to view or perceive something. Only presenting one experience often categorizes an entire group of things just because they are all called by the same name. Adichie herself explains, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In order to work against the danger the single story imposes we all need to be more open to different perspectives and more inclusive of stories different from our own.
Persepolis, a graphic memoir of a young Iranian girl, is one story that pushes against single stories, specifically the single story of people who are or have been incarcerated. The main character, Marjane must navigate her childhood through the violence that occurs during the Islamic Revolution. As a child Marjane sees many people she loves suffer and face persecution by the government. She depicts individuals being arrested, incarcerated, and abused because of their activism and beliefs. In this way, Marjane is challenging the commonplace single stories of incarcerated individuals. It is often assumed that those who are incarcerated are bad and dangerous people who have committed some type of horrible injustice against another person. Of course this assumption can be true in some situations, but it is problematic to force this story on every person who is considered an ‘inmate.’ The characters in Persepolis challenge this assumption because their actions aren’t malicious or meant to harm people in society. Those who have been imprisoned disagree with the restrictions the government is imposing on their actions and beliefs and consequently become activists who protest said restrictions. The government counters by arresting them and torturing them – sometimes to the point of death. Families are torn apart, lost and confused about the outcome of their loved ones’ lives. I couldn’t help but thinking of the those I met who are incarcerated while reading this story.
The characters in Persepolis not only represent an alternative view of incarcerated individuals, but they also further paint a picture of activism and the courage it can entail. Any form of activism, even at the most basic level requires expressing beliefs in the pursuit of some end goal. Whether it be animal rights, which are largely accepted or advocacy for something less well recognized. I want to spend my life advocating for those incarcerated and I realized my passion by establishing friendships with people I never thought I would. I full heartedly believe that the rights of incarcerated individuals come down to basic human rights. We should treat and respect inmates for what they are, which is human. People tend to dwell on infractions that criminals have committed, but I think everyone makes mistakes and the justice system could actually serve a rehabilitative purpose if we focused on bringing out people’s positive qualities rather than punishing their bad ones.