Today was a double header: first class back at the jail in our new, ongoing workshop series AND a presentation of our work at the University of Texas at Austin’s Fridays at 2 series. (Ours was at 1:30.) Both went better than anticipated and both helped me think more clearly about why I do this work.
I’ve done general recaps of workshops in the past, so for these next few entries I’ll be focusing more on moments and questions rather than a minute-by-minute recounting of events. Meg and I went to the Travis County Correctional Complex this morning and started the class at 9 am. We were in a much smaller classroom than last time, perhaps because we only had about eight women, as opposed to the usual fifteen to twenty. Although I want to reach as many women as possible, a small group can be an exciting chance to quickly and deeply connect with each woman, as we have more time to interact on an individual level. As more women come into the class, I hope that this core group can energize the rest and encourage the ‘buy-in’ that we want to really make the workshops productive.
Our goal for this week’s class was ‘Team Building’. We achieved that goal with games, the perennial favorite being ‘zip, zap, boing’. Meg and I have been discussing why this game is so popular and we realized that the ‘boing’ movement in the game is actually a transgressive action that breaks open the repressive space of the jail. For your own, at-home understanding, I encourage you to stand up, raise both arms straight above your head, then shake your whole body forward and backward (I start from arms, some start from the hips) as if you are a vibrating spring. While you do this, say “Booooiinnnngggg,” loudly. Really loudly. At someone. Make sure your hips and your butt are somehow involved.
While the ‘zip’ of the game is a somewhat closed position, in which you place your hands palm together and make a horizontal movement parallel to the ground towards another person (imagine a two handed karate chop to someone’s middle that does NOT actually make contact), ‘boing’ is a wide open, somewhat flailing movement that people can make their own. The word itself pushes the boundaries of sexual taboo – to talk about ‘boinging someone’ brings out the giggles. In and of itself, this kind of risk can be huge for women whose lives are defined by rigid structure and who occupy a space in which this kind of looseness, openness and movement are heavily discouraged. Arms, head and leg movements are all tolerated to a degree, both in jail and general society, but once you get the hips involved, all kinds of taboos get pushed against. Even in the outside world, the sexuality of hips keeps their movement restricted in day to day life.
When Meg leads hip circles in the opening stretch, that also becomes a point of small transgression. When giggles arose today, I said, “We’re not used to moving our hips this way, are we ? We don’t walk around circling our hips.” That part of the body is charged with all kind of significance. As we played zip, zap, boing at the end of class, one of the officers stuck his head in the door to tell the women it was time for lunch. One of the women turned around a ‘boinged’ him! We all cracked up. Working within an oppressive structure like a jail, even these small moments can seem revolutionary.
As Meg and I grow together as facilitators, we come across new challenges and questions. One that we encountered today was, “How do we ensure that the space remains respectful?” This group of women live in close quarters, so they are over-familiar with each other’s habits and buttons. They can pick at one another at times, sliding in small insults as jokes or blame each other when a game doesn’t go quite they way they thought it should. Both happened today, once when a woman was called out negatively for her singing and again when one woman mentioned that the other side of the circle had messed up a rhythm by speeding it up. I’m not a confrontational person, so the challenge is how to address these without shutting women down. We tried a gentle approach today – we encouraged the woman who liked to sing and explained that there was no right or wrong as far as the rhythm was concerned. In the future, however, it might be beneficial to take a stronger stance on the hidden insults and pickings that can be so detrimental to a group dynamic. Since we go over the agreements at the beginning of every class, I will bring this up when we revisit the idea of respect.
After the jail, we went to UT and presented a lecture titled Power and Play: Creating a Joyful Space in Jail. I have to admit, I was more nervous about this than I was about our class this morning. Talking to the academic-y types scares me some, as I’m always convinced that they will find the hidden flaw in my work and tell me why I must stop immediately! Part of being a student, especially a graduate student is being critical so that when you build your own practice, it is as good as it can be. Having that laser focus pointed at my own work, while helpful, is also nerve wracking.
All of my fears were ill founded, of course, as our audience was curious, gracious and fun. After we explained our methodologies, we pulled them up to demonstrate zip, zap, boing and the same level of laughter ensued when we got to the ‘boing’. We also shared the game ‘shake, shake’ with them, as the women in our fall workshop at the jail had graciously shared it with us. They asked some great questions and brought up some issues which actually deserve a separate post. Check back later in the week for thoughts on this presentation.
A quote from our lecture today, which resonates with me and seemed to touch a chord with some people in our audience today:
“[There is a need to] support those currently inside, even if the goal [is] the elimination of the system that cages them.” – Victoria Law, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women