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MMC’s Stand Up, Speak Out Festival Returns, Bridging Campuses Miles and Worlds Apart

Student creativity shone bright at MMC’s eighth annual Stand Up, Speak Out Arts and Social Justice Festival. Held on December 8 in the Judith Mara Carson Center for Visual Arts, the event spotlighted a mix of dance, poetry, animation, and film projects, each exploring weighty topics such as inequality, self-discovery, and the human narratives obscured by history.

But as always, the festival was as much about the collaborations behind the scenes as the performances and pieces themselves.

Stand Up, Speak Out brings together classes from MMC’s college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in Bedford Hills, New York, and its 71st Street campus for an academic exchange that defies physical boundaries: Bedford Hills students create work around a designated theme that their 71st Street peers enact or find creative ways to respond to.

This year, it featured work from the Bedford Hills class Contemporary Issues in Art and five 71st Street classes: Dance and Cultural Histories, Script Analysis, Curating the City, 2-D Animation, and the Stand Up, Speak Out Collaborative Workshop. Bedford Hills students scripted film noir scenes in response to the Edward Hopper paintings 11 a.m. and Nighthawks that 71st Street students produced and used ekphrastic poetry to create backstories for historical tintype photos, with 71st Street students supplying voiceovers and animation.

In an especially innovative exchange, Bedford Hills students analyzed John Singleton Copley’s dramatic painting Watson and the Shark, which members of their program’s step team used as inspiration for a performance that they documented using dance notations. In response, Dance and Cultural Histories students choreographed two pieces based on the descriptions.

That give-and-take is the brainchild of Erin Greenwell, an associate professor of communication and media arts and the College’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education. Greenwell initially launched the festival as an extracurricular event for 71st Street students following discussions at the College about police brutality. However, she saw an opportunity to expand and deepen the conversation by connecting students across MMC’s learning sites.

These include 71st Street and Bedford Hills, where the College has awarded degrees since 1997, as well as the Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison where the College has awarded degrees since 2019. (Greenwell is exploring ways to include its students in the festival as well.) To ensure the festival’s longevity and make the event more accessible to working students, Greenwell partnered with faculty to embed it into cross-discipline courses.

The benefits of the approach, she said, were multifold. “My main task, or actually my main privilege, as a Ferraro Fellow is trying to find ways to bridge work and awareness between the learning sites,” she said. “And the festival allows students to crowdsource academic understanding across locations.” Moreover, it’s an opportunity to recognize the exceptional academic and creative talent not just at 71st Street but in MMC’s prison education programs.

Indeed, speaking at the festival, Greenwell recalled visiting Bedford Hills for the first time in 2016 as a participant in Crossing Borders, a biennial academic conference the College holds at the facility, and being blown away by what she witnessed there. “I’d never been to a prison before, and I’d assumed the educational programs were all vocational,” she said. But after seeing the deep level of academic engagement among Bedford Hills students, “all I could think was, ‘why don’t more people know about this—and how can we get more people to know about this?’”

For 71st Street students, the festival was an eye-opener just in the way Greenwell hoped. Calling the experience “fantastic,” junior Film and Media Production major Jose Sanchez ’25, who directed a short shown at the screening, said he appreciated having the opportunity to learn the history of [the Bedford Hills] program and develop the project with Bedford Hills students.

On the opposite end, Sava Dorritie, a Bedford Hills student, said her classmates had been equally excited and inspired by the project, even meeting up to work on scripts outside of class hours, and were eager to see how the work turned out. Because Bedford Hills prohibits internet access at its facility, Greenwell typically burns a DVD of the work shown at the festival and holds a separate screening at the facility.

However, Dorritie had a unique opportunity to see the festival in person at The Judy alongside her 71st Street peers. She was approved for work release in late October and now lives with her 13-month-old daughter at a residential center in Queens. Sitting in the front row of the screening, she beamed as she offered her assessment. “It came out great. I loved it. The [71st Street students] did a great job, and the students at Bedford are going to love it,” she said.

She was joined at the festival by Leah Gigliotti, a Bedford Hills student who was also recently released and has been finishing the last two electives needed to earn her bachelor’s from MMC through online classes; she’s set to graduate this semester. Gigliotti, who traveled from Rochester for the event, almost grew teary-eyed during the screening. “It hit me that I’m home, I’m free, and I’m on the other end,” she said. “And then seeing them show my peers—I know every single one of those girls. It was beautiful.”

 

Looking Ahead

What comes next for the festival and continued efforts to unite students across MMC’s three learning sites? Greenwell offered ideas in a panel discussion at the event, where she was joined by Jessica Soble ’22, a Bedford Hills College Program alum who now serves as its program coordinator, and DeSyre Collier ’24, a Politics and Human Rights and Public Relations and Strategic Communications major and president of the Bedford Hills College Program Club. A student group at 71st Street, the organization looks for ways to support justice-involved peers.

Collier is rebooting the organization after most of its members graduated. In the past, the group has assisted incarcerated students on research projects for class assignments, but Collier hopes to eventually launch a peer mentorship or partnership program that would allow students at 71st Street and in the College’s prison education programs to “take the journey of education together.”

Along those lines, Greenwell said MMC is working toward building logistical support for more inside-out courses, which would give 71st Street students the opportunity to travel to the Bedford Hills facility and take a class in the College Program alongside incarcerated peers. These, she said, leveled the playing ground because no matter what their identities, participants “became students first.”

“If you’re a 71st Street student, you might think, ‘oh, I’m too sheltered, I don’t belong here, the Bedford students aren’t going to talk to me,’” Greenwell said. “And then I’ve heard students at Bedford say the opposite—’people are only going to see me for the worst mistake of my life or the crime for which I was convicted.’ But everything melts away as soon as you share the work because everyone’s a student.”

Indeed, Soble, who had previously taken inside-out classes, said they had been her favorite for those very reasons. “It was always great to get in the same room [with outside students], get their perspective, and for them to get our perspective,” she said. In the beginning, she said, some BHCP students “were scared to death thinking this is going to be terrible,” but by the end agreed it was amazing. “We all connected so well with each other. It just really is a great experience,” she said.

Greenwell said she would be debuting a new production class in the spring at 71st Street that will spend the semester producing and editing a multi-camera, concert-style documentary about the Crossing Borders conference in collaboration with student organizers at Bedford Hills. Though it isn’t an inside-out course, she added, it would be an opportunity for students to work together in person.

Otherwise, Soble encourages members of the MMC community to take whatever opportunities they have to collaborate with and support peers at Bedford Hills and Taconic. The college program is a beacon of light for its students, allowing them to work toward a future outside and providing opportunities “to just feel like a human,” she said. “And when you’re [incarcerated], there are very few moments where you do feel like a human.”

Best of all, Soble added, education was something that could not be taken. “Most everything in there they can take away from you, but knowledge they can’t take away.”

Published: December 19, 2023