Thursday, April 13, 2017

Professor Kasturi Haldar has received the 2017 Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., Community-Based Research Award for a project that has helped improve rare disease recognition and treatment in northern Indiana. The award is a $5,000 prize presented annually to a regular faculty member at the University of Notre Dame who has completed at least one research project that addresses a need within South Bend or the surrounding area. Haldar is a molecular cell biologist and the Rev. Julius Nieuwland Professor of Biological Sciences and Parsons-Quinn director of the Boler-Parseghian Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases at the University of Notre Dame.

There are currently about 7,000 recognized rare diseases in the United States, and most medical clinicians will encounter only a small fraction of them even after years of practice in the clinic. So what does a clinician do when a patient with a rare disease appears in her clinic? She might reach out to a rare disease specialist or genetic center for support if she has easy access to either of those. They could provide her with the clinical spectrum of related rare diseases to review and compare with her patient’s symptomatology. But clinicians have demanding schedules and often no ready access to this kind of external support.

In northern Indiana, clinicians have long had to seek support for rare disease identification and diagnosis from Riley Children’s Health or Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. Because those facilities are distant and often busy, accessing them can be time-consuming, and the key to treatment of any disease is accurate and timely diagnosis and management.

So in 2015, a team led by Dr. Kasturi Haldar, director of the Boler-Parseghian Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases (CRND) at the University of Notre Dame, applied for and received a Ganey Collaborative Community-Based Research Seed Grant for a project to improve rare disease management and treatment locally. The grant helped her and her team partner with advanced pre-med students, local pediatricians, and families of rare disease patients, as well the National Organization of Rare Diseases, the Michiana Health Information Network, and CRND to create a knowledge base and analytic framework for rare disease recognition right here in northern Indiana.

Using the combined resources of this partnership, Haldar and her team have developed a program that trains upper level pre-med students to evaluate rare disease patient medical records and help produce natural histories of disease. They then provide a local pediatric clinic with tools to strengthen the clinical context to manage and treat children with rare genetic disorders, empowering them with the most current data. This decreases the time to proper diagnostic understanding and the establishment of a clear course of treatment. The project also empowers patient families by providing clinicians with up to date information on centers of excellence and other resources that they share with patients. At the Annual Notre Dame Rare Disease Day Conference every February, students also partner with patients to present poster and community-based patient talks.

The project has clearly impacted pediatric health care for rare disease cases in northern Indiana, but its impact has also gone beyond the region. In 2015, Haldar’s team produced a case report of an unusual occurrence of neurofibromatosis (NF1), a rare genetic neurologic disorder. The report, “Aggressive Tibial Pseudarthrosis as Primary Symptom in Infant with Neurofibromatosis, which suggests need for modification of federal guidelines for NF1 diagnosis,” has now been published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s bioRxiv, where it will be available for review by the scientific community.

Contact: JP Shortall,

Friday, December 2, 2016

In statements, addresses, and homilies, Pope Francis often calls for a Church of the poor that takes seriously what the poor and vulnerable have to teach us and empties itself in order to be fully receptive to the grace of God. The vision developed in those calls is the focus of a new book by Clemens Sedmak, visiting professor of Catholic social tradition and community engagement at the Center for Social Concerns and the Keough School of Global Affairs.

A Church of the Poor: Pope Francis and the Transformation of Orthodoxy (Orbis Books, 2016) asks how a Church of the poor might change our ways of knowing, learning, and understanding, which in turn might affect how we understand orthodoxy. Sedmak argues that orthodoxy, understood as right relationship with God, is not possible without right relationship with the poor and the vulnerable—and that authentic love of God must spring from poverty and vulnerability. 

Sedmak holds the F.D. Maurice Chair in Moral and Social Theology at King's College London and is the F.M. Schmölz Visiting Professor for Social Ethics at the University of Salzburg. He has been Director of the Center for Ethics and Poverty Research at the University of Salzburg since 2005, and President of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Social Ethics in Salzburg since 2008. 

Sedmak’s teaching, lecturing, and research focus on Catholic social tradition, Catholic moral theology, and international development. He has published numerous books in German. In English, he has published Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity (Orbis Books, 2002). The Capacity to be Displaced: Resilience and Inner Strength will be published in 2017 as part of Brill’s World Christianity Series.

Contact: Clemens Sedmak, 574-631-0199,

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

University of Notre Dame seniors Alexis Doyle and Christa Grace Watkins have been selected to the United States Rhodes Scholar Class of 2017. Doyle, of Lost Altos, California, is a biological sciences major with a minor in international peace studies. Watkins, who was also selected as a 2016 Truman Scholar, is a philosophy major with a minor in philosophy, politics, and economics. She is from Blacksburg, Virginia.

Both Doyle and Watkins have participated in numerous Center courses and programs throughout their four years at Notre Dame. Doyle, who is interested in health advocacy and will attend medical school following Oxford, took her first Social Concerns Seminar as a freshman. Then in her sophomore year she led a seminar focused on healthcare issues in the Appalachia region of West Virginia. That year she also took “Rethinking Crime and Justice,” the Center’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange course. Since her freshman year, Doyle has volunteered through the Center at the Sr. Maura Brannick Health Center.

“The Center for Social Concerns was one of the primary reasons that I chose to attend Notre Dame,” says Doyle. “The Center offered me the chance to pursue community-based learning courses, participate in service learning trips, and volunteer in local service to the South Bend community. From these experiences, I thought deeply about the nature of service, and had the chance to see firsthand the relationship between poverty and health outside of the classroom.”

Watkins has taken two Social Concerns Seminars during her time at Notre Dame: “Youth, Risk, and Resilience” and “Human Trafficking.” She explains that the second class gave her “an in-depth look at the complex legal grammar surrounding trafficking, the opportunity to explore how it is reported on, and how we might begin to prevent it. The class helped me form coherent views about how to respond to the media's emphasis on sex trafficking, and convinced me that public interest law is what I want to pursue.” After Oxford, Watkins hopes to enroll in a joint J.D./Ph.D. program and to specialize in public interest law. She also took a community-based learning course called “Poverty and Politics” that placed her at the South Bend Center for the Homeless.

“The Center for Social Concerns has been extremely helpful in my academic and personal development at Notre Dame,” says Watkins. “I believe that the Center performs one of the most important functions on campus: teaching students how Catholic Social Teaching functions in practice and how they might incorporate such teaching into their own lives.”

According to the Rhodes Trust, “Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead.”

Contact: JP Shortall, Center for Social Concerns, 574-315-5808,

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mary Beckman, Ph.D., Associate Director at the Center for Social Concerns and Director of Academic Community Engagement for the University of Notre Dame, has recently published Community-Based Research: Teaching for Community Impact with Stylus Publishing. Co-edited with Joyce F. Long, Research Analyst at Memorial Hospital-South Bend's Community Health Enhancement Department, the book demonstrates how community-based research can be integrated into academic coursework to effectively foster student learning while resulting in positive outcomes for local communities. It was written for faculty, graduate students, and other higher education constituents interested in engaged scholarship as well as for community organizations that desire to collaborate with academic researchers to reach their goals.   

Through the Center for Social Concerns, Beckman directs a program in community-based research that offers grants to teams of faculty, community partners, and students to conduct research on issues of local concern. An economist and faculty member, she co-developed the University’s Poverty Studies Interdisciplinary Minor and has co-directed and taught in the program. In her role as Director of Academic Community Engagement for the University, she guides the work of Notre Dame’s Community Engagement Coordinating Council (CECC) which aims to deepen the culture of engagement between the University and the local community.

For more information on the co-edited volume, Community-Based Research: Teaching for Community Impact, community-based research at the Center for Social Concerns, or the CECC, contact Mary Beckman at


Friday, November 11, 2016

The recent U.S. election leads us at the Center for Social Concerns to affirm our conviction that a just society must be founded upon the dignity of all people. 

Whatever our differences, we are all fully members of the human family and all have a right to participate fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of society. 

Conversely, it is wrong for a person or a group to have barriers to their full participation created or reinforced by structures, actions, or rhetoric that demean or undermine their dignity. In the words of the U.S. Catholic bishops, “The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were non-members of the human race. To treat people this way is effectively to say they simply do not count as human beings.”

We thus pledge to continue to work for justice for all and the common good as taught by the Catholic social tradition: through our educational programing, our public events, and the reinforcement of a campus environment where all are welcome, and where honest, civil conversation can safely proceed. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Originally published by The Observer

Notre Dame students elected Democratic nominees Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine in Tuesday’s mock presidential election sponsored by NDVotes. Of the 857 students who participated, 59.3 percent voted for the Democratic ticket, followed by 24.0 percent who chose Republican nominees Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

Sophomore Prathm Juneja, a member of NDVotes Task Force and Student Government director of national engagement and outreach, said the mock election was intended to increase interest before the real election Nov. 8.

“The real idea was how to spark conversations on campus right before the election so we can fix this millennial voter gap we have,” he said.

Beyond the two major party tickets, 7.7 percent of votes went to Libertarians Gary Johnson and William Weld, 1.0 percent went to Green Party ticket Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, 5.6 percent selected “other” and 2.5 percent abstained.

Junior Sarah Tomas Morgan, co-chair of NDVotes, said the organization was “very pleased” with the turnout at voting polls at DeBartolo Hall, LaFortune Student Center, South Dining Hall and Geddes Hall.

“857 is about 10 percent of the student body, because we’re including graduate students too,” she said. “But 857 students making their way to four tables across campus in one day, for any poll, is quite a success.”

Voters were asked to answer post-poll questions, created and analyzed by Juneja, political science professor David Campbell and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy Christina Wolbrecht, regarding their gender, dorm, year and which issues most influenced their vote.

“It’s great that everyone gets to participate in national elections, but not everyone feels like their vote matters or can see the result of their vote,” Roge Karma, co-chair of ND Votes, said. “Here in the mock election, we get a breakdown of how Notre Dame votes. We don’t just vote for a presidential candidate, we also fill out an exit poll that talks about your dorm, gender, class year. And therefore you can look at the breakdown in trends.”

The gender breakdown for voters was close — 49.1 percent responded female and 47.0 percent responded male — though there was a large gap in who they voted for: 73.9 percent of females voted for Clinton, to 45.2 percent of males, while 31.3 percent of males voted for Trump, compared to 16.4 percent of females.

Females were also far more likely to choose a major party candidate — 90.3 percent of voters — compared to males at 76.4 percent.

“I’m not sure what to make of that yet,” Tomas Morgan said. “It’s open to a lot of interpretation, but there are more things I’d like to look into with that data.”

Chris Collins, The Observer

Students cast their ballots for presidential candidates in the mock election Tuesday afternoon outside DeBartolo Hall. NDVotes stationed three other polling booths across campus — in LaFortune Student Center, South Dining Hall and Geddes Hall — where students could vote electronically.

While voter turnout amongst undergraduate classes was fairly consistent, the percentage of students who voted for Clinton increased the longer they’d been in school.

“In general, I think a lot of our results correlate with a lot of national trends,” Tomas Morgan said. “In general, the votes for Hillary Clinton going up with class goes along with the trend for people to vote more liberal with increased education. … Because that is a trend that is picked up in other national reports, I think it’s a really interesting piece of data to look at.”

That tendency to lean more towards the Democratic Party as education level increases has been a trend for Notre Dame students for several years, Juneja said.

“We got a chance to look at the 2008 and 2012 elections that Scholastic had, and they had the same trend,” he said. “That’s a trend that we should talk about — that as you go through Notre Dame, you’re more likely to vote Democrat.”

In the post-poll questions, immigration was voted the most important influence on voting decisions, with 21.6 percent, followed by party affiliation with 17.1 percent and abortion with 10.2 percent.

Of the voters who selected immigration as their most important issues, 80 percent voted for Clinton.

“We only asked a question about immigration, but that could be someone who’s pro-immigration or someone who’s anti-immigration,” Juneja said. “It seems as though people are more passionate about being pro-immigration than people are passionate about being anti-immigration.”

Juneja said it “wasn’t surprising” that abortion was ranked so high amongst important issues at the University, but Tomas Morgan said she was interested in how voters responded to that priority.

“I’d like to look at the expanded answers a little more to see what would have caused people to choose [abortion] as the one that most influenced their vote,” she said. “It’s a huge issue for a lot of people and for a lot of people voting for all candidates. Not all people who listed abortion as their highest priority fell into voting for one candidate.”

Prior to the mock election, NDVotes assisted students in registering to vote, completing absentee ballots and voter education. Karma, Tomas Morgan and Juneja all said they hoped that participation continues in civic engagement after the election Tuesday.

“I think we can continue to achieve more active participation,” Juneja said. “That’s what Notre Dame’s all about: We were created on the idea that we can create change in this country and one way to create change is to vote. If we’re not fulfilling that civic duty, how can we accomplish anything great?”

Notre Dame students cast ballots in mock election

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Originally published by College of Arts and Letters

​Marisel Moreno, an associate professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, has been selected to receive the 2016 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award.

The highest teaching honor in the College of Arts and Letters, the Sheedy Award was created in 1970 to honor Rev. Charles E. Sheedy, C.S.C., who served as dean of Arts and Letters from 1951 to 1969. A reception honoring her will be held at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 6 in the McKenna Hall Auditorium at the Notre Dame Conference Center.

Moreno, whose research and teaching focus on Latino literature and culture, helped launch a community-based learning program in her department in 2010. Students in her classes enhance traditional literature study by volunteering at La Casa de Amistad, a local Latino community organization.

“Professor Moreno does not approach teaching as an activity that stops at the classroom door,” said Ben Heller, an associate professor of Spanish. “Her teaching is innovative, bridging academia and community, making learning real through engagement with the local Latino environment.

“The experience for her students—and the local community—is transformative.”

Breaking down walls

Teaching her first community-based learning course was such a positive experience that Moreno now ensures that at least one of her courses each semester includes work at La Casa.

“I love teaching literature because it opens up other worlds and allows us to connect with each other. And the kinds of encounters students have through community-based learning make the literature far more powerful,” she said. “Because of these personal experiences, they appreciate the literature more, and because they have a background in literature and history, they can better relate to the community.

“When you connect human to human—forgetting all the labels—these are the moments when the walls are broken down.”

Over the past six years, the community-based learning Spanish program, supported by the Center for Social Concerns and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, has expanded to include numerous faculty members in the department and courses at several levels of language learning.

Much of that success is due to Moreno’s tireless efforts each semester to build on previous accomplishments and address challenges, said Rachel Rivers Parroquín, director of the program.

“Marisel Moreno is an exemplar who innovates, continually improves, and genuinely impacts students in profound ways,” Parroquín said. “The lessons her students learn are both fully situated within the disciplinary context of Latino/a literature and deeply grounded in life and the community.”

The result is a powerful new perspective that students carry with them, well beyond their time at Notre Dame.

“No professor has had such an impact on my education and discernment,” a senior Spanish and pre-health major wrote in recommending Moreno for the Sheedy Award. “She inspired me to go outside my comfort zone, volunteering at La Casa and abroad, to serve and learn from a community that speaks a different language, and she has empowered me to strive for equality, knowledge, and positive social change in my career.”

[Marisel Moreno outside LaCasa] Moreno outside La Casa de Amistad, where students volunteer as part of her community-based learning courses.

Exploring new perspectives

Engaging with families at La Casa—which offers tutoring for children, parenting classes, English language classes, a citizenship program, and more—also brings current issues to life for Moreno’s students.

“When these families opened up about their struggles with immigration, it transformed distant statistics into personal issues affecting people who had graciously welcomed me into their homes for a weekend,” wrote another student who took Moreno’s Migrant Voices course.

“Unlike classroom learning, which has its own merits, learning from the community in which I serve has created a powerful imprint that will be impossible to negate in my future decisions.”

Moreno, who recently joined La Casa’s board, emphasizes that she and her students work in partnership with the organization.

“At the beginning of each semester, we talk with La Casa about what their needs are, what issues they’re dealing with at the time,” she said. “It’s not about what my students can get out of it or what La Casa can get out of it, but it’s what we both need. We both win in the end.”

The program has not only impacted her students and the community—it has affected Moreno personally as well.

“I feel that it has made me more compassionate toward my students, because I see them struggle and I see their growth. I have gotten to know my students much better than I would in a regular literature class,” she said. “And I’m more in tune, more connected, more passionate about issues that have to do with social justice in our town and our country.”


“As an academic, I know it’s very easy to separate yourself, living in the four  

walls of your office and the four walls of your classroom and just focusing on

your research. But as a society, we’ve gotten to the point where we cannot

afford to do that. We have a responsibility to see how our work can have

a more direct impact in our communities.” 

                                                                                        — Marisel Moreno

Building bridges

Moreno is currently working on her second book project, focused on Caribbean borderlands and representations of undocumented migration in literature and art. She is examining U.S. Latino perspectives and Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican depictions of the same phenomenon.

She brings that research into her classroom this fall in a new undergraduate course, Borders and Bridges.

The course, which explores issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border and movements of people within the Hispanic Caribbean, also draws on her recent visit to the border through an immersion experience offered by the Center for Social Concerns.

“I wanted to integrate some of that experience into the classroom,” Moreno said. “I thought designing a course that focuses on the idea of borderlands and connecting people across borders was a good platform for it. I learned so much there and I wanted to be able to bring some of that to my students.

“There is really no better time in history to be talking about borders and bridges.”

Making an impact

In 2011, Moreno received the Governor’s Award for Service-Learning—Indiana’s most prestigious honor for engaged academic work. She has also won the 2015 Exceptional Teaching Impact and Motivation Student Voice Award for Outstanding Spanish Teacher from the Indiana chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

Moreno said she is deeply honored to have won the Sheedy Award, and she sees the recognition as an opportunity to shed light on the importance of integrating community engagement into education.

“As an academic, I know it’s very easy to separate yourself, living in the four walls of your office and the four walls of your classroom and just focusing on your research. But as a society, we’ve gotten to the point where we cannot afford to do that,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to see how our work can have a more direct impact in our communities.”'

Romance languages and literatures associate professor to receive Sheedy Award


Friday, October 28, 2016

When Pope Francis visited Cuba in September, 2015, he described the island as “a key between north and south, east and west,” explaining that its “natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship.” During the recent fall break, Notre Dame students and scholars proved the validity of the Pope’s metaphor by gathering for a conference and course in Cuba’s capital city, Havana.

The conference, “The Search for God in America: The Journeys of Pope Francis to the Americas in 2015,” was hosted by the University’s Institute for Latino Studies and examined the significance of Pope Francis’ visits to the Americas. The course, “Between God and the Party,” was taught by Rev. Robert Pelton, C.S.C. and Peter Casarella, associate professor of theology and director of the Latin American Church Concerns Project. It gave students the opportunity to talk with Cuban youth and learn about US-Cuban relationships and the global expanse of the Catholic Church.

The course was supported by a course development grant from the University’s Center for Social Concerns, which funds courses designed by faculty and graduate students to incorporate social concerns by using the pedagogy of community-based learning.

The international engagement area of the Center for Social Concerns supported Professors Pelton and Casarella by designing and arranging the community-based learning components of the course during the week in Havana.

For more on course development grants, please contact Connie Snyder Mick at For more on international area initiatives, please contact Rachel Tomas Morgan at

Seminar students spend fall break in Appalachia

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Originally published in The Observer

Over fall break, 245 Notre Dame students traveled to the Appalachia region of the United States as a part of the Appalachia Fall Seminar through the Center for Social Concerns (CSC). These students participated in service immersions across 19 different locations in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, Greg White, the lead coordinator for CSC seminars, said in an email.

Tina Bryson, manager of public relations for the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), said students are vital to meeting the high demand for housing projects in Appalachia.

“We have a backlog of about 500 substandard housing projects that need to be accomplished, and we just can’t do that without volunteers, without students,” she said. “We could never do that with just staffing alone.”

Bryson said Notre Dame has a long history of helping out in Appalachia, particularly with CAP, which hosted two groups of Notre Dame students last week.

“CAP has been around for a while,” Bryson said. “This is our 51st year. I believe Notre Dame students have been coming for about 40 years.”

Bryson said one goal of the program was to eliminate the stereotype that those in need are lazy and rely solely on others for help.

“Each family that CAP serves is part of that building process, whether they help in the building of the house, or they prepare food for the crew,” she said. “They are part of helping themselves. I think the goal is to show poverty, but also to show that these are just real people at the end of the day, to break down any stereotypes and barriers. Any of us could be in that situation where we need some help.”

Ryan Hergenrother, a sophomore who did his immersion in War, West Virginia with Big Creek People in Action, Inc., said students had to research their region before the group departed in order to fully prepare themselves for the trip.

“We did different readings and watched documentaries on the politics of the region, focusing on the changing demographics over time and the importance of coal there,” he said. “These factors affect their society and have shaped where they are right now.”

Hergenrother said this research allowed his group to keep in mind the region’s larger issues while working on their service project.

“During the day it was all about home repair, so we did sealing, siding and painting,” he said. “At night, we did reflections, saying our highs and lows of the day, what we thought about the different problems in the region and how solutions could be thought of.”

Sophomore Brittany Margritz — who went to Bethlehem Farms in Talcott, West Virginia for her immersion — said she did everything from farm chores to home repair. One of the highlights of the trip was her group, even though she didn’t know any of the members prior to the seminar, she said.

“It was just a reminder that a lot of the best things in life are about community and the people you’re with,” she said.

Margritz said this feeling of community was bolstered by the lack of access to any kind of modern technology or social media.

“One of the best parts of it was that we couldn’t use our phones, so everybody was just with each other, and there were no screens,” she said. “It was like the outside world didn’t exist.”

Hergenrother said his biggest takeaway from the experience was the impact of even the smallest efforts to help.

“Even if you can’t make the biggest or most widespread difference, your drops in a bucket could still add up,” he said. “Just because you can’t change everything doesn’t mean you can’t change some little things.”

The Bard behind bars: Shakespeare acting class aims to show prisoners a path forward

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, attended the Center for Social Concerns Community Engagement Faculty Institute in 2014 and has returned as a presenter to discuss his teaching at the Westville Correctional Facility and his role in the Shakespeare in Prisons international work.

Photo credit: Becky Malewitz, South Bend Tribune


​WESTVILLE — A student stands on a chair. He points to two other actors, who begin drumming on plastic chairs to imitate rain. He gestures across his body toward another student who flickers the light switch, mimicking a lightning bolt. A wild swing of his arm and another man slaps the metal radiator cover with a thunderous boom.

A handful of others hold scripts and sway or stumble, pretending they are Milanese upper-class citizens on board a sinking ship, thrashed and marooned on a remote island at the hands of a vengeful wizard.

A sergeant enters the classroom.

The students and instructor are momentarily unsettled, jolted from their reverie by her entrance.

What’s going on? Why is someone dancing on a chair near the window, she asks the teacher, Scott Jackson.

Oh, we’re making a storm. It’s “The Tempest,” he says, all smiles on his expressive face. He holds up the script as evidence.

The sergeant, perhaps not completely satisfied and not fully understanding, leaves the classroom. Everyone bursts into laughter, the glee stronger than the overbearing prison atmosphere and summer humidity.

No stage. No costumes. No sets to be had, beyond a few plastic chairs. The men all wear khaki jumpsuits, prison identification badges and aren’t off-book. They take turns with each role. They have no audience but their fellow actors.

But it’s Shakespeare, here at Westville Correctional Facility.

The story is old — more than 400 years old, in fact — but these prisoners are finding contemporary meanings in Prospero’s tale, as well as how acting affects them out of the classroom. The Westville program is part of the larger Shakespeare in Prisons Network, a loose affiliation of programs in prisons across the globe that teach inmates how to act, interpret and learn from the classic works.

Omar Reyes, a former cocaine dealer with tattoos on his hands and arms, now practices deep breathing exercises early in the morning to center himself. In school, he was most likely tagging the walls with graffiti instead of sitting at a desk.

“We had drama and theater in school,” he says. “We hung outside the door and made fun of them.”

But earlier this evening, he played Ariel, prancing and flitting about as a fairy that does Prospero’s bidding. It's a role that requires any actor to have extreme confidence, let alone someone in a hypermasculine prison setting. He embraced the performance and acting with gusto.

Josh Rutledge skipped class in high school. He’s got a record, mostly for burglary charges, and he’s back in prison for possession of a handgun as a convicted felon. Now he frequently plays Prospero.

He’s a stoic, lanky guy who can touch the ceiling when the class does warm-up exercises, something that almost always makes Jackson laugh out loud.

“For two hours, I don’t see, you know, the rest of the inmates,” Rutledge says one day after class. “I see actual actors.”


Going behind bars

It's not an instant change, the shedding of the walls that the students build in prison. If there’s a pervasive theme to Westville, it’s beige. Everything in the building is beige, from the cinder-block walls to the khaki uniforms, even to some of the personalities.

The program by Jackson, who is also executive director for Shakespeare at Notre Dame, seems like one of the few things that brings color to the prison. Each section lasts about 10 weeks, during which he teaches Shakespeare and acting techniques. The primary aim: using the arts to help reduce the number of men who return to prison after they leave.

The inmates don't open up immediately when Jackson walks into the room. The atmosphere can change week to week — on hot days, the men can seem tired, the whole floor heavy with a damp layer of humidity. Sometimes the energy is frenetic, and Jackson finds out the floor lost certain privileges because of bad behavior.

Or they can be downright giddy, like the class after Jackson assigned homework — the viewing the 2010 film adaptation of "The Tempest," starring Helen Mirren as a gender-bent Prospera. The class couldn't wait to talk to Jackson about some of their favorite parts of the film, specifically Russell Brand as the drunkard Trinculo.

A typical two-hour class starts with warm-ups, once Jackson takes attendance. Stretches and deep breathing, adopted from yoga, help center the students before Jackson turns to vocal exercises, where the men seem to enjoy shouting, "Oh yeah!" in their deepest, manliest voices.

After that, it's on to games. Sometimes, they play the game of opposites, where the class receives a series of commands where the words don't match what you're supposed to do. Jackson will say "Jump," and the class squats to the floor. It could be the chair game, where one person attempts to sit down and the rest of the group tries their hardest to keep the open chair away from him by sitting in it just before he sits down.

After warm-ups and games, the students are more cohesive, thinking as an ensemble. For the first few weeks, the students work in pairs on “contentless scenes,” straight dialogue between two people that can be applied to different situations through interpretation. It could be a mom and teenager fighting, a lover's quarrel or two strangers meeting in a park — it’s up to the actors what they present to the class.

Jackson moves to the meat of the course within a few weeks, whether it be running the whole play or working on specific scenes. Shakespeare's last solo-written work, "The Tempest" tells the story of Prospero, a wizard of sorts who is marooned on a speck of an island with his daughter, Miranda.

The play begins with a storm concocted by Prospero to get back at the men who sent him to the island. It's a story of revenge — and, ultimately, redemption — that reverberates well with the students, who know all too well about imprisonment, anger and revenge.

Jackson is electric in the classroom. He bounces, arms wide and passion in his facial expressions. He taps the script, emphasizing a part. He shouts direction during rehearsal — "Give me more!" "That's it, keep digging!" The men are just as invested as Jackson, evidenced by them asking Jackson to return in a few weeks so they can perform the play once more, after rehearsing on their own time, to show him what they are capable of.

The class learns a shortened, "30-minute" version of "The Tempest," one that has removed some of the more superfluous aspects of the play. Jackson treats the actors just like any other class he teaches. He makes them redo scenes, try different approaches and he frequently pauses the play to ask deep questions about what's motivating a character in the scene. He brings the prisoners to a place where they're willing to play a flouncing fairy or curious maiden.

And he calls for action just as he does with any other class:

"Actors, go!"


Why teach in a prison?

“Shakespeare is Shakespeare.” That’s the simple way Jackson explains it.

“There’s something about Shakespeare that ‘holds,’ to quote Hamlet, ‘the mirror up to nature,’” he says. “We all see a reflection of ourselves in his works. That is the universality and timelessness of his works.”

So why does he spend most of his free Friday evenings in a prison classroom?

He sits back in a seat in his office. The walls are covered in Shakespeare posters of play runs from the past. He’s got Shakespeare baubles and books everywhere. He pauses a moment before answering. These men have worked hard to insulate themselves in order to survive in the hard prison setting, he says. They’ve built concrete walls, figuratively, to protect themselves, but that isolation can cause issues later in life.

“There’s something that Shakespeare does, and I equate it to a certain emotional calculus, that you have to open yourself up to engage with these works,” Jackson says. “The other added benefit of this is that it’s within the realm of theater, and when you’re acting and part of a large group, putting on a play and rehearsing together, there’s a certain intimacy that is demanded as being part of an ensemble.”

The class takes place within the Purposeful Living Units Serve, known as the PLUS Unit, a voluntary 16-month program where inmates work toward re-entry through faith-based and character-based initiatives. Consider it the best of the best of those in prison. The men go to classes, do volunteer work around the prison campus and even raise money for charity through Relay for Life. There are usually between 130 to 150 inmates on the unit at any one time, with graduations from the unit taking place every three to four months, according to PLUS Unit Manager Jessica Rain.

The unit focuses on personal responsibility. It seems to be a one-strike policy, and it wasn’t unheard of to walk into Shakespeare class and see one less face from the week before, gone because of some infraction. One week, the men were complaining before class about losing some entertainment privileges on the floor because of one unit member’s behavior.

“We are trying to teach them to be neighbors someday, so the decisions you make affect everyone else,” Rain says.

PLUS Unit members take 13 core classes and need to perform 320 hours of community service while in the program. The Shakespeare and acting class Jackson teaches fills an elective slot, and has about 20 men in it per section. The course costs taxpayers nothing; Jackson volunteers his time, like many others do.

“I’m sure in some ways that Shakespeare is a hard sell, with the fact that they have to do memorization and study,” Rain says. “Here they are, rehearsing these lines in a day room with 50 other offenders around them. They have to be doing it for (Jackson).”


'Be a blank canvas'

The inmates are doing it for themselves, too.

There's Heath Burgess, an enthusiastic member of the class who’s always first to make a joke. He's got a ginger beard and tattoos. He’s in prison for a handgun violation and receiving stolen property, set to be released in 2022. The class lights the world up in Technicolor, he says.

“This class takes you away from every preconceived notion you have before you walk through that door. When you sit down, Scott tells us to be a blank canvas. You’ve got to open yourself up to those words that you’re reading, so you drop all the tough guy stuff, or that you’ve had a bad day, or that it’s hot in here, or that there’s girls in the class,” Burgess says and points to a Tribune reporter and photographer.

“You’ve got to drop all that stuff and get into the character you’re trying to do. And then it’s fun, because you’re interacting with people on a different level. Even guys that you see every day, you’re interacting with them on a different level."

To many of the 20 or so guys in the class, it’s two hours of freedom from their pasts, their obligations and the personae they put on when out on the floor.

Rutledge, for example, was quiet in the early classes. Most of the guys are, especially those who haven’t gone through the course before — the material changes with each session, and the men may take it more than once. But Rutledge slowly opened up over the weeks, first with smiles and sarcastic jokes with Jackson, and then with some stellar practice scenes before tackling the hardest role in the play.

“It really takes you out of this element. You can drop your guard. You don’t have to be that tough guy. You can be someone else for a while, and I think that’s the beauty in the whole thing,” Rutledge says. “When we first started, Scott asked us what we think the biggest part of acting is, and my answer was that you have to be open, you have to be willing to adapt and create a role for yourself to be someone else. I think it takes a lot for someone to do that.”

Omar Reyes says he wanted to take the program "because I want to change everything that’s me."

Reyes wants to distance himself from his past, which includes convictions for dealing cocaine. He’s a barrel-chested man, easily intimidating if he wants to be, but after just a few minutes in class, he's laughing, cracking jokes and throwing himself into the coursework. He takes full advantage of the prison’s offerings through classes and work.

“When they offered this class, I took it. It got me out of myself,” he says. “It got me out of the norm. I’m able to associate myself with more people. It lets me see everything — I open up to talking to more people. I’m being myself, and not questioning it.”

He says people who take the class tell everyone on the unit to sign up, instead of just staring through the windows in the door from the hallway.

“I hate to admit it, but when no one is up at three o’clock in the morning, I do some deep breathing," Reyes says, referring to Jackson's warm-up exercises. "The silent yells.”

Many prisoners outside of the program seem "stuck" in their own minds, Reyes says. They do nothing to improve themselves while in prison.

“When I’m in this class, I’m not here — just like when I do my paintings, I’m not here."


Education reduces recidivism

Jackson had heard the argument that the men don't deserve the time and effort he devotes to the course. He’s wrestled with the idea himself.

“I don’t want the prison system to put a murderer back on the street, or someone who’s sexually assaulted someone,” Jackson says. “I want that person to have a sense of hope that will somehow transcend the crime that happened in the past, so that they can actually transcend that label they place on themselves. They are better than that."

In the most recent section of the class, most of the offenders were incarcerated because of drug, burglary or weapons charges, though one member of the class was in prison for failing to register as a sex offender. Many in the class were not first-time offenders, and recidivism is an issue not just in Indiana but nationwide. According to Indiana Department of Correction statistics, 38 percent of the inmates released in 2012 had returned to prison within three years, half returning because they committed a new crime and half because of a rules violation during post-release supervision.

The Shakespeare class also is unique in that it’s one of the few nonreligious offerings the prisoners can take.

“Right now, there’s a lot of religion in the prison; I respect that and those churches that go in week in and week out,” Jackson says. “There also needs to be something that’s an individual engagement, and I think Shakespeare and theater in general helps them engage and find purpose in the self, in a way that religion can’t do.”

In fact, the prison leadership wants to offer more secular courses, including job readiness and other skills-based learning, says Rod Kitchen, community services director for Westville. The prison intends to tap its current pool of volunteers, which hovers around 400, with about 150 active at any one time. The prison also offers a variety of education tracks, ranging from pre-GED courses all the way through college programs.

According to a study by the Department of Correction and Ball State University in 2005, inmates who had higher education levels and successfully got jobs after leaving prison were far less likely — up to 30 percent less likely — to reoffend and go back to jail.

“A lot of the guys that are here are going through some kind of stressful situation. The reason you need something fun or entertaining is that you need something to take your mind off of it, to stop future problems,” Rutledge explains. “It gives us a chance to relieve our stress. We can take our frustrations out in a character, rather than take our frustrations out on other individuals and put ourselves in a predicament where we both are in trouble now.”

Those frustrations can include disagreements with other inmates, threats of violence, the mind-numbing day-to-day behind bars or the long days spent working at on-campus factories. Burgess talks about chugging coffee before Jackson’s class so that they stay alert. It’s too important to them to slack off, he says.

“Not everyone can go to church, or has someone to talk to," Rutledge says. "Anyone can get into acting, just throw it all into a character, and if you’re bad, or if you suck at it, who cares? There’s no one here to see you, really. It’s just you and the people that are in the classroom. You get to see the people in here that are in prison not be someone. If you know someone is a bully all the time, you see him and he has to play a character like Ariel, you say, ‘Eh, you’re not as tough as you seem all the time. You’ve got a soft side, too. Don’t act like you don’t.’”


'Transformative experience'

When Jackson leaves class on Friday evenings, he doesn't drive away immediately. He pauses in the parking lot and reflects on the class he's just taught.

“This is where I can effect change,” Jackson says, driving home from class late one Friday. “Here is a place I can offer an alternative, transformative experience they won’t get anywhere else. I’m not trying to compromise the penitent nature of prison. This is one of the only times they can be present, and one of the only times they can look to the future, and not constantly look back.

“They can concentrate on the person they want to be, not the person they were when they came in,” he adds. “Theater has this particular ability to transcend barriers. It’s the great neutralizer.”

Rutledge says acting is something he never would've considered back in school. This class gives him new ways to communicate with the world — as an inmate, yes, but also as a man, as a father. He has two new twin daughters. He brings pictures to class one day, showing off his children. He's currently set to be released in 2021. He intends to keep acting.

“I really wish I would’ve got into acting a long time ago,” he says, reflecting on the class session.

He smiles, but then grows serious. “I think it will help me in the long run to be a better person.”

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