From Reciprocity to Interdependence: Mass Incarceration and Service-Learning

Phyllis Mentzell Ryder


This essay considers the difficulty of seeing systems of oppression—a challenging first step of writing for social change. I argue that service-learning faculty and public writing scholars have relied on outdated ways of thinking about racism and oppression, treating social issues as isolated instances of discrimination. Instead, by drawing from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I argue that we need to recognize that mass incarceration has created a new a racial caste system and is the root cause uniting many social problems. Mass incarceration and neoliberalism work together to exclude millions of people from economic and civic life, stain them with moral condemnation so that they remain invisible to the majority, and divert public attention from the flaws in our political and economic structures. I use examples from a local nonprofit to illustrate how this framework offers a new approach to service-learning and public writing. 

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Publication of the Community Literacy Journal is made possible through the generous support of the English Department and the Writing and Rhetoric Program at Florida International University. The CLJ is a journal of the Conference on Community Writing.