“We think in such a binary… it’s not about right or wrong, it’s self-awareness.” -Pati Hernandez
“I don’t think I’ve been to a single performance where people haven’t cried. Because it touches people differently because they understand that there is human suffering in all the groups that don’t often get to tell their story to society. People need to take their pain and do something with it” -Polimana Joshevama ’19
After first premiering in Los Angeles, documentary film It’s Criminal returns to its Dartmouth roots on October 26. The film follows a Dartmouth class that examines inequality and injustice within the incarceration system by working directly with inmates to create a performance about their experiences. The screening will be held on October 26 at 7:30 pm in Loew Auditorium, Black Family Visual Arts Center, followed by a discussion with director Signe Taylor, Dartmouth faculty Ivy Schweitzer and Pati Hernandez, and other guests.
It’s Criminal looks at the “Telling My Story” program in action. Developed by Pati Hernandez, TMS brings individuals from different backgrounds together to create a theater work based on personal experiences. There are two general groups: one group faces literal or figurative walls within society. The other group consists of volunteers coming to connect, collaborate, and listen. They hold a number of sessions where the groups come together for discussion and planning of the final performance, which they perform at the end of the program.
Pati Hernandez, a lecturer in Dartmouth’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Master of Arts in Liberal Studies programs, began TMS as a solo venture in Vermont. A few years later, Dartmouth students had the opportunity to get involved. “Ivy went and saw it and she said, ‘Oh the students should be exposed,’” says Hernandez, “ and I said, ‘Well, they can participate.’” In 2005, Pati ran the program and included students as volunteers. By 2007, “Telling Stories for Social Change” was introduced as a 10-week course that included volunteering in the program. Today, TMS runs as a nonprofit organization and now exists as multiple programs that address a broad number of societal issues within the Dartmouth campus, the larger Upper Valley community, and even globally in locations such as Chile and Nepal.
Polimana Joshevama ‘19 is a pre-med undergraduate at Dartmouth College involved in social activism and sustainability. She acted as a medic at the Standing Rock protest where she experienced the flaws of the incarceration system firsthand. Poli participated in the TMS program in a class working with inmates at the county jail, as part of a campus program examining the social barriers Native Americans face within Dartmouth, and she was a teaching assistant for a TMS program working with Student Accessibility Services.
The interviewer talked with Pati and Poli about the program. The following is an edited transcript of their remarks.
How does the program deal with prejudices between groups?
Poli: With the idea of bringing people together there is no Us or them. It’s more like people have certain experiences and we’re there to share and bridge that gap of understanding that occurs (…) At first it was a little bit weird because I was the only kid at Dartmouth who had been in jail or had any experiences with the incarceration system. So I had a different perspective. There was definitely some shying away from each other and people slowly grew together, especially after we were placed together in smaller groups to work on our skits. We really became a close groups and had inside jokes. It was a lot of fun and you got to know each other as people.
Pati: The prejudices are mutual. We are a very judgemental and stigmatized culture. It’s not on one side, it’s also “all the stuck up rich kids”, that’s the other side. The students, too, it’s all these preconceived notions of one another. So it’s mutual. The way I work on it… so there’s this beautiful situation. The students choose the class, it sort of helps psychologically.The students are truly interested in the class. They are very willing, they’re open… and then they get lost. I’m always saying, ‘I’m going to deconstruct your educational experience.’ But it’s great because they dare to talk. The whole idea is to be willing to neutralize a platform to be willing to look at one another in a different way. To figure something out, not to be told what to do. We live in a culture that is completely based on fear and not trust. It paralyzes us. But when we are willing to try something new, we melt.
How does the program handle the difficult content in a way that is sensitive to the marginalized groups?
Poli: The most important part is active listening. Hearing what people have to say and hearing how they feel about things ands listening to their perspective. Even though it might not be your experience, theirs are just as valid. The number one thing is not looking to help in a savior sort of way but looking to help as in letting them tell you what’s needed.
How did you decide what to put in the show?
Poli: It was the men who decided what to perform. We had a brainstorming session and the men took those ideas and ran with them and involved their own personal experience. Every single skit was something that one or more of the men had experienced at some time. That was their life and it was brave of them.
What do people get out of the class that they didn’t have before?
Poli: The biggest thing is that people realize how many issues there are with the incarceration system. People thought it was very straightforward, like you commit a crime you go to jail.
You hear the stories… there was one where he was given prescription pills while on probation from his doctor. He didn’t know they would fail a drug test on those meds so he was sent to jail for 30 days. Especially when opioid use is so rampant in this area, it’s hard to distinguish between those who need it and those who abuse it. People saw that it wasn’t as simple as one day you wake up and decide to commit a crime, they realize that there’s a trajectory of how life happens for some people and it’s a cycle that is very hard to break.
Pati: A lot of it, to me, brings a practice of agency. ‘Wow, I do have agency, I can make a difference. Believe in something and pursue that cause. Whatever you’re coming from, that offers a platform. We are used to checking the box, getting an answer…. It’s all very concrete. There’s nothing in life like that, it’s all about moving and reshaping. We practice that need for openness, making mistakes. And there is where we make something happen.
Have you seen any of the previous screenings of the documentary?
Pati: I’ve seen them all, pretty much, I’ve been in most of them because we also have a panel at the end. When we had the premiere at LA we realized how powerful it was to have a panel so we’ve had two ex-inmates that are featured in the movie and Ivy Schweitzer, who is the other professor, the director, and myself. It was really remarkable and very exciting to see the affect, it’s very powerful. I don’t like to watch, but I like to be present to feel the audience because then we do the panel and we build from that. You take it a little farther by having the presence of participants in the movie so they can speak about their experience and speak to where they are now. The movie is sad, it’s disturbing, it takes you to difficult places. But it’s also very helpful and motivating. That combination is really good because it makes people start asking about what they’ve been thinking about.
What can the documentary accomplish?
Poli: I think the one thing that’s always missing is follow through. What is the outcome of people who watch this and listen do people go and make a difference? What do people take away. It’s hard to capture and hard to follow but if there’s one thing I’d want the documentary to have that would be it.
Pati: It’s for the work to be exposed more widely. Because with the performances it’s just two performances. With the documentary, you can reach out to more people. I’m hoping that the program gets reproduced by other people. That would be the ideal. It works, so let’s put it to the service. I shouldn’t be the program, that’s the next step, that’s the challenge.
Pati: I should not be the program. We’ve tried it, it works, people can start using it in other communities. That is my hope.
Poli: Someone who joined us was someone who had previously worked with Pati in a rehab center and she was out and clean and back to help with telling my story. It’s things like that that make me believe in the sustainability of the program. People carrying it on, people take what they learned and they take these things and make change in the world.
Telling My Story website:
To volunteer or inquire how to bring TMS to your community, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
See the documentary: October 26, purchase tickets here: https://hop.dartmouth.edu/online/its-criminal