Buzz Alexander - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year National Winner
Buzz Alexander
Professor of English Language and Literature
University of Michigan

First of all, I wish to thank the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for this award. I am so grateful and humbled that you saw fit to select me. And I am especially grateful because your award inevitably recognizes that the work of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) rises out of a largely invisible national crisis.

When I came to Michigan in 1971, we had three or four prisons and around 3,000 prisoners. We now have 52 prisons and nearly 50,000 prisoners. In 1970, our national prison population was 200,000. At the end of 2004, it was nearly one and a half million, a more than six-fold increase. This policy of social control through mass incarceration, initiated in the 70s, is built on a series of laws that keep men and women in prison on a scale unmatched elsewhere in the world, to the point that over 10 percent of our incarcerated citizens will leave prison in coffins. This policy has destroyed millions of individuals, has taken them away from their homes during the long, most productive years of their maturity, has doomed half of their children to prison, and has destroyed selected neighborhoods and communities. This policy is so disguised and justified that most of the bright, eager students who come to the University of Michigan have no idea it exists. My teaching and the work of PCAP have been a limited response to this crisis that should be confronted by us all.

This is not an individual award. I am receiving it on behalf of my students in PCAP and the several thousand incarcerated youth and adults in Michigan who have worked with them. It is they who have earned it.

The students have entered my classes knowing there is something they must find out that no one has told them and realizing that the knowledge might change their lives. In the prisons, juvenile facilities, and community they encounter terrible pain and oppression, and they find wonderful creativity, resilience, and resistance. They learn the economics of incarceration. And they respond on their own terms. Some of them join PCAP. They inspire me with their insistence, creativity, hard questioning, reflection, risk-taking, and courage. They have taught me more than I can say, and I wouldn't be here without them.

The incarcerated who have entered our workshops and exhibitions seize upon the creative collaborative spaces we provide to tell their stories, own their histories, make their own images, and create new relations and lives. Living In extremely restricted conditions, they are hungry for learning and creation, they are full of struggle and laughter and risk-taking and resilience and courage. They have taught me and my students more than I can say. I wouldn't be here without them.

It has been my great fortune to have been teaching all these years at the University of Michigan. I have had, and PCAP has had, nothing but incredible support at every level in this great institution, including and especially in my home unit, the Department of English Language and Literature, and in the School of Art and Design. I cannot sufficiently thank the administrators, colleagues, and staff who have been behind us at every moment.

As the quality and responsibility of our work has become evident, we have also been increasingly supported by the Michigan Department of Corrections, at every level, by Director Patricia Caruso and by hard-working, program-oriented special activities directors, correctional staff, and wardens. For ten years the department has encouraged the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners; they are engaging us in their major reentry work, and they respond to our initiatives in ways that maintain security and open possibilities. We are grateful for this support.

Inevitably one thinks of past teachers and mentors at a moment like this, and in a long life I have accumulated more of those than I could even begin to name here. I do wish to name just a few before I close. Like so many other teachers here and around the world I am deeply in the debt of Myles Horton and Paulo Freire and activists and writers like Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, Augusto Boal, and Sister Helen Prejean.

I am deeply in the debt of my partner and fellow activist and teacher within the Prison Creative Arts Project, Janie Paul, who came to Ann Arbor in 1995 and who has transformed and deepened so much of this work. I am deeply in debt to my early and consistent teaching collaborator, adviser, and challenger, my talking and hiking partner, a person whose wisdom and vulnerability to the world I strive to reach, Brooke Hopkins, of the University of Utah. And in the debt of John Radner of George Mason University, who is here, and of Peter Wetherbee of Cornell University, who believed in me, a long time ago, before I fully believed in myself. And of Peter Wood of Duke University, also here, for his stories, for his wisdom, and for an understanding of history that constantly reminds me of the balance and justice we should be seeking.

I am deeply in the debt of Marta Arce, Miguel Ayala, Silvia Leon, Javier Mujica, and my goddaughter, Rosa Maria Puma Roca, and others in Peru who have given me so much grounding. And in debt to my own children, Jon and Allegra, for their love and for the resilience and spirit with which they have always addressed obstacles.

And most of all I wish to name and express my debt to four of my greatest mentors, three lifers and an ex-lifer in the prisons where I have worked. They live or have lived in the desperate condition of those who may never leave the walls, and they have taught me more than anyone what it means to be a human being. Their love for others, their courage, their laughter and resistance, their daring to create hard and true stories, their struggle to maintain the light in their souls, their great spirits are all part of who I have tried to become, and they stand behind every piece of our work. Thank you, Mary Glover, George Norris Hall, Romando Valeroso III, and Sharleen Wabindato.