Roy and Karsten ’09 Encourage Ex-Offenders to Speak Publicly

Jody Roy, professor of communication and interim vice president and dean of faculty, and Shawn F. Karsten ’09, development associate for major and planned giving, have published Sharing Your Story, Saving their Lives: Public Speaking for Ex-Offenders.

Roy’s interest in studying crime and its offenders and ex-offenders began more than 20 years ago.  Over that time, Roy has met and worked with numerous ex-offenders who are learning to live a life without crime. This isn’t the first time Roy has published a book as a result of her work with ex-offenders – she spent six years writing Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story.

Similarly, Karsten’s interest began early, through his work in personal outreach and public speaking. “Public speaking provided me with the best years of my life,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to travel the country and make a profound difference in the lives of others. In return, I was deeply impacted by those who I spoke to, especially people trying to change their lives for the better.”

In 2010, Roy and Karsten were invited to speak at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility. That initial interaction with the inmates has since developed into a four-year relationship. “We had a good conversation the first night,” says Roy. “The men asked when we could return.”

The feeling was mutual. “I knew I wanted to go back and work with these men,” says Karsten. “I just didn’t know how. Luckily, I know Jody Roy.”

Within a few months of their first visit, Roy secured approval from the Department of Corrections to undertake a long-term project in which she and Karsten would teach and also learn from the men of Fox Lake. The result was Breaking Through to Boys in Crisis: Insights from Inmates, a resource on youth crime prevention and intervention for which Roy and Karsten share co-author credits with the inmates. “The men were excited when we delivered to them the final copies of the resource they helped write, but they were more excited to discuss what our next project with them would be,” says Roy.  “One suggested that very night that we should do something about communication skills.”

That suggestion has resulted in three projects. First, under Roy’s guidance, student members of the Ripon Speakers Bureau have visited Fox Lake on four occasions to engage in “speech exchanges” with the inmates. During the events, panels of incarcerated men and undergraduate students share ideas from their divergent perspectives on the same topics, often finding that their similarities outweigh their differences. Second, last spring, students in Roy’s In Focus class, Communication and Incarceration, developed a job-related communication skills manual to help inmates prepare for successful release; the Ripon students also taught a total of six hours of introductory communication classes for a group of about 40 inmates.

While Roy has found ways to engage her students in learning by working with the inmate group, she and alumnus Karsten have kept their focus on the third project: melding academic research with the inmates’ first-hand experiences to write a public speaking text fully adapted to the needs of ex-offenders who want to share their stories.  Karsten says of the process, “I would pay close attention for related themes and in comments from inmates that gave insight into the way they viewed communication on the inside versus how they viewed communication outside the prison walls.”

The work was not without challenges. “One of the most important parts of this project was getting a solid understanding not only of the stigmas and stereotypes the public associates with ex-offenders, but also how knowledge of those public attitudes impacts ex-offenders’ thoughts on communication,” says Roy.

Ex-offenders often are invited or required to participate in public speaking, as part of crime-prevention, restorative justice or community service programs. Through speech, says Roy, ex-offenders can break down barriers; they can reach audiences that have already turned away from other voices, such as parents and educators.

“Ex-offenders have unique potential to break through to youths in crisis,” says Roy. Though the ex-offenders no longer participate in illegal activities, they have experience within that world, which can allow the ex-offenders to connect with youths in a way others cannot. “They maintain the ethos of the streets,” says Roy. “That is necessary to reach some audiences.”

Roy feels “privileged” to have witnessed such interactions. “It’s like watching a miracle unfold as the walls, the fortresses, of defenses a kid has built to keep the world at bay begin to crumble,” she says. “He realizes there is a man standing before him who actually knows exactly how he feels and why he feels that way.” This is a critical moment for both the ex-offender and the child. “It’s the moment at which a kid in crisis may be willing to open up, accept help and re-think his path in life.” Saving their lives indeed.

But the youths in the audience aren’t the only ones affected. Ex-offenders who share their stories reap significant benefits; most critically they realize they have value and can make a tangible, positive impact on the world. To do so, however, they need to learn how to share their stories effectively and ethically. That’s where Sharing Your Story comes into play.

All aspects of the book are adapted to meet the needs of ex-offenders speaking to help others. For example, public speaking is one of the most common fears in America. Roy says, “Ex-offenders have very specific fears about speaking in public, not least of which is their acute awareness that the public pre-judges them very harshly – they have to overcome a unique and complex set of legitimate fear-based hurdles before they can realize their potential to help others by sharing their stories.”

These anxieties are addressed in the first chapter of Sharing Your Story.

Roy hopes the book will inspire ex-offenders to act on their potential to help other people. “They are a powerful resource in crime prevention, one we, as a society, have not used enough,” says Roy. “When you engage an ex-offender in helping kids stay out of trouble, for example, you not only open the door to him achieving that goal, but you also reaffirm the positive changes he’s made in his life, which, of course, feeds efforts to prevent recidivism.”

Sharing Your Story, Saving their Lives: Public Speaking for Ex-Offenders is currently available within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Institutions and also through Formers Anonymous, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting ex-offenders, or “formers,” in improving their lives.

-Kaylie Longley ’15
Saint Francis, Wisconsin

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