In a cosy room meant to seat 35 people at maximum, set off the main bookstore room, several of us sat energized and anticipating the event. A few people trickled in here and there, engaging in spirited conversation. The bookstore in question, Boneshaker Books, is a Minneapolis-based, volunteer-run store with a mission to sell radical zines as well as radical fiction and nonfiction books. It includes such sections as anarchy and economics, stuffed full with the kind of sociopolitical history I would have loved to learn about in high school and college. The event is led by Jason Sole, author of From Prison to PhD: A Memoir of Hope, Resilience, and Second Chances.

Officially, this is my first reading that I’ve been to and I was uncertain as to what to expect. My exposure to them has been limited to what little is shown in movies and TV shows. As an educator and a writer, the book intrigued me. In education, there is a lot of discussion around behavior management, the School-to-Prison pipeline, and some discussion on restorative justice within schooling. I was eager to see his experiences with the justice system, especially in relationship to his schooling experiences.

He didn’t do a true “reading” per se, but rather chapter summaries, with relevant quotations and expounding where necessary. From an educator’s standpoint, there were a few things that were unsurprising. In his overview of the book, he discussed growing up in Chicago, feeling like it was “hard to break free of the shackles” of habits, of the war on drugs, from his circumstances. Chicago’s schools are notoriously corrupt, like much of the city’s government, and gangs were rampant. He had to move states at 16 to get away from his involvement in gang life–which introduced him to racism upfront for the first time.

A lot of questions came up in my mind as I listened to his story of being educated in such an environment, with the struggles he had – despite intelligence, was labeled a problem child and had at least one expulsion. I question how educators and schools engage in punitive structures that lead certain kids down a path likely leading to prison. I wonder how that can be changed on a national level – small scale, there are efforts to do restorative justice or are offering things like project-based learning and alternatives to traditional schooling. But, what can be our role in preventing students from joining gangs? How do we turn the tide away from the Pipeline-to-Prison. How can authentic teaching and authentic relationships and deep learning be a force of change? How can we be inclusive and shed our bigotry as a system?

The more I listened to him, the more I thought about things he was saying about why he ended up in gangs and in prison and what helped him to turn his life around. Relationships are absolutely key in determining success, whether it’s in school or not. Having the support at the right times in our lives can feed insecurities, cause trouble for us, or provide us with a support system in which we can thrive in academics, in our social lives, and in our employment arenas. For him, his experiences and support system certainly narrowed his options until gangs were the only option. In turn, that prevented his military access at 18 and kept him narrowly within a life of crime, leading to prison. However, the right support helped him into getting a higher education, out of crime, and teaching future law enforcement. He is able to use his experiences to challenge the status quo and make changes in the treatment of prisoners and the relationship between police and the community.

A lot of this applies to writers as well as students too, I believe. Being able to tell our stories is a powerful thing, cathartic and empowering for us and needed in the community. There are people who are natural storytellers in such a setting – Jason Sole is one of them. Others of us use our word processors, our pens and papers, even our typewriters for some of us.

He said towards the end of the evening, “I gotta tell my story before others tell my story — wrong.” The narrative told by others versus the ones we create for ourselves is something educators and writers alike must keep in mind. We both have the power to create narratives for good as well as to stimulate our imaginations–but most importantly, in order to tell our truths as best we can.