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Meaningful Change

11/07/08 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) We've been hearing a lot about change recently and commentator Mary McCallum has some thoughts about what it takes to bring about change that's both real and meaningful.

(MCCALLUM) I work in a maximum security prison in Vermont as an educator for male offenders. While most of the 350 inmates are in for drug and alcohol fueled crimes like DUI, assault, vandalism and theft, we have our share of high profile offenders in for murder. But for the most part, they are respectful in class and we get along. And once in a while I make a difference.

Like the guy in my health class who had an "aha" moment when he learned that giving his three year-old caffiene was a bad idea. Or the inmates in current events class who learned that part of being a responsible citizen is registering to vote, even if it means mailing an absentee ballot from prison.

I do a reading class called "Man's Best Friend." We read dog stories and have special guests visit class with their trained dogs. Inmates earn high school English credit as they work through the books, and the class is fun for me to teach, so we all win. But I have a hidden agenda: I want the dogs and their stories to elicit emotions and allow inmates to connect with compassion.

A polite black teenager from Brooklyn, who I'll call Jackson, was in for dealing drugs. He loved dogs and their stories, and never skipped a class. Jackson told us about his two pit bulls and how he missed them terribly. His dogs are typical of the aggressive breeds that guys in class admire: pit bulls, rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, chows and German shepherds. Not a poodle owner in the bunch.

In class we talk about how the dog breed we select often reflects how we want the world to see us. This was especially true in Jackson's neighborhood, where owning a tough dog spoke volumes about him. I asked him if he trained his pit bulls to fight and he admitted that he did. I liked Jackson and was horrified to hear he could be so matter-of-fact about about using his dogs for blood sport.

During lunch break I found a website that detailed the brutality of dog fighting, with color photos of mauled and dying pit bulls. I printed it out and gave it to Jackson later that afternoon. He took it with him, excited to read about his favorite breed.

Now this is where things got interesting. Jackson came back that afternoon, stood outside my classroom door and waved through the window to get my attention. Out in the hallway he told me that the article was upsetting, vicious, horrible. His dogs had only just begun to fight, but he was finished with it. It was just too inhumane.

It's not easy to bring about meaningful change in this sometimes harsh world, especially in a prison. But I've come to believe that it's possible to effect change beyond measure if we focus on what I think of as the "Power of One" - one issue, one teacher, one student, and one outcome at a time.
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