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SPEAK Partners with UVM, Lawrence Debate Union for Volunteer Orientation

SPEAK volunteers came together this weekend at the University of Vermont for a comprehensive training on correctional facility practices and procedures, curriculum orientation, and mindfulness training. SPEAK was joined by Prof. Kathy Fox's class on Corrections, which will consist of students learning alongside of students who are currently incarcerated. SPEAK Board Members were also on hand as we welcomed new volunteers and shared our own past experiences as we prepare to begin several new programs this year. This was the first orientation of this kind that our program has conducted, and it speaks to our growing base of volunteers and the diverse array of community partners that help to make our organization successful.

The weekend began with a session reviewing expectations for volunteers and safety procedures led by the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility's Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Sprafke. Ms. Sprafke provided insightful guidelines for establishing professional relationships with students in correctional settings, citing personal examples as to how to resolve potential conflicts in ways that are mindful not only of our own safety but of the conditions under which incarcerated people live. SPEAK volunteers saw this as one of the most impactful parts of the weekend, as her background in social work helped many people understand the realities of living in a prison environment and the many restrictions in basic freedoms that our students face that we may take for granted.

Next, a panel of criminal justice professionals led by Prof. Kathy Fox, Norwich University Prof. Johannes Wheeldon, and SPEAK VLS Supervisor Will Lowrey discussed their own personal experiences working in correctional settings. They gave particular attention to some educational strategies that have been successful in their own experiences. Prof. Wheeldon spoke of his success establishing a debate team in Walla Walla, WA, while Prof. Fox discussed her years of experience organizing recreational activities in prisons as well as her new initiatives bringing college education programs into correctional facilities.

After lunch, Vermont Law School Prof. Robert Sand delivered an introduction to criminal law, giving volunteers context for the conditions that lead people to wind up in prison in the first place. Prof. Sand summarized basic criminal justice procedures and legal standards that impact the people that SPEAK's programming targets, who may be currently or formerly incarcerated.

Finally, UVM Professors Helen and Justin Morgan Parmett of the Lawrence Debate Union led a workshop on reflective practices. They facilitated an activity that allowed people to visualize their own perceptions of SPEAK's impact, the nature of the criminal justice system, and of our own students in order to promote group discussion about ways in which our work can make a difference to the people that we serve. It was quickly apparent that even in a room full of people dedicated to criminal justice reform, we have a diverse range of perspectives on the criminality, social perceptions of people who are incarcerated, and what we can do to create positive change. We finished the exercise understanding that our diverse range of perspectives is precisely what makes our team of volunteers so strong; we bring a range of experiences to the table in order to better understand different points of view.

On Sunday, SPEAK volunteers spent the day reviewing the curriculum and preparing to participate in upcoming programs. Executive Director Jessica Bullock began the day with a review of our mission statement and vision in order to ensure that all of our volunteers encourage a uniform vision and educational environment throughout our initiatives. New volunteers engaged with different aspects of the debate curriculum to learn strategies for engaging students in a correctional environment.

Orientation attendees reflected on their experience after the weekend. One new VLS volunteer offered, "I am excited to see the students who may be a bit more shy or reserved learn something about themselves, and possibly become more comfortable with sharing their opinion. I am excited to learn about myself: my teaching skills, my public speaking skills, and my ability to be open-minded and flexible. Mostly, I am really excited to see where the semester takes me!"

We are very excited to begin this new semester at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and to return to the Woodside Juvenile Correctional Facility. Thanks to all of our supporting organizations and Board members who helped to make this orientation such a success. We are very lucky to have such a dedicated group of people working to promote powerful voices throughout Vermont's correctional facilities, as this weekend surely reminded us.

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