Our Story: Letter from the Founder

My name is Christia Mercer, and I'm the founder of Just Ideas

The full power of our Just Ideas approach to prison education took a while to recognize.

In fall 2014, Geraldine Downey, Director of Columbia's Center for Justice, asked me to be the first senior professor to teach in Columbia's new Justice-in-Education Initiative.

My plan was to take a version of Literature Humanities, the first course in Columbia's Core Curriculum, into Taconic Correctional Facility, a New York State women's prison, spring semester 2015. Not only did I want to challenge the students, I hoped the fierce struggles of women in ancient drama might thrill them. As former Chair of Literature Humanities, I had learned that creative group work and zany exercises had the power to shake ideas loose. With that in mind, I asked Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood, to assist me. Because Mo had trained in Theater of the Oppressed as a means to understand her own world, and was interested in criminal justice reform, I thought we'd make a good pair.

The result was magic. As I wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed that March, everyone in the first class was transfixed by the power of what we all did.

Over the next year, Mo and I developed a strange brew of heady philosophical debate, theater exercises, and zaniness. We all loved it. I came to see the special challenges that incarcerated women faced, and pushed harder to rethink the relation between philosophical ideas and Mo's talent for embodied learning. We developed strategies for making her Theater of the Oppressed exercises speak directly to our philosophical discussion.

Several of the students in those classes are now friends; some are Just Ideas alumns. Our efforts got attention.

Geraldine then asked me to teach in MDC, Brooklyn, where the severity of a maximum-security federal prison offered new challenges. Desperate to find a way to speak to the men in that environment, I hit on the idea of teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh, a sublimely bizarre story, so old it was written on clay tablets. I hoped its treatment of masculinity, friendship, loss, and discovery might speak to the students. Again, we hit the jackpot: we all loved the course.

It was only that semester in MDC fall 2017 when I fully grasped the power of our Just Ideas approach. Incarcerated men and women are eager to face intellectual challenges and think hard about the world and themselves in it. They don't want to be pampered. They want to be inspired. In the extreme confines of prison, embodied learning and zaniness are effective means to build trust and open dialogue. During the 2020 pandemic which put MDC into virtual lock down, students have devoured the ancient drama Literature Humanities as taught over … DVDs!!

One of the great pleasures of my life has been to inspire and be inspired by the women and men in my courses at Taconic and MDC.

Just Ideas takes incarcerated people seriously so that they can take ideas and themselves seriously. Everyone learns. Everyone benefits.

Christia Mercer signature

Christia Mercer
December 2020
New York City