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Owen Schalk, current MFA in Writing student.

Inspired Minds

Owen Schalk talks about the importance of community engagement in the MFA in Writing

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Inspired Minds: The Importance of Community Engagement in the MFA

By Owen Schalk

Before volunteering for Inspired Minds: All Nations Creative Writing, I had never set foot in a jail. I knew what to expect: clanking doors, staff members in Kevlar vests, men whose identities are half-smothered under identical grey uniforms. I knew that, as I led creative writing workshops within those windowless walls, I would hear heartbreaking stories of racism, addiction, and loss. I knew, from my own research, to anticipate some difficult sights.

Over the past few decades, conditions in Saskatchewan prisons have deteriorated significantly. In Canada, the prison system itself emerged from a system of colonial discipline and dispossession – as prisoner advocate Cory Cardinal writes, “the justice system is rooted in colonial policies that were designed to suppress and control a vulnerable demographic of Aboriginal people so Euro-settlers could profit from the land.”1 However, the over-incarceration of criminalized individuals and the over-privatization of imprisoned lives are two crises that have worsened steadily in recent years. Overcrowding is an urgent issue, to the extent that some inmates are forced to sleep on floors and urinate in milk jugs. Food supplies have been decreased. Prison jobs have been cut. Phone calls have been restricted through the introduction of fees.

Jails are sites of racial oppression. Stepping into the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, it was impossible not to notice that almost all the guards are settlers, almost all the prisoners Indigenous. In fact, the incarceration rate for Indigenous people in Saskatchewan is 18 times higher than non-Indigenous populations.2 As such, Inspired Minds requires volunteers to have lived or academic experience of Indigenous cultures, and if they don’t, they must complete a self-guided Indigenous Studies class through Coursera.

In the fraught context of the jail, an oppressive atmosphere that encourages hyper-masculine behaviours including violence, it is difficult to open a safe space for sharing and vulnerability. But this is the space Inspired Minds aims to create. Since 2011, Inspired Minds has offered a space for incarcerated individuals to write, share their work, and discuss literature. It is a participant-driven project that facilitates workshops in jails and prisons in both Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Sitting down for the first class, I knew I would need to navigate some sensitive topics over the next eight weeks. What I didn’t expect was how, in spite of the heavy subject matter and oppressive setting, the classes would be so much fun.

Despite the pain that the nine men in my class carried, they never lost their sense of humour. Having led creative writing workshops at the University of Saskatchewan, I can confidently say that I’ve never laughed so much during class. In every workshop I led – which consisted of readings, discussion, and writing exercises – the guys would inevitably crack jokes and get each other chuckling. Sometimes I laughed to the point of tears. Other times, a heartfelt poem or short story by one of the guys would wet my eyes for another reason.

The Inspired Minds experience gave me an unforgettable window into the lives of men who have been criminalized due to their race, class, and the logic of over-incarceration that runs our so-called justice system. More broadly, the experience taught me the importance of community engagement while enrolled in an MFA. For some writers, there is a temptation to cut oneself off

from the world and focus solely on honing one’s craft. It is the romantic ideal of the writer: an artist locked away in their garret with a candle and a quill, scrawling out a world-shaking opus.

This romantic view neglects the fact that writing is inherently relational. Furthermore, the ability of writers to be economically secure enough to pursue their craft – or enroll in an MFA – is itself a symptom of a society that simultaneously dispossesses and criminalizes a huge chunk of the population. Opportunity and dispossession are two sides of the same coin. I know that if I were born into the life of one of the men in my class, I never would have ended up in an MFA. Talking to these incarcerated men, each and every one a reservoir of unrecognized talent, I know that, to quote the American folk singer Phil Ochs, “there but for fortune may go you or I.”

From my perspective, a well-rounded MFA experience provides writers with the opportunity to engage with their literary community while also acknowledging the racist, colonialist context in which that community crystallized – a society in which so many creative and intelligent people are treated, in Cardinal’s words, “like objects isolated in a warehouse, used as commodities to structure and sustain an economy” of capitalist dispossession.3

A just society would allow everyone the chance to develop their full creative potential, but Canadian society is not just. I am grateful that my MFA experience gave me the opportunity to see this reality firsthand through Inspired Minds – an opportunity to reflect on my own position in the literary community, on literary culture as a whole, and on the unjust system out of which this culture has sprung.

This is why no MFA is complete without some degree of community engagement. It not only allows the writer to broaden their horizons and bear witness to other experiences, but it opens the space for the writer to reflect on the university experience itself, on the inequalities embedded in our education system, and to envision futures where the means of creative development are accessible to all people regardless of race and class.

My thanks to Jeanette Lynes for informing me of Inspired Minds and Diann Block for assisting me in my jail workshops. And my admiration to the men in my class for their contributions, their vulnerability, and their resilience. May we one day live in a Canada where prison doors melt, where walls become windows, and where everyone’s creative potential is recognized.

Bio: Owen Schalk is a columnist at Canadian Dimension magazine and the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023 (Lorimer Books, 2023). He is currently working on a novel as part of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program.

1 Cory Charles Cardinal, “Prisons are built on our backs,” Briarpatch Magazine, September 2, 2021, https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/prisons-are-built-on-our-backs. 2 “Over-Representation of Indigenous Persons in Adult Provincial Custody, 2019/2020 and 2020/2021,” Statistics Canada, July 12, 2021, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/230712/dq230712a-eng.htm. 3 Cardinal, “Prisons are built on our backs,” Briarpatch.