Assistant professor of English Alexandra Cavallaro is the recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Community Engagement Award for her deeply innovative and engaged academic work; history of community collaboration and change, especially with the Prison Education Project (PEP); and her role in promoting Cal State San Bernardino as an institution committed to the development of a stronger and more engaged society through the Inside-Out Prison Education Program.

As director of CSUSB’s Center for the Study of Correctional Education, Cavallaro advocates for prison education as a reciprocal process that benefits people inside and outside of the prison walls.

“Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will be released back into our communities, they will face sanctioned discrimination in the form of decreased access to housing, employment and government benefits,” Cavallaro said. The PEP has shown to be a profoundly effective venue for change as it significantly reduces recidivism, increases employment opportunities, benefits families and strengthens communities.

In fall 2019, Cavallaro, fellow assistant professor of English Vanessa Ovalle-Perez, and three CSUSB student interns taught the first prison education course on confinement writing at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Riverside County. The class read, discussed and responded to works written by currently and formerly incarcerated people.

CSUSB student interns received the valuable opportunity to try teaching for the first time. One student intern said, “I truly believe that … working at the CRC has made me a better teacher, a better student and a better advocate. I value any opportunity to both teach and learn alongside other students and working with this group of students was no exception.”

Ernst Fenelon Jr., senior coordinator of the PEP, said, “The [prison education] class is designed to teach men how to creatively express themselves through poetry. Most men in prison readily admit that part of the reason they are there is because they have had challenges in expressing their emotions constructively. The methodology of how Professor Cavallaro teaches and explores poetry invites the men to actively participate in class, discovering the poet within … Professor Cavallaro’s integrity, dedication, flexibility, and academic competency are a critical component to the success of the PEP Creative Writing class at CRC.”

Cavallaro’s work with the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco and the PEP has already had an important impact on the English department’s curriculum. In spring 2021, the course English 5140: Community-Based Writing was developed to continue the prison education efforts. Twenty CSUSB students helped plan and implement a writing workshop themed, “Writing for Social Change.” Cavallaro writes, “Students come to see that writing is not just as an academic exercise, but as a rhetorical tool that can affect social change.”

Prison education has also led Cavallaro to expand her research interests. She co-authored “Inside Voices: Collaborative and Multimodal Writing in a Prison Environment” alongside 10 incarcerated students. This article unpacks how communication is regulated by the institutional authority of the prison and explores how the innovations demanded by the prison’s technological constraints can provide agency to people who are systematically disenfranchised.

Professor and department chair of sociology Ethel Nicdao, who nominated Cavallaro for this award, said, “We often hear in our academic circles that advocating for social justice is a priority. Alexandra’s advocacy work is at the forefront of social justice in action.”

In addition to the established work with the Prison Education Project, Cavallaro is currently establishing an additional prison education course modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The model brings incarcerated (inside) and non-incarcerated (outside) people together for engaged and informed dialogue, which allows for transformative learning experiences that invite participants to take leadership in addressing issues of social concern. Cavallaro raised over $23,000 to finance incarcerated students’ university tuition cost, books, writing utensils and technology.

Cavallaro’s contribution to incarcerated populations, CSUSB student growth, and the development of community-engaged curriculum in the English department has positively impacted the lives of many CSUSB and incarcerated students. Additionally, Cavallaro’s work contributes to the healing of Inland Empire communities affected by incarceration.

Visit the CSUSB Office of Community Engagement website for more information regarding the Outstanding Community Engagement Award.