Professor Lisa Langstraat

Conducted by Amy Keilers, October 10, 2005

COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR AREAS OF RESEARCH/EXPERTISE?

I see myself as a literacy worker as much as a composition and rhetoric theorist. My own research areas focus on the intersections of rhetoric, emotion cultures and literacy, specifically within judicial and legal discourses.

COULD YOU DESCRIBE RESTORATIVE JUSTICE?

When I moved to CSU, I knew I was really interested in restorative justice, which had come out of work I did in Mississippi helping women write victim impact statements, so I sought out different organizations and groups that really focused on restorative justice. What is unique about restorative justice is that you get the community involved, and it becomes not simply a dynamic between the offender and the state, but a dynamic between the offender, the victim and the community.

COULD YOU DESCRIBE PARTNERING WITH TURNING POINT?

Turning Point had been developing some of their restorative justice programs for quite some time, but I was also interested in working there because it was a nonprofit. But the decision to work at Turning Point was about working with youth, tapping into their insights and resources, and being a community member who has a reciprocal relationship with an organization in the community that I feel so strongly does such excellent work.

I work in partnership with the restorative justice board committee, Volunteer Coordinator Gwen Bell, Restorative Justice Coordinator Kelsey Ryan, Counselor and Case Manager Jennifer Sites, and Associate Director Chris Meeker.

WHAT ARE SOME SPECIFIC PROJECTS YOU ARE INVOLVED IN?

When I started volunteering at Turning Point, I received grants to develop their restorative justice library research holdings. Currently, I serve on the Restorative Justice board, co-teach victim empathy classes and help revise the evaluation procedures to measure the effectiveness of our victim empathy courses and make them more gender sensitive.

The clients at Turning Point are required to take victim empathy courses, and usually there is an enormous amount of resistance in the beginning. But as the courses progress, we have developed more engaging pedagogical approaches. That is one thing I am proud of because I can take not only my rhetorical expertise in narrative but my pedagogical expertise into the victim empathy process and create pedagogical approaches that blend “cool” cognition and “hot” cognition, the “rational” and the “emotional.”

We have developed a lot of strategies to try to work with both the boys and the girls in very different ways. We try to help the youth develop a meta-awareness of language about emotion and empathy so that they understand the difference between compassion, pity, sympathy and empathy. This understanding helps them use stories and narratives as a way of making sense of empathy, and it helps them make connections between individual emotional impacts and larger cultural impacts.

We always co-teach the Victim Empathy courses with someone who is trained to deal with the intense emotional issues clients may experience.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE COMMUNITY LITERACY?

Community literacy is two-pronged. It is literacy and language use and symbol systems and symbol-making and symbol-using as a way to express a sense of self, to authenticate, however provisionally, the needs and perspectives of the kids at Turning Point. It’s a way of being heard.

The second prong has to do with critical literacy. That is, how can we tap into that need to be heard, that sense of provisional authenticity, that self expression to understand how all of those things are in fact rolled into a ball with all kinds of other cultural, political and social issues?

I’m pretty interested in the ways in which our notions of literacy in the academy have been limited by our lack of understanding of literate practices in our communities outside of the university.

WHAT CASES STAND OUT IN YOUR MIND (PEOPLE YOU HAVE HELPED, SUCCESS STORIES, ETC.) THAT EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS?

Since the Victim Empathy courses are completely confidential (we are, after all, dealing with youth who are often court-ordered to participate in Turning Point’s programs), I can’t really share any stories about individual kids. But I can say that on an administrative level (improvement in our programmatic evaluation procedures), on a pedagogical level (creating powerful and moving teaching approaches and inviting more community members to participate in the Victim Empathy courses), and on a individual level (recognition, on the part of the kids who participate in the courses, that empathy can be learned and it can change your sense of self and your role in the community), our courses have been very successful.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES WHEN DEVELOPING COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS?

One obstacle is the practical issue of turnover. Staff, volunteers and literacy workers are constantly turning over in most nonprofit organizations. I also think the academy and community literacy organizations exist in different temporal spaces. We operate on a nine-month calendar; they don’t. There is a very different sense of time and sense of movement. Sometimes you want to get a program started right away or you want to plan it for the end to occur at the same time as the end of the semester, and that simply doesn’t work with all community organizations.

It’s also hard to help community members trust us because so often they have been what I call “guerilla researched,” where faculty from universities go in, get and take what they want in terms of their own research, and then leave. The nonprofit is left with nothing to think about. They’ve given but they have gotten anything in return. So after that occurs, it is really important to establish a trust and a sense of community with the people with whom you’re working, and that’s always a challenge.

It’s also a challenge to help faculty in the academy, who may have very traditional notions of what constitutes research, understand how this research operates separately and differently from traditional textual research. The community-building is so much a part of it.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO BUILD SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY PARTNERS?

Take time to be with people before you begin any research project. Never research them or research for them. Research with them. Listen and learn from them. Don’t impose your purportedly greater knowledge from the academy on them, and be open to different ways in which language is used.

WHAT CRITERIA DO YOU USE TO EVALUATE YOUR PROGRAMS/PROJECTS?

You can’t have a blanket approach for evaluation. The evaluation strategies need to be developed in collaboration with the community organization with which you are working.

The worst thing I can possibly do is say, “Well this is how we are going to evaluate the effectiveness of the victim empathy classes.” What we had in the victim empathy classes, for example, is a pre- and post- test that is exclusively quantitative. I worked with some of the staff at Turning Point to add a qualitative component, which has given us more information, but it’s a lot more work. Rather than true/false, yes/no, Lickert scale questions, we’ve developed open-ended, short-answer sections. For funding agencies, we still have quantitative information. But for both funding agencies and for our own insights, we have qualitative information. It’s important to develop evaluative strategies that blend both quantitative and qualitative analyses.