Seats at the Table, a film screened at the Virginia Film Festival this November focuses on a very important program that pairs University of Virginia students with incarcerated youth at a local, maximum-security, juvenile correctional facilities. The Books Behind Bars program, created by Professor of Russian Literature Andrew Kaufman, has been pairing the two groups of students for discussions of Russian literature since 2009. In mixed small groups, University and incarcerated students analyze and discuss works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other Russian authors. This innovative course allows students to engage in powerful discussions on difficult topics in a way that does not often occur anymore: What makes for a happy life? How can I be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?
In addition to developing professional leadership skills like diplomacy, teamwork, and creative problem-solving, a number of University participants have been so dramatically impacted by this experience that they have changed career plans. Incarcerated resident participants report gains in academic, behavioral, social and personal development, in addition to an increased interest in attending college. Some have gone on to enroll in college, including one who had no plans to attend at the start of the program.
Books Behind Bars has received strong support from Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Andrew Block, director of DJJ, believes that inmates are people that should be invested in. As DJJ has moved toward a rehabilitative model, with a greater emphasis on education and a decrease in length of stay of the residents, they have asked that the program continue and expand to additional facilities. Early on, Dr. Kaufman received funding from the Jefferson Trust to expand and enhance this program, as well as a related research study. More recently, the College of Arts & Sciences at UVA has committed additional funding to ensure continuation of the course.
This powerful and moving documentary highlights the relationships forged between two very different student populations who find they have more in common than they could have imagined. Filmmaker Chris Farina’s mission is for Seats at the Table to serve as a tool for stimulating replication of this type of program, by sharing the story of this particular class while expanding the audience’s very understanding of what it means to be human. Throughout this recent screening of the film, the audience was actively engaged – laughing aloud at participant comments, cheering them on, even crying with them. It seems that Mr. Farina is well on his way!