A Look Inside One of Evergreen’s Most Impactful Programs

July 26, 2019

This year, Evergreen faculty Eirik Steinhoff taught one of the college’s longest running and most impactful programs, Gateways for Incarcerated Youth. Founded in 1996, Gateways gives Evergreen students and youth incarcerated at the Green Hill juvenile prison in Chehalis a rare opportunity to engage in a transformative educational experience.

For two hours every Wednesday, Evergreen students learn alongside incarcerated youth at Green Hill. Green Hill youth can earn two credits for completing the class, but credit is just one of the things gained by those who choose to take the program.

“One of the things that happens almost immediately is that everybody realizes stereotypes are inadequate and are actually obstacles to the very thing that brings us into this room, which is to learn together regardless of where we woke up that morning,” said Steinhoff.

Since its inception, the Gateways program has made it possible for over 1,000 incarcerated youth to make academic gains in attendance and grade-level promotion and to realize their potential for positive change. This comes at an important time, when over 600,000 people are released from prison each year and recidivism rates are high.

“It’s pretty clear that the possibility of an education and the infrastructure for quality education are key factors that can help lower recidivism rates,” said Steinhoff. “I think it’s imperative that colleges, especially state institutions, contribute to the cause of transforming that system so that it operates at a completely different scale than the one its operating at right now.”

Founded by Evergreen faculty and alumna Carol Minugh, Gateways was first comprised of “culture groups” that met periodically at the Maple Lane Youth Detention Center. As youth in the program began to express the desire to learn more about a variety of topics, the program developed into what it is today: a two-credit college class for incarcerated youth and a corresponding academic mentoring program for Evergreen students. 

The Gateways program changes each year, shifting its focus slightly based on which faculty member is teaching it and what subjects students are most interested in. What remains the same, however, is the impact the program has on those who take it.

This year Steinhoff placed an emphasis on reading and writing in class together. At the core of the class were student-run workshops designed to enable participants to reimagine traditional classroom dynamics. Drawing on Paulo Freire’s ideas regarding “popular education,” these workshops pushed back against the traditional “banking” method of education, wherein knowledge is imparted directly from teacher to student. Instead, the class was anchored in the interests of the Green Hill youth and developed in collaboration with Evergreen students. 

One of this year’s students was Kate Murphy. She said the class has given her a sense of agency as a student changemaker she has never experienced before.

“There's a sense that I have the possibility to shape the world I live in rather than just learning about it, and that this change can be rooted in my own education and the ability to share this knowledge with others,” said Murphy.

The class at Green Hill provides students the chance to link theory with practical applications, learn across significant differences, and engage in collaborative learning—three of Evergreen’s five central foci. Together, the students, youth and faculty involved in the program undergo a unique and transformative journey.

“Through the college class, both Green Hill youth and Evergreen students—and faculty for that matter—encounter possibilities that they didn’t know existed before,” explained Steinhoff. “As a consequence, we are able to embark on a process of self-discovery, self-transformation, and self-actualization.”

With six prisons located within just one hour of Evergreen’s Olympia campus, Steinhoff emphasized the need for the education system to engage with the prison system in transformative ways. The Gateways program offers a promising model to initiate such a transformation.