The men at Hālawa Correctional Facility taught me about hope. Last summer, I found myself back home in Hawaiʻi for a brief period before I was to return to college on the East Coast. Over the past few years, I have become deeply involved in prison advocacy, particularly prison-based education, and sought something similar here. I found Try Think. Not quite an education program like those I was familiar with, it offers something similar though perhaps more speculative and surprising: discussion. Discussion, facilitated but open, not didactic or attached to an outcome, is rarely found in a “corrections” environment. Curious and stirred, I was invited by Rob Chang and Tammy Jones from Try Think to a session for the incarcerated men in Hālawa. The discussions were about hope, a subject the men in Hālawa had touched upon in the prior session. That they had raised the subject struck me as brave, since hope is something intense and immediate in many incarcerated peoples’ lives. It demanded a session of its own. The day I went to Hālawa, the men talked about where hope comes from and the strength of its value. Some talked about the hope they carried under the unbearable conditions of confinement. Others talked about its impossibility. The conversation was sad and moving—moving especially in witnessing these men share vulnerably with each other. It felt like everyone in the conversation was searching for some kind of hope. I thought, what if this here, this discussion, is a kind of hope.
That summer, I had returned to Hawaiʻi from across the seas in England, where I spent two months volunteering with another prison-based program, Learning Together, an education initiative aimed at building communities of learning between prisons and universities. Learning Together first showed me what it means to forge connections where they have been absent, sundered, or suppressed. Students in prisons and students in universities could take classes together, develop friendships, and create alternative structures of affiliation and camaraderie. I was compelled by how Try Think, though not physically bringing these groups together, shared this commitment to community-building between incarcerated populations and the larger public. Both programs have found purpose in fostering connection between prisons and free society, with the understanding that prisons are a part of our communities rather than something separate, cast off. They recognize that to build stronger community, we must not replicate the acts of ostracization and banishment that prisons enact. Sometimes, programs that operate in prisons implicitly rely on a separation between “inside” and “outside,” which enforces the notion that prisons and the people in them are disconnected from wider society. In reality, these divisions are far more porous, as incarcerated people write letters, publish, build friendships, advocate, contribute to the world despite facing extreme structural suppression. The fissures created between prison and “the outside” never succeed in complete separation. In this way, prison programming that is truly healing, strengthening, and life-giving works through integration.
My commitment to prison advocacy feels as straightforward as the fact that mass incarceration is among the most dire social issues of our time. But among the myriad of routes I could contribute towards realizing a common vision of a better world, I am perhaps drawn to this type of work because I see division and fragmentation as opportunities for bringing things together in a more just way. Though the social and civic fragmentation prisons create is of a very different sort, perhaps this perspective is what compelled me to spread my life across fragmented geographies, in hopes that I could draw connections between my experiences in each that would be transformative. This is easier thought than done. Already I had been living the peripatetic existence of a college student, packing suitcases more frequently than unpacking them. When the pandemic started to churn, I was in France for a study abroad program. Suddenly, the tides shifted and I was back at the Honolulu airport, disoriented and drained after what I can only describe as stumbling out of Europe. I left right as the pandemic claimed its paralyzing hold on the world. For two days, I was suspended in airports and on airplanes, which felt like being suspended in time. Then, I was back in my childhood bedroom, waiting out a two-week quarantine from the confines of four walls. This situation being a perfect elixir for teenage restlessness, I became reacquainted with that feeling as if through sorcery, as if my life in high school had been preserved in amber and in some cruel twist of fate, I had time-travelled back and gotten stuck in a golden reliquary.
Perhaps I was spiralling back through time. But what I couldn’t see, from my vantage point, was that the cyclicality of the days was not that of a closed circle, but of something that progressed, if counterintuitively. Returning to Hawaiʻi forced me to sit more quietly than I had in a good while and reflect on what it meant to be home for longer than a brief visit. I understood that I would have to integrate myself into a community here or remain shiftless, adrift outside of the grid of my Zoom classes. I remembered my experiences with Try Think the previous summer and my desire to contribute to the program. At that time, my stay was too brief for much more than participating, but now I was sitting at the edge of an open horizon. I joined Try Think as an intern. In this way, returning was what allowed me to move forward.
Reflecting upon the way conversation happens through Try Think, I keep returning to the image of Spiral Jetty. I first came across this extraordinary earthwork sculpture in a class, years ago, and have been periodically drawn to it as if through some strange magnetic force. The pull grew strongest when I thought about the sculpture in relation to Try Think. Spiral Jetty, though brought into being by Robert Smithson, belongs to the elements. A one-thousand-five-hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide counter-clockwise coil off the shore of the Great Salt Lake, six thousand tons of mud, salt crystal, and basalt rock bulldozed into art, Spiral Jetty is monumental. It is also humble. Unlike artworks produced for preservation in museums, Spiral Jetty was not built to last. Instead, it has become a part of a natural landscape, subject to the changing moods of the environment in which it was created. Something about this performative act of intervention within a landscape and the subsequent yielding to that landscape gives me an image of Try Think. Its form as well—a spiral—contains a deep resonance with the functions of return, contemplation, and rejuvenation that Try Think discussions have offered me. I’d like us to think about spirals, about shifting waters, about reaching out and turning in. About how spirals move us forward, through taking us back. About return and rejuvenation.
I imagine Try Think conversations as collective building processes, each person laying stones that follow each other into shape–not destination–into something that might be described as artwork. The composition of thoughts that encourage others. As sure as a spiral, each Try Think session has an opening and a closing, a beginning and an end. What happens in between, however, is not linear and it is not closed.
The broadest role of the facilitator is to create order and then let it dissolve into spaces of free-floating discussion. Time is organized according to a sense of proportion, so that each person can speak and be heard. The group can come together and close together, but this geometric order allows the discussion to take the shape that it wants. Like Smithson, the facilitator makes an intervention within a landscape, creating a structure that had not been present before, and cedes that structure to its environment. In this way, participants become co-creators, collaborative artists, of the discussion. Because of the variance of its participants, Try Think conversations take many forms. Spiral Jetty, continuous with the ebb and flow of the lake, also changes. It can be swallowed up by the water, or found sprawling on the sand. It might be a desolate black shape in stormy grey waters or a majestic figure in luminous blues and purples. Salt-loving bacteria sometimes turn the lake-water an otherworldly pink and salt collects on the rocks in soft, white piles, transforming stone into cloud, so even rock is atmospheric. It yields and is remade, again and again, by nature’s artistry . . .
Spiral Jetty is formed in rock, and entombed in a stark landscape of sand and stone of the remote corner of Utah. The setting appears barren. Though I have not visited the earthwork myself, accounts of those who have suggest that the experience feels lonely. Those who go make a great effort to reach the isolated earthwork and stay for a long time. If the tides are low, many walk the spiral as a meditative process. I imagine this as a solitary journey, that even if I were to go to Spiral Jetty with another person we would walk the spiral at our own paces, silently, as part of the process of rejuvenation. Try Think was also formed as an interruption within seemingly barren conditions—prisons, settings where a space for community conversation was not easily present, thus inviting creation. Participating in a Try Think discussion always feels like a contemplative experience. Particularly under the conditions of this pandemic, I often enter sessions feeling isolated, sometimes lonely. I leave feeling restored by the connections made through conversation. The crises in the world continue to unfold, but I feel less trapped in stone and more open to the atmospheric shifts and renewing energies of the discussion.
Does the discussion in Try Think lead to something? Like Spiral Jetty, Try Think conversations are formed around a center—a topic, an idea, a focal point—but this center is not fixed. In perpetual shift with the tides and moods, the center is a generative source rather than an endpoint. Walking the path of a spiral, you end up at—
A center, a void, an open circle, the curve of a question mark, a suggestion, a—
A legend tells that in the Great Salt Lake, there was a whirlpool that spiraled down, down, down, opening up again in the Pacific Ocean. Though Spiral Jetty took inspiration from this legend, it is unclear to whom we can attribute the story’s origins. My attempts to do so ran dry, blanched by the limits of historical research that have favored accounts of Euro-American voyagers’ expeditions to the Great Salt Lake over any serious attempt to trace potential Indigenous knowledge of a whirlpool-like formation and connection to the Pacific Ocean. I cannot identify who has ownership over this legend— perhaps, because, it really belongs to the land. Vine Deloria Jr., seminal scholar and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, developed the thesis in God is Red that Western and Indigenous ideologies are differentiated by the concepts of time and space. Western thought-systems rely solely on time, privileging their linear notion of historical time while failing to consider the world from a spatial perspective. In many Indigenous thought-systems, space—land—constitutes the fundamental way of perceiving the world. If I cannot pin down the whirlpool legend’s historical origins, perhaps those origins do not occupy a single point of time on a linear plane. The legend is held within a place, in the land of the Great Salt Lake where multiple Indigenous groups lived and settlers came, the experiences of the people and the land interflowing, giving rise to a story.
From this place, we can reach places anew. From the Great Salt Lake, maybe we can reach the Pacific Ocean. Let us imagine spirals as whirlpools, and whirlpools as portals; carrying us in a graceful twirl to the porous center, they breathe us into new worlds. Through Try Think, I have visited many new worlds— public education communities, queer film groups, prisons, the backyards and living rooms of participants homes on screen. One of Try Think’s greatest achievements is connecting these worlds despite tumultuous circumstances. Because yes, surrounding the brave conversations Try Think holds, there is turmoil. There is precarity, there are fears, pains, a howling wind. Especially in conditions of enclosure, I can visualize my feelings as being trapped in a whirlpool—sucked in an orbit, mired in intensity, unable to see my way out. But through inviting people to contemplate this turmoil, to hold it as a group through the sharing of thoughts, we might feel a little less alone, and perhaps more rejuvenated, if only for a time. The shape of the spiral becomes the shape of connection. The whirlpool as the link between worlds, between the shore and the lake, the outside communities and the communities in prisons.
Raised in the islands, Julia Arnade-Colwill is currently an undergraduate at Barnard College, and spends much of her spare time participating with programs (from England to Hawaiʻi) that imagine how we can improve prison education and discussion programs.
The photograph of the Spiral Jetty was taken by Jacob Rak, please click here for the Creative Commons license.
Nā Mana Wai aims to highlight a diversity of community voices from around our islands and is intended to raise important questions that will lead to continued productive discussion. The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.