Wearing t-shirts listing names of Black men killed by the police, a curly afro and glasses, Ryan Lindsay taught a college journalism class at San Quentin.
Twice a week, she discovered a classroom of respectful men eager to learn how to use their voices.
“I’ve been on a journey to find my voice in a time when it’s necessary to use it to make a difference,” John “Yahya” Johnson said. “Taking this class, I’ve learned how to make my voice more impactful in addressing social justice issues.”
Lindsay said, “If there is a desire to learn, then why not be a part of the learning process? Being in prison doesn’t intimidate me. I think the difference between so many of my students and people who aren’t incarcerated is just a matter of who got caught.”
The U.C. Berkeley graduate student says she has been writing since she learned how. She was an associate editor for her high school newspaper. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism and African-American studies from Northwestern University. She’s published regularly in Oakland North covering community and culture. Also, she’s taught high school students. Coming into San Quentin was her first time teaching in prison.
“It’s incredible,” Lindsay said. “Having taught high school, I really appreciate that the students here are ready and willing to learn and that they are not afraid to ask questions about concepts or skills they don’t understand.
“Teaching here has also revealed to me how much joy and resilience still exists within people who society has written off, passed judgment or conveniently chosen to forget about. I will never forget my students, their words and the spirit and the enthusiasm that they brought to the class.”
Lindsay first became interested in teaching inside a prison while at Northwestern.
“There was a woman that received a 20-year sentence. We visited her while I worked for the Medill Innocence Project during the seventh year of her sentence,” Lindsay said. “She ended up being released a few years later because there wasn’t enough evidence.”
Her incarcerated journalism class undertook assignments covering sports on the yard and producing a food magazine, The Things We Eat.
Students Tommy “Shakur” Ross and Lawrence Pela acted as the editors.
“It’s not something put together just by some prisoners. It was done with professionalism,” Pela said. “We really put something out. Everybody was real serious about making sure it wasn’t bogus. San Quentin News layout designer Jonathan Chiu did a real good job of laying out the magazine.”
Lindsay hopes to accomplish a lot with the magazine.
“Food is something that everyone can relate to,” Lindsay said. “Food is so much more than food, though, and I think that’s what is expressed through their stories. I learned so much more about them as people and as writers through these pieces, so we decided to make it a magazine. We hope to be able to share it with the Bay Area community and beyond, and we hope that the writers will be able to share it with their family and people here or the SQ community.
“Words have a particular way of existing longer than any human could, so whether or not my students are given the opportunity for a new life outside of SQ, their words and their stories will have lives,” Lindsay said.”
Lindsay co-taught the journalism class with Gabriel Tolliver, a documentary filmmaker.
“I learned a lot from Ryan,” Tolliver said. “She brought structure and more formal organization. I learned more here about journalism than I did at school.”
Lindsay said she moved from Washington, D.C., to attend U.C. Berkeley.
“I left my family, and I’m by myself,” Lindsay said. “To have something to look forward to every Friday and Sunday helped me get my footing. This has made me believe in teaching again and in people again.”
Student Daryl Farris said, “I enjoyed getting my papers back laced with red ink … I really appreciate people like me, teaching me. If ya’ll come back and teach a journalism two, I’ll come back and take it.”