Language Partners (LP) is one of the only English as a Second Language (ESL) programs offered in Illinois state prisons. It’s one of twelve educational programs offered by the Education Justice Project at Danville Correctional Center.
Ramon Cabrales, a passionate, bilingual EJP student who saw the need for a peer-led ESL program at Danville Correctional Center, first proposed the initiative in 2010. As designed by Mr. Cabrales, LP has a unique, collaborative framework that creates space for peer instructors (“teaching partners”) to create teaching plans with support from instructor trainers from the University of Illinois. The learners in the program are individuals from the general population of the prison.
“Language Partners is the teaching partners’ program, and we just provide the space,” said Kacie Gastañaga, one of the co-coordinators of Language Partners. From intentionally describing the peer instructors as teaching partners and the peer learners as learning partners, to the teaching partners frequently working together to co-lead a class, Language Partners aims for everyone to feel like a partner in breaking language barriers. Alongside the educational component of LP, the community element is just as important. According to Kacie, “all lesson planning includes a critical component that encourages and fosters culturally-centered conversations that go beyond the grammar and vocabulary.”
While empowering their peers through education to break both language and generational barriers, teaching partners are given the tools and experience needed to pursue similar work upon reentry. Erick Nava, one of the founding students of Language Partners, was involved with LP from when it began in 2011 until he was released in 2013 and has continued to use the tools gained from the LP to teach remotely from Michoacan, Mexico.
When asked about how Language Partners has impacted his life, Erick emphasized that it has done so in many ways. “Short-term [impact] was a sense of redemption by being able to help and contribute to the community in prison. It was fulfilling to see the students learn something and break through the language barriers that they were facing,” Erick stated. Erick shared that through EJP, not only did he start seeing himself differently, but he started to see how he could make a change within his community, which inspired him to continue healing his community both in and out of the Danville Correctional Center.
Auggie Torres, another founding student of the Language Partners program, explained that his favorite part of the program was witnessing his peers being able to communicate better with the staff at Danville. Auggie also stated that while “working with EJP, I learned how to deal with professional development, assessment tools, and interviewing students because we had to assess the student’s proficiency and pick which course materials we were going to use.” Upon release, Auggie continued to teach for several months and now is the Field Director for Acclivus Inc. Chicago– a community health organization focused on employing grassroots leaders from Chicago to support safety, well-being, and growth in vulnerable communities.
Both Erick and Auggie emphasized that the importance of Language Partners lies in it opening the doors to possibilities after release for learning partners and teaching partners alike.
To learn more about the Language Partners Program or if you would like to get involved, please email LP@educationjustice.net.