Jessica Bullock and four of her colleagues sat silently around an empty table in the computer lab of Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), a women’s prison in South Burlington, Vt. They were waiting—hoping, actually—for students to show up for the inaugural session of the SPEAK Prison Debate Initiative, a program that utilizes debate as a tool for teaching professional and personal public speaking and presentation skills. Bullock reminded herself of the volunteer coordinator’s warning not to expect many participants. Then in walked Lenore (not her real name), an aspiring minister with long dark hair and a calm smile who was looking to improve her presentation skills. SPEAK had its first student.
Bullock, a Vermont Law School (VLS) student and 2015-’16 NH/VT Schweitzer Fellow, founded the SPEAK (Speech, Persuasion, Education, Advocacy, Knowledge) Prison Debate Initiative as a way to help inmates like Lenore develop skills that will help them in the job market upon their release.
“Gainful employment is one of the most critical factors to successful reentry,” says Bullock. “It provides individuals with financial stability, a pathway to success, and a means of building relationships in the community.”
Former inmates, however, are instantly disadvantaged in the job market because of their criminal records. “They often struggle to secure a position, let alone a full-time job with reasonable hours and benefits,” Bullock says. “Providing inmates with the professional skills to interview successfully, manage discourse, and advocate for themselves is one way that programs within correctional facilities can assist in enabling inmates’ successful transitions back to their community.”
Bullock designed SPEAK to complement other prison educational programs. The six-week program offers debate and public speaking training for inmates to practice public presentations, engage in discourse around current events, and cultivate their inner advocate.
“Our goal is to help participants become more confident in articulating their opinions and experiences, and presenting their story to an audience,” Bullock explains. “These skills are transferrable to professional settings and are essential to properly equip past offenders with the tools to tackle job interviews, meetings, and leadership roles.”
As someone always willing to try new things, Lenore became a star pupil, acting as a leader within the group, recruiting new participants, and guiding Bullock and her colleagues through the maze of Department of Corrections restrictions. Nonetheless, she was fearful of speaking in front of men and terrified to speak at the group’s first debate in March, Bullock recalls. The event was open to all members of the prison community; audience members included representatives from the Vermont Commission on Women and the Center for Restorative Justice. Bullock couldn’t help but wonder: would Lenore opt out of her presentation?
Bullock’s deep affection and respect for Lenore and the other women who regularly attend SPEAK sessions has been one of Bullock’s most important discoveries in managing the SPEAK program. SPEAK instructors have visited CRCF almost every Saturday for the past six months, allowing a strong rapport to develop between students and teachers.
“Overall, we have likely learned more about the nuts and bolts of life from group participants than they have learned about debate techniques from us,” says Bullock, smiling.
If Lenore’s debate performance is any indication, though, Bullock is underselling SPEAK’s impact. Despite Bullock’s concern that Lenore’s jitters would get the better of her, the inmate took the stage, notes clasped tightly in hand. She delivered a full five-minute speech, complete with hand gestures, engaging eye contact, and dramatic fluctuations in voice and tone.
“All of the reasons that I needed to continue my project at the CRCF were wrapped up in Lenore’s smile as she concluded her first debate speech,” says Bullock. “The room erupted in applause.”
Indeed, Bullock has worked hard to ensure SPEAK continues beyond her Fellowship year. She established the SPEAK Organization at VLS, which offers debate and public speaking training to fellow students VLS, hosts public debates on campus, and conducts community outreach programs to provide speech training to those who want it. The SPEAK Organization has already attracted a substantial membership of students interested in social justice and public service, several of whom have been conducting SPEAK sessions with Bullock at CRCF throughout the spring and summer.
“Students at VLS are committed to public service and social change; I’m confident that even more members will become involved with my Schweitzer project in the upcoming year,” she says. “Hopefully, the program will continue and expand to reach more individuals and groups that could benefit from public speaking practice throughout the state, such as local high school students and the Refugee Resource Center.”
Beyond graduation in 2017, Bullock plans to stay involved with SPEAK as a VLS alumnus and continue promoting debate and public speaking for traditionally underrepresented groups.
“One of the unique benefits of the Schweitzer Fellowship is that, as a Schweitzer Fellow for Life, you have the opportunity to stay involved in the organization and support another fellow’s vision in the future,” she says.