Program promotes social justice

By Britany Wright
August 28, 2008

An inmate of 60 years said, “I was mad at myself; my mother with Alzheimers never understood why I never came to see her anymore,” and one of the few times he would still be emotional about being in jail was when she would say, ‘How come you never come to see me?’ These are the facts about real people, real stories and real pain.

Cabrini students, at a special orientation program, had an opportunity to see a play about prisoners, performed by ex-prisoners.

The Wolfington Center debuted a program called “Service Spirit Solidarity” this year. First-year students had the opportunity to move in two days early and learn about social justice. One of the events sponsored was a performance by TOVA, Hebrew for good, which was held in the Widener Lecture Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. The group invoked an emotional response from the audience members.

TOVA, artistic projects for social change, is an organization committed to promoting awareness of the stories of prisoners and their families. Teya Sepinuck, the artistic director, founded the organization in 1991. The success of the program is depended upon the collaboration of Theater of Witness programs, videos, workshops and educational programs. The performers within the group speak for those 70,000 men and women who have been affected by incarceration in Pennsylvania.

“I wanted to cry several times. Seeing this (performance) makes me want to promote social justice,” Alicia Blanding, sophomore biology pre-medicine major, said.

The months of workshops held in the maximum-security prison at Graterford, Pa. helped to develop the personal side to a tough issue to portray.

As the count of prisoners grows, the issue calls for an increase awareness of the issue. A recent article, “Inmate count in U.S. dwarfs other nations” by Adam Liptak for the New York Times shows that the United States has almost a quarter of the prisoner population of the entire world even though it only holds 5 percent of the world population.

Prisons hold many young prisoners. However, Pennsylvania prisons have high populations of older prisoners due to mandatory life sentences in the state. These prisoners however, are not the same men they used to be.

Theater of Witness demonstrates true life stories of those who have been viewed negatively by society. The empowering message of those is built upon spoken word, dance, music and video projection and especially due to the performers themselves. Hakim Ali, Cameron Holmes, Suzette Salmon, Roderick Slocum and Gloria Allende are a few of the performers who develop the emotional build up because they have been subjected to the issues themselves or have known someone who has been marginalized.

The group performed excerpts from “Holding Up: A New Prison Legacy” and “Beyond the Walls: The Wall to Redemption.” On video they showed pieces from “Living With Life” and “Raising Our Voice.”

According to David Chiles, director of the Wolfington Center, TOVA came to Cabrini last year through a connection with Dr. Jeffrey Gingerich, associate professor of sociology, and shared their message with students. This year the Wolfington Center sponsored the event to increase the awareness of prisoners and the family members.

Some of the performers are former inmates who work alongside with victims of domestic abuse and mothers and children who have been left to uphold the communities they live in while their family members are incarcerated.

After the show the actors offered their personal stories. Students embraced the opportunity and related to the actors.

“It was good to do it here. People who are far away from it (the issue) get to know the first-person experience to understand the issues,” Anne Borkenborough, sophomore special education and early childhood major, said.

“It takes commitment and dedication, because TOVA’s work is not so easy to define,” Sepinuck said. She also says that it is not easy to define the work because the message is so important that it requires different approaches artistically, educationally, spiritually, politically and through social service.

The best way to get involved is to contact the group at or to visit the Web site An excerpt from the play describes a part of the mission of TOVA, “There are things you won’t want to hear and even some that you won’t believe… but nothing remains impossible.”

Britany Wright

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