“John Carroll taught me the power of creating a learning environment that values everyone’s human dignity.”
Zachary Thomas is the co-founder and program director of Writers in Residence, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides creative writing workshops to residents of juvenile detention facilities in Northeast Ohio. Writers in Residence (WIR) strives to reduce the rate of recidivism within the juvenile justice system by facilitating an open forum for artistic self -expression and constructive self -reflection. Thomas received a John Carroll University/Cleveland Foundation Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Grant Fellowship in 2018 to expand the original JCU cohort into a non-profit organization managing additional university cohorts across Ohio. Prior, Thomas was a poetry co-teacher at Advantage Cleveland Tennis and Education, Inc.
Q: Why did you attend JCU?
A: My high school guidance counselor encouraged me to visit John Carroll. A family friend and I drove up for a big Saturday family visit. It was a whole experience. On the tour, I started checking out all the buildings to get a feel of the place and got separated. I was walking around lost on campus, and a random student recognized I needed help and reached out. He not only gave me directions, he personally walked me back to the group. Going that extra step to make sure I found my way was such a positive reflection of the culture. Everyone at John Carroll cares about each other. At such a small school you know everyone, so you’re looking out for one another. That’s what I wanted—a family, community environment.
Q: What story or experience best reflects your time at JCU?
A: I was given advice as a freshman to say ‘yes’ to a bunch of things early on, because you learn what you love to do, and just as important, what you don’t want to do. I was looking for a campus job, and the Center for Service and Social Action (CSSA) hired me. I loved their model of direct service, and I believe it’s one of the most important things individuals can do to learn about inequity and social justice. At CSSA, I connected with other students, staff and community partners, and I learned about the Carroll Ballers program. Students were going into juvenile detention centers to engage and mentor young residents through basketball. Basketball wasn’t my thing, but through the program we learned that the residents weren’t allowed writing or reading materials in their cells for security reasons. We looked into piloting creative writing workshops after the basketball games. During these workshops, we were having these powerful conversations about the residents’ experiences with incarceration and what they wanted to do when they got out. Then in 2018, through my mentor Dr. Phil Metres, the Cleveland Foundation came to observe one of our workshops. We went back to their headquarters after, and they asked if we could replicate the program in other places, and how we would go about measuring impact on literacy and recidivism. They offered us a fellowship to consider those questions, and that gave me the opportunity to continue and expand the workshops I loved. We started replicating the model with other institutions, and it has grown from there.
Q: What was the most valuable learning/lesson from JCU that shaped you personally or professionally?
A: John Carroll’s alumni network is a huge resource to undergrads and grads, and so many incredible people came to speak in our classes and on campus. One learning I make a real effort to use now that I’ve graduated was something I didn’t do well while at JCU—that’s meeting all the people you can and staying in contact with those who will be good advisors and mentors to you down the road. Getting their business cards so that when you need to reach them, you can. Students and young professionals don’t always value or develop that skill like we should. So much of the success I’ve had is based on people I’ve met who have passed along my name and story in spaces that I would never otherwise be in. Those relationships are so important.
Q: How are you making a human impact in your career?
A: I love the Jesuit motto “being men and women for and with others.” Most of the classes at John Carroll connect to this idea—that we must recognize all human dignity and serve each other. Our service can come in different ways. It can be love. It can be physical work. It can be time. The real impact of these workshops with these youth who just happen to be incarcerated is that we create a learning environment where we value everyone’s human dignity. The idea that if we have an open mind we can learn from our differences, because there’s unique transformation that happens when you start asking yourself reflective questions. And not just for the residents. 80% of our student volunteers “strongly agree” and 20% “agree” that the program has an impact on them, too.
So how do we measure the impact on the residents? That’s complicated. We track recidivism by working with the Department of Youth Services (DYS). There’s a contact I developed there who’s become a close friend. I send him a list of all the youth that we work with in DYS facilities, and he lets me know if they recidivate or not within one year, two years, three years.
We see lower rates of recidivism in our participants, but it’s not as simple as that. Recidivism for youth has so many variables. Home environment. Influence of friends once they get out. Employment. We can teach literacy and communication, and that does have a link to reducing recidivism, but we need to account for and address these other factors as well. Some people in this work don’t want to have that conversation, because we want to say, “if you do this one thing, you can change everything.” But our work just can’t impact every cause. That’s why we’re trying to do more around reentry to continue our mentorship after incarceration. That’s an important part of the solution.