Meet Linnea Kennedy, Our Featured Volunteer

Linnea_profileIt’s National Volunteer Week, so this seemed the perfect time to introduce our series of occasional features on the volunteers at Chicago Books to Women in Prison. And because, sadly for us, Linnea will be moving to California this spring, we wanted to put her in the spotlight while we can.

How and why did you get involved with Chicago Books to Women in Prison? I first learned about CBWP in fall 2012 when I was a graduate student at Roosevelt University in the Women’s & Gender Studies program. Megan Bernard, the former coordinator, came to a Women’s Studies 101 class that I was the TA for, and she gave a great talk to the students about CBWP, prison justice, activism, etc. I was intrigued and wanted to come volunteer, but didn’t actually get around to it until almost a year later when I was out of grad school, unemployed, and looking for ways to connect with like-minded folks and to educate myself more about prison justice issues. From the first Sunday that I volunteered at CBWP, I was hooked!

What is a typical afternoon of volunteering like for you? Even though answering letters is my favorite activity, first and foremost I like to pitch in where it’s needed the most—whether that’s organizing and shelving a big donation, cutting up paper bags or assisting with the Special Requests project. 2 to 5 p.m. seems like a lot of time, but really it flies by, so it’s essential to have lots of willing hands on board to keep things running smoothly and efficiently.

What is the best part about volunteering with our group? The moment when you find the exact book that an inmate has requested in her letter. Double points if it’s a hard-to-find title or subject, or a popular author that usually flies off the shelves. Everyone shares in the excitement too. It’s a really rewarding experience.

What has been your single most enjoyable or rewarding experience? When CBWP was awarded the Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation (May 2014). That was a proud moment, as it was the first time I had ever worked on a grant application and it paid off! Big moments like that are rewarding, as well as “smaller” moments—like when I decided to use my own money to purchase three books for a woman who had requested books about welding and underwater welding (a topic we would most likely never receive via donated books). I picked out three books online about welding that seemed like they would be helpful (but who was I to know? I was choosing somewhat blindly, not knowing anything about welding) and she wrote back and was very grateful for the books, and said that she had tried writing to three other organizations to get materials on welding and no one else had answered her request. It was rewarding knowing that she now had the books she wanted, and sobering to note the relative ease with which I was able to access and purchase these books at my choosing.

How has your experience with CBWP influenced you the most? I am even more acutely aware now of what a privilege easy access to reading materials can be. Though I personally do not believe that books should be classified as a privilege to be rescinded, but rather, as a right and a necessity, it is clear from reading the letters from the women we serve that both the act of reading and reading materials themselves are often viewed in the prison system as something to be restricted and policed.

How has volunteering influenced your perspective on prison issues? Volunteering with CBWP has definitely heightened my awareness of the need for prison reform. It’s impossible to read these letters every Sunday and for it to not have some sort of impact on you as the reader.

What has surprised you most about volunteering? I have been surprised at what a difference it makes to be doing something you love, even if it’s not “paid work” and is only “volunteering”. Getting a taste of this at CBWP has made me rethink what I am looking for in a satisfying career. I hope to get more involved in prison literacy and/or prison reform when I move back home to California.

What might someone who knows you only at CBWP be surprised to learn about you? I am related to the real-life Captain Morgan—he of spiced rum fame! He is a distant relative through my maternal grandfather’s side.

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