The third unit of our humanities class, Policy, focused on rights. Our action project was to find an organization that promoted a human right and volunteer for them. Being a feminist who loves to read, I chose to serve Chicago Books to Women in Prison, which empowers and educates women behind bars by delivering donated books to them. I created a flyer, which you can see below, that explains more about the organization and encourages people to donate. At school and at home I collected two or three large boxes of books to take to the organization. The following is a reflection on the service experience.

Every time I’ve lived abroad, I’ve been desperate to get my hands on books. Anything I found to read felt like an incredible gift, like an oasis in the literary desert I was facing.

This, of course, is incomparable to being incarcerated. Still, it was what I immediately thought of when I learned about the organization Chicago Books to Women in Prison. As the name suggests, it is a volunteer group based in Chicago that delivers books to women in prison. The books they send come from their library of donated books.

I knew as soon as I learned about CBWP that I wanted to help collect books for them, so I was excited when there was a chance to do so as an action project. I first educated myself as much as possible about the organization by reading online, then made a flyer to educate those I was requesting books from. People responded very well to my requests, and I was astounded at how many books I wound up bringing to CBWP: enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into action, so I was grateful that in this case it did.

CBWP has a list of genres and types of books that are most requested or least supplied; books that, for whatever reason, they need more of. Many are unusual or highly specific. I saw the list as a challenge. I knew that between friends, family, and people at school, we would be able to cover a lot of this less-trodden territory.

I emphasized the list on my flyer and asked certain people specifically about genres they might have. There was a spectrum of reactions to this that can be fairly well represented in three stages. The first was actually the first person I showed the list to, a friend of mine. She looked down the list and… “Oh no! My moms have the most impressive libraries of queer and lesbian nonfiction I’ve ever seen, but I just helped clear out the apartment last week!” This missed chance was made up for by the requests that were answered at school. At a place like GCE many of the niche genres CBWP searches for can be easily found on the shelves of teachers or students.

And then there were surprises as to where the hard-to-come-by books could be found. My mom took a look at the flyer and decided to putter around our apartment to see what else could be scrounged up. We wound up with a sizeable pile that hit a number of requested topics, especially Latin American history.

It felt incredibly rewarding to be collecting books, but even more so knowing I was helping fill the gaps they most wanted help with. The Sunday I dropped the donations off, I was greeted by a small but very friendly group of volunteers. They were welcoming, and pleased to see all the books I had to offer. I love getting books from the library or the bookstore, but leaving those books behind at CBWP’s little location felt even better.

Incarcerated women are sometimes forgotten members of our society. Too often they are remembered only by their crimes. But they are people whose imaginations can be captured by stories like anyone else’s, people whose thirst for knowledge is no less than that of a free person, and people who deserve the chance at education, entertainment, and empowerment that books offer.