I’m Not Saying You Can’t Challenge This”: The Right to Be, and Writing the Constitution

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At the NH Correctional Facility for Women in Goffstown, a small group of women in red t-shirts and sweatshirts in a gray room with a gray floor were writing the U.S. Constitution by hand. Linda Graham, facilitator in the New Hampshire Humanities Connections adult literacy program, had given everyone a copy from PrintableConstitution.com. All the women were mothers of children aged 17 months to 15 years old.

The Connections program came to the prison by invitation from the prison’s Family Connection Center that supports women to parent their children.

Graham combined reading books on the theme of “The Right to Be,” life stories including a picture book about Georgia O’Keefe, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and Persepolis with the art of copying the Constitution. Such handwriting sessions are now a national series of encounters with the Constitution created by artist, Morgan O’Hara. “Introducing rights as having meanings is the intent of reading these books along with the writing of the constitution,” Graham said. “In our own ways, we can personify freedoms.”

The women were curious. They loved the books for the sake of owning them and reading them on the phone to their children. One woman read Brown Girl Dreaming, 347 pages, over many nights to her 10-year-old daughter, pausing to ask, “Are you sleepy?” Often her daughter said, no, keep reading. They were able to mail the books as birthday presents or simple gifts to their children. “We don’t usually get to send things home,” they said. They explored the right to be theme. One woman’s favorite was the vibrantly-illustrated account about Georgia O’Keefe, Georgia in Hawaii. “Nobody was going to tell her what to paint,” the woman said. She wanted her child to grow up feeling that sense of belief in her work and her life. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson reflects on the life of a Black child growing up in the 60s through the Civil Rights movement; and the women in the prison noted the gap between the rights protected by the Constitution and the rights denied in practice. The women baulked at the graphic format of Persepolis set in Iran, but Graham explored with them an illustration about wearing a head cover and ideas about religious freedoms, the right to choose to cover, the right to choose not to cover. Then they paused to copy the freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution.

The women challenged the Constitution. “Where did they come up with the age 35 for a president? What about women’s rights? What about transgender people’s rights?” Graham said, “I’m not saying you can’t challenge this.” She invited them to handwrite Amendment 1 since all the books they’d read relate to those basic rights.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The idea of the right to petition took on light. The women explored times in history that Americans have petitioned the Government for change in the Constitution to protect rights.

“I never really read it before,” one woman said. Even if they had read it years ago, writing the Constitution now gave it meaning. 

The New Hampshire Humanities adult literacy program Connections brings children’s, young adult, and adult literature and New Hampshire Humanities-trained discussion facilitators to more than 500 adult learners each year. Quality books and stimulating discussions promote English language skills, cultivate conversations about ideas, reinforce family literacy, support a culture of reading, and encourage civic engagement. Connections works in partnership with adult basic education and ESOL classes, refugee resettlement organizations, services for adults with developmental disabilities, and state and county prisons. Participants are both native speakers and new Americans.

By Terry Farish, New Hampshire Humanities Connections Adult Literacy Coordinator

To learn more about the Connections program, please contact Terry Farish at tfarish@nhhumanities.org or visit www.nhhumanities.org/connections.