A year ago, Alan Prendergast's "The Lifers' Book Club" took a look at Words Beyond Bars, a remarkable program developed by ex-librarian Karen Lausa that took the book-discussion-group concept to high-security inmates at the Limon prison. The program was such a success that it's expanding to other facilities. Keep reading for more from Lausa. See also: Take ten -- meet the latest class of MasterMinds
Westword: What's your favorite thing about the Denver arts scene? Karen Lausa: I'd have to say the Redline Gallery -- they are totally about connecting social justice with access to artistic expression for all. They're working with me to prepare a show of paintings some of the men in the Words Beyond Bars book group have done -- all around the theme of literacy. I so appreciate it when seemingly different cultural programs find a thread and make more of an impact together. How did you wind up in Denver? A great job offer for my husband in the late '90s nudged us west after decades working and growing a family in upstate New York. It was a fantastic move -- westward expansion for the whole family. I love Colorado, and cannot imagine living anywhere else. How did you wound up doing what you do? I was a public reference librarian for decades, but about ten years ago shifted my focus entirely -- to use my skill set to further literacy outreach to individuals who have not discovered the joy and comfort of reading. I have always loved book groups, discussion, debate, reflection... all that good stuff, and wanted to introduce that to people who did not grow up as I did: yelling over feisty siblings and arguing my point, because that was how my family communicated!
I worked at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center for a few years, always wondering about the youth who "fall through the cracks," many, many of whom are now incarcerated and working on catching a second chance at an education. And what should people know about what you do? I'm a total believer in the idea of having a Plan B. If everything in my life had been smooth and simple, I wouldn't have had to dig deep to reinvent myself a few times ... it's been hard work, but so worth it. The reward for working at something you create yourself is immeasurable. What started out as a tiny idea has grown to become so much of who I am: more forgiving, more understanding of how we are all capable of making a terrible error of judgment in a split second... but some pay for these mistakes for the rest of their lives. I learn so much from the incarcerated men and women I work with: I try to offer hope, respect, deep questions that require deep thinking, and a bit of laughter in the midst of the dark place where they live.