Meet the 2014 MasterMinds: Karen Lausa of Words Beyond Bars, literary arts

Westword has always covered the local arts scene. But ten years ago, we recognized that if the arts were really going to grow in those town, they could use some some fertilizer in the form of cold, hard cash. And so we created the MasterMind Awards, which every year gives no-strings-attached grants to five local artists and arts organizations; the 2014 class of MasterMinds will be introduced at Artopia tonight. This year's MasterMind Award for literary arts: Karen Lausa and Words Beyond Bars.

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.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun