Jul 13, 2022 - News

First master's graduation at Stateville

Graduates proceeding at graduation

Howard Keller and RòDerick Zavala walk in their graduation procession at Stateville Correctional Center in June. Photo courtesy of Phillip Dembinski and North Park University

A unique class of Illinois students received master's degrees last month in front of their cheering and weeping families.

  • Most were inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, where they have been studying Christian Ministry and Restorative Arts though North Park University.
  • The inaugural graduating class became the first of its kind in the state.

Why it matters: The program has the potential to help incarcerated people become a source of healing, teaching and crime prevention both in and out of correctional facilities.

The backstory: Former North Park dean of faculty Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom started the program to offer theological higher education to the "most invisible, most impacted by intersecting social ills — poverty, racism, abuse." Most of the students had never had access to quality education, she tells Axios.

Context: Restorative arts is "the theological study of personal healing and societal transformation," assistant director Vickie Reddy tells Axios.

  • In addition to Bible studies, theology and history, the program includes courses on trauma, race relations, nonviolent communication, conflict transformation, restorative practices and transformative justice.

By the numbers: The free four-year program is currently offered at Stateville to 80 incarcerated men and to 20 women at Logan Correctional Center.

What they're saying: "What North Park University understood with this program is that we achieve our highest calling as a community when those who have the least among us are leading the charge to get us there," Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said at the graduation.

  • "We are interconnected. We are one another."

The big picture: This means "our potential is not defined by our worst mistakes," graduate Jamal Bakr said during the ceremony.

  • "Let today's event be an example of what happens when opportunities are created, potentials are unignored and complete restoration is always the aim of justice."

What's next: Axios spoke with some of the graduates about gun violence, bond reform, generational trauma and the corrections system.

  • We'll present those discussions throughout the summer.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is the former dean of faculty at North Park, not the current dean.


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