Engaged Scholars: Mary Thomas and Tiyi Morris

News — April 9, 2024

Engaged Scholars: Mary Thomas and Tiyi Morris

April 2024

Engaged Scholars is a series highlighting Ohio State faculty who have made an impact in our communities through their community-engaged research and teaching.

Tiyi Morris
Associate Professor in African American and African Studies
College of Arts and Sciences/Ohio State Newark

Mary Thomas
Professor in Womens, Gender and Sexuality Studies
College of Arts and Sciences

We are the faculty directors of the Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project (OPEEP). OPEEP's mission is to provide higher educational opportunities at several central Ohio adult prison facilities, to bring Ohio State's campus students to learn side-by-side with incarcerated students and to inform a wide range of campus and local communities about the harmful impacts of mass incarceration. We are also launching an embedded degree site at the Ohio Reformatory for Women soon, with a BA degree in Womens, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Our current scholarship has two components. The first is a collaboration with incarcerated people at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. We facilitate LAM Collective: Liberation at the Margins Collective. Currently, the collective has 18 incarcerated members, three faculty members and two staff members who work with us at OPEEP. We hope to invite some campus students to join the collective over the next year. LAM Collective is developing into a rigorous intellectual and academic force known for its design and implementation of innovative workshops on prison-based and justice-oriented teaching and learning and its original scholarship on Black feminist pedagogies and principles. The second is research on the history of race relations in Ohio's adult prison facilities for women. That research is just beginning and involves interviews with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, archival exploration and public engagement opportunities with a digital interface and teaching tools (eventually!).

Why is it important to engage the community in your research and teaching?

Grounded in Black feminist principles and pedagogies, our work as administrators of a higher education in prison project, as teachers and as scholars always remains focused on counteracting racist, elitist and sexist hierarchies. Oppressive hierarchies form prohibitive barriers to higher education, especially for Black, brown and rural Appalachian students in Ohio, whose communities are most impacted by the criminal justice system through the criminalization of addiction and poverty. They often fail to see their communities represented and included on Ohio State's campuses, and unfortunately, faculty and staff are often unprepared to address the magnitude of these exclusions, despite the untapped desire of many to address racial and economic injustice, to support prison-to-college pipelines and to center justice pedagogies and practices in their teaching and administration. We believe that any solutions to these challenges require community involvement and community expertise - and radical inclusion in spaces of higher education, especially at a public flagship university like ours.

What led you to the path of engaged scholarship? How did you get started?

We have had different paths to our current work, of course, but it was only when we came together to develop OPEEP as a project grounded in Black feminisms did our paths join together in exciting ways. Through our close administrative collaboration, and by sharing our teaching and intellectual interests, we began to realize the potential for our collaborative research. Our research on the history of race relations in Ohio's prisons for women is a result of us bringing our interests in African American history (Tiyi) together with a geographic focus on the importance of place to identity (Mary). Our research foregrounds narratives of intra- and inter-racial relations with keen intersectional attention on how gender, sexuality and regional meanings shift over time and in tandem with social justice movements in the U.S. since 1950.

How has your scholarship benefited from engaging with community partners?

At OPEEP, our goal is to develop a robust community approach to higher education that demystifies prison (and the criminal justice system more generally) to students, faculty and staff, and validates the self-worth of incarcerated learners. For instance, LAM Collective supports incarcerated people to be creators, practitioners and authors of pedagogy.

Education and scholarship are mutual processes of sharing experience and building theoretical and pedagogical muscle to counteract shame, dehumanization and colonial-racist expectations of expertise and success.

What has been a highlight of your community engagement experience?

LAM Collective's work is supported by the Mellon Foundation, and a current partnership with the Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme during their programming this year around "Freedom Dreaming." Highlights from this year include an autumn conference presentation with LAM members participating by videoconference from the prison, and bringing scholars and creative artists to ORW to meet with LAM. For example, Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination who was the keynote lecturer in autumn semester for GAHDT, discussed his book with LAM in October. This semester we welcomed Chinonye Chukwu, a filmmaker and producer, to ORW. She discussed the impact of Black feminisms on her screenwriting, directing and producing, especially through the movie she wrote and directed about Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, called Till.

What advice would you give to faculty and students who are interested in engaging the community in their scholarship?

Dream big, work with others, focus on new world-building. Teach and learn with OPEEP!

Sample Engaged Scholarship

Please see OPEEPs website for upcoming courses! We have a record number of courses planned for next academic year across a range of disciplines and campuses and at four different prison facilities.

We have a forthcoming chapter: Tiyi Morris and Mary Thomas. Countering Carceral Logics with Black Feminist Pedagogies. In Wendy Hesford and Amy Shuman, eds. Human Rights on the Move. Ohio State University Press (book series, On Possibility: Social Change and the Arts+Humanities).

This summer LAM Collective is starting a collaborative book project on Black feminist pedagogies.