Kaia Stern States Her Case

Twenty-six years after a prison visit changed her life, the educator, author, and Radcliffe practitioner-in-residence hopes to build transformative justice into a nationwide movement.
Kaia Stern. Photo by Brad TrentKaia Stern. Photo by Brad Trent
By Colleen Walsh

Kaia Stern MTS ’99, RI ’19 will never forget her first day inside a prison. She was a senior at Vassar College visiting a maximum-security facility in New York State as part of an internship aimed at building bridges between college students and incarcerated activist-scholars. She remembers how the sun, reflecting off the shackles around a man’s ankles, “temporarily blinded me.” But almost immediately, that vision, and that encounter, helped her see.

“The experience changed my life,” said Stern, who as a teacher, a researcher, and a leader is on a mission to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States, which incarcerates more people—approximately 2.2 million—than any other nation in the world. As Radcliffe’s first practitioner-in-residence, Stern will help guide key components of a new initiative on law, justice, and education, building on her 26 years of promoting community and conversation among incarcerated men and women, students, teachers, and researchers.

Stern’s target is what she calls the “American punishment system.” At the heart of her strategy lies “transformative justice,” which “includes the internal work necessary to sustain our commitments to social justice when there is so much trauma, there’s so much woundedness, there’s so much pain and fear. It explores how we do the internal work, the spiritual work, the witnessing work, in order to keep going in health.”

Photo by Light Field StudiosPhoto by Light Field Studios

Turning Point

In a conversation in the final weeks of her 2018–2019 Radcliffe fellowship, Stern elaborated on the pivotal moment in 1993 when everything in her life changed. 

“I almost dropped out of college, because nothing meant anything other than this kind of work,” she said of her first visit to Green Haven Correctional Facility. 

“Everything felt meaningless except what was happening inside the prison. I had no perspective. I didn’t understand how to hold all the contradictions that you are better able to hold as an adult.” Stern would stay in school and finish her undergraduate degree, but something vital had been set in motion that day. “I felt very clear that learning and teaching in and about prisons and the sense of the prison classroom as a kind of sacred space in such a dehumanizing institution was like a golden thread through all the choices that I made.”

Eventually those choices led Stern to Harvard, where she cofounded the Prison Studies Project with Bruce Western AM ’07, RI ’15 in 2008. The initiative, which began at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, included sessions that relocated college courses to prison classrooms. Funding for Harvard’s involvement in prison education ended in 2014, but Stern’s work on transformative justice continued, thanks to support from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We want to promote informed conversation about the challenges of mass incarceration and reimagine justice in the United States,” said Stern. That conversation has included working lunches, interdisciplinary discussions, film screenings, and the 2018 symposium “Beyond the  Gates: The Past and Future of Prison Education at Harvard.” 

From the perspective of Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin AM ’12, RI ’17, Stern’s work fits perfectly with Radcliffe’s mission of interdisciplinary study and its efforts to connect more deeply with Harvard students.

“Democracy and a healthy civic society depend on informed leadership and engaged citizens,” said Brown-Nagin. “For this reason, I believe it is critical to bring scholars, practitioners, and civic groups to Radcliffe to collaborate with our students, fellows, and faculty in engaged scholarship. Kaia’s work is based in community building and engagement. It’s creative, it’s cutting-edge, it’s attentive to pressing social problems—and it does, I think, meet many students where they are.”

Photo by Brad TrentPhoto by Brad Trent

Inspired Thinking

In her time as a Radcliffe fellow, Stern connected with scholars across Harvard and beyond to broaden her understanding of “justice that transforms.” This included coleading a workshop with women in prison about the life and legacy of Angela Y. Davis, partnering with Boston Public Schools to offer educational programming at Radcliffe, and continuing to work with the author and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander on how to frame an interfaith theology of liberation. She also explored “the ethics of eye contact,” deepening her sense of “who we see, who we choose not to see, and what happens when we pay attention.”

Throughout the year, Stern made it a point to press herself and fellow scholars on what it means to “repair harm in relationships and change systems that cause harm.”

Early role models and encounters started her on the path to that pressing question. As the daughter of a physician father who tended the bloodied feet of civil-rights marchers and a mother who protested the Vietnam War, Stern recalls that the impulse to help others was “definitely in the ethos in our home.” She cited her parents’ devotion to service and social justice as a formative influence, along with the stirring voices of Aretha Franklin and the gospel singer and civil-rights activist Mahalia Jackson. Another influence was the education rooted in a “progressive form of liberation theology” that she remembers from her time at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. But ultimately, Stern became a model for others by channeling the inspiration she found in prisons. 

Elizabeth Hinton, an associate professor of history and of African and African American Studies and the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016), noted Stern’s reputation “for transforming lives and being one of the foremost prison educators in the country.” The pair collaborated on “Beyond the Gates,” and Hinton is working with Stern to bring the voices of incarcerated women to Radcliffe’s fall conference “Radical Commitments: The Life and Legacy of Angela Davis.”

“Within the Massachusetts prison system, Kaia’s a legend because of the power of her teaching,” said Hinton. “She is just an extremely powerful person, and when you are around her, when you are working with her, that power is infectious. She also has an eloquent way of being and of weaving together really complex issues somewhat seamlessly and magically and spiritually.”

That spirituality has been fundamental to Stern’s approach since her undergraduate experience at Green Haven, where an encounter with Buddhist beliefs struck a chord. “This idea that life is suffering really resonated,” she said.

The message took on greater meaning as Stern witnessed people in prison turning to religion for solace and support, finding common ground, whether Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist, in the idea of liberation. “That just cracked my heart and mind wide open,” she said. “I thought, ‘What is this tension between bondage and liberation, and how does faith seem to be a lifeline in this totalizing institution?”

While searching for the answer, she held to the idea that her passion for justice called for a law degree. Having graduated from Vassar, she waited tables, read scripture, and studied for the LSATs. But not long after enrolling in the City University of New York’s public-interest law program, her heart and mind began to protest. One day she broke down in tears. 

“It was this visceral response that I did not belong,” she said. “It was a combination of knowing that on a spiritual level and realizing that the logic—the thinking about adversarial relationships rooted in British common law—felt soul-bruising. I thought, ‘This is not justice.’”

Realizing that she had “more faith in laws that cannot be written” and would most likely have more access to people inside prison as a person of faith than as a person of law, Stern dropped out of law school and enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, where she earned a master’s in theological studies. Later she received a PhD in religious studies from Emory University. Next came ordination as an interfaith minister at the New Seminary in New York City. Then she put her experiences on the page, publishing Voices from American Prisons: Faith, Education, and Healing (Routledge, 2014). One of Stern’s mentors, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, called the work timely, rigorous, and original, praising the author for exposing as myth the idea that people in prison are somehow “evil, inhuman, the other.”

“Listen to the voices in this book; they will transform you,” Ogletree, Harvard’s Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, wrote in his foreword. “They have the power and the grace to guide all of us down a better path toward healing and true justice.”

A Sense of Belonging

Stern has taught at Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is the executive director of the nonprofit Concord Prison Outreach, which offers educational programs in nine prisons and one jail in Massachusetts, including GED tutoring and courses in writing, art, horticulture, parenting, and entrepreneurship. 

“We know that the folks who land in jails and prisons have been failed by the institutions meant to serve them,” said Stern, “and this practical work reminds me of the value and transformative power of prison programming beyond a focus on college-level coursework.”

Looking forward to her new role at Radcliffe, Stern said: “Part of the work will be to really define what we mean by transformative justice. There is so much work happening in this space—elders and activists who embody transformative justice in varied and inspiring ways. Some people talk about it in terms of preventing sexual assault, some people talk about it in terms of racial reparations. There are a lot of ideas about what it is, and I look forward to discerning and articulating how transformative justice fits into Radcliffe’s work as well as how Harvard can learn from community leaders and share its resources beyond University walls.”

Connecting with students is a top priority, Stern added. 

“To really engage in transformative work—where your heart is open and you are curious and you are moved by people—can be painful,” she said. “And it’s not tidy. It’s not something that you can communicate in a linear outline of a paper and be done with it. Students need support if they are going to learn how to do that work. And we know that the most fruitful learning happens in collaboration. We want to bring together graduate students, college students, high school students, to be asking critical questions: What is transformative justice? What is harm? What is healing?” 

Brown-Nagin is no less focused on reaching students. “Kaia’s work seeks to engage our students, who are educationally privileged, with populations that do not enjoy such privilege,” she said. “And it illustrates vividly how important education is. The simple reality is that given fewer opportunities, many of our students would not be as successful as they are. That intellectual and ethical realization is crucial. What’s more, to give students interested in service an opportunity to do this kind of social-justice work can be life changing.”

In her Radcliffe office, Stern smiled as she reflected on her life and her life’s work. She knows that hers has been a winding road, but she also knows that it has led her to the right destination.

“It feels like I am exactly where I have worked to be and I am meant to be, and it makes sense how things are complementing each other,” she said. “I feel really grateful for the opportunity to be here at this moment and to be in partnership with Radcliffe as we work together to develop these ideas.”

Colleen Walsh is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette.

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