An Interview with University of Washington President, Ana Mari Cauce

It is in all of our best interests for people to be able to rehabilitate. By the time we have someone who’s made it out of prison and into the UW, think about all they’ve got going for them and all that they’ve overcome. Think about that energy put to something really positive and what they might be able to do.”

– Ana Mari Cauce, University of Washington President

In 2013, the Post-Prison Education Program and University of Washington’s President Ana Mari Cauce sat with each other for the first time, beginning a conversation that would shape the lives of many of our students time and time again. As a team, we are constantly inspired by the opportunities Ana Mari creates for all academically qualified individuals to turn their lives around; prisoners, former prisoners and so many others.

In Winter 2012, a student of our program, was removed from a UW class. As a result of his removal, three former prisoners and our president Ari Kohn, met with Ana Mari. We talked about the danger of a recently introduced box on the UW application, that would require students to say if they had been convicted of a felony before applying. They shared the obstacles they faced reentering society, going through school, and the efforts they were making to create a better life for themselves and the world. 

This meeting would begin an inspired relationship between our program and Ana Mari. Two years later she would present as the keynote speaker at Monroe Correctional Complex and to this day she continues to advocate for former prisoners across all of UW’s campuses. 

She uses her leadership platform to make space for conversations, and finds new ways to break down stereotypes and narratives that often inhibit students’ success. She uses her power to learn the needs of the individual and uses those conversations to shape UW. She is a constant example in how larger institutions can pivot to listen to those they have historically left behind and our team could not be more grateful for her life philosophy, openness and dedication.

In our Q&A she touches on how experiences like her early work with homeless youth, and her Ph.D in psychology, concentrated in child clinical and community psychology, have shaped how she leads, and what she prioritizes for the larger UW community. Below is Hannah Myrick’s conversation with Ana Mari.

You’ve created support and rehabilitation pathways for many former prisoners at the University of Washington. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s influenced you in creating those pathways?

At the end of the day people who have been released from prison have paid the consequences for their actions, so what do we do? The research is clear, if you create a pathway to education, to a college degree, recidivism goes way down. 

I’ve done a lot of work with homeless youth and a number of the young people I work with did end up incarcerated. I don’t want to take responsibility away from anybody, but because it’s the easiest narrative to have in our heads, we tend to think that bad things are done by bad people. If that were the truth, the world would be simple. You could isolate the bad people and everything would be fine. But it’s not that simple. There are circumstances under which even the best of persons might do something bad.

I want to emphasize it is in all of our best interests for people to be able to rehabilitate. By the time we have someone who’s made it out of prison and into the UW, think about all they’ve got going for them and all that they’ve overcome. Think about that energy put to something really positive and what they might be able to do. 

Some people might say “Why are you helping them? What about my kid that’s having all these problems” and all of that’s true, but it’s not just about helping them. It’s about helping everybody, including them.

How do you respond to those that say “Why are you helping them? They’ve done bad things!”

Let’s be honest, we’ve all done bad things. Part of human nature is being capable of absolutely wonderful things, but in certain situations, all of us are capable of doing pretty rotten things too. 

There’s good reasons to help all of us. And I also want to be clear, I’m not talking about saying to someone who has just done something horrible “Hey! Come to the University of Washington.” These are people who are highly motivated, people who have done well in community college and are highly motivated to change their lives. So yes, in some cases they’ve done some terrible things, in some cases maybe less so, but they’ve paid their dues, spent their time in prison and they want to be rehabilitated. 

I firmly believe that everyone is owed a second, and third chance.

What does that look like on a larger institutional level?

It comes down to trying to keep the barriers to rehabilitation as low as possible. I think one of the big problems in society right now is the hollowing out of the middle class.  We need to be institutions that help with social mobility. 

There is absolutely no question, there’s something wrong with our criminal justice system. The sheer number of people we incarcerate makes absolutely no sense, and we’re not talking about a few people, but an awful lot of people. There is no question that they tend to be overrepresented amongst people who are low income. So I think we need to be aware of that, that it’s not a fair system. And if we’re going to be an engine of social mobility, this is a group that access includes. 

We wanted to make sure what happened with the student who was removed doesn’t happen again. We want folks in that situation to have the best possible learning experience. We can talk to the instructor beforehand, UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity also works with low-income students and often we can introduce particular instructors who have been particularly friendly and supportive. So at this point it’s not that we have something specific for people that have been incarcerated but we have a host of support services that we want to make sure and connect them with right away. 

How does the support UW offers former prisoners compare to other other educational institutions across the country? 

I would like to think that we are one of the leaders, but I would be very surprised if we’re the only. For example, we’re part of the Coalition App (a single application that allows you to apply to any of 150 higher education institutions), and played a leadership role to get the box off the application. Now the Common App doesn’t have it either, which is fabulous. 

The folks who are on the front lines are our community and technical colleges, since that’s usually the first stepping stone. I’m a community clinical psychologist so there’s an importance of “who are you as a community?” You know, we’re not just a bunch of disembodied brains.

Definitely. In your work with prisoners and former prisoners, and in providing second and third chances you seem to really prioritize furthering understanding and community building as well.

You know, people don’t go into teaching if they don’t care deeply. But, I think that one of the things that can be so difficult for folks coming out of incarceration is that all our sympathies as humans tend to go to the “victims.” What we forget is that almost everyone who has been incarcerated at some point or another has been a victim too. 

I remember when I first started working with homeless youth, I was so angry at their parents, because so many had been treated poorly. You often get angry at the parents for not protecting them and then I started meeting some of the parents and realized they had often been victims themselves, of abuse, or they’d been addicted to drugs. They’re lives had been pretty damn miserable. Then you realize you can’t be mad at them either. 

My brother was murdered by the Klan, and at one point when I was doing work with homeless youth, we started seeing skinheads. That was really hard for me. But there was one kid who was always hanging around and I finally talked to him. He was this young man who really had nothing in his life and this group had told him “yeah, but you’re white” and that was the one shred of pride he had. How could I hate him? Things are really complicated.

Can you give a brief background on the start and continuation of your relationship with the Post-Prison Education Program, and how it all ties into the origins of the “box” on the UW application? 

There was an incident related to a Post-Prison Education Program student, with whom I’ve now become close. I don’t know how, but it became known that he had a background as a sexual offender. People on campus were scared. There was a faculty member who didn’t want to teach. People were saying “I’ve had that experience in my life so I don’t want them in my class.” It was pretty terrible for everybody from the student himself, to the people who were in his class.

After talking to a number of people, my first thought was at admissions time if we could at least know who had been convicted of violent crimes, by including a box on the application we could have a situation like this never occur again.

I can’t remember how I met Ari, but he brought the student, and two others and we all had a conversation about their experiences as former prisoners. After talking to them I was convinced that simply having the box <on the application> would be discouraging and a disincentive. I talked to people who were prison advocates, but there was nothing that was as powerful as sitting down with these three young men and Ari. It’s not that I didn’t feel how important rehabilitation was before, but hearing their stories and the enormity of their obstacles, and how sincerely these young men were working to create a better life for themselves and for the world…I guess it’s one of those things you can read about, but there’s something about it being in front of you. 

What is the best way to communicate those complications and stories?

If you stop by Suzzallo Library, the Honors Program has an exhibit on homelessness that’s just beautiful. That’s an example of the real interest the program has in really digging into social justice issues. I think what’s so powerful about that exhibit is it makes homeless people real. 

Stereotyping is most likely part of our human nature. It makes a very complicated world simple, but I think that it’s very easy to hurt people when you see them as groups. It’s easy to hate prisoners, it’s easy to hate skinheads. Maybe not even to hate, but to dismiss, or to characterize in any way. 

I think part of what helps you get over the stereotypes of a group is meeting people. I sometimes post about incarcerated students here or there on Facebook so people can see that “This is a real person. Look at what they’re doing.” 

I’ve noticed the UW Honors Program does a lot of programming around Washington State’s Prisons. Is that by coincidence or a more conscious focus? 

I don’t think it’s ever been intentional but the current director Victoria Lawson has a lot of interest in social justice issues in general. 

Also, some of the previously incarcerated students we have are absolutely tremendous students in the Honors Program and take the program’s classes. I think you may know Ginny Burton is a finalist for the Truman.

Are you still in touch with some of those former students?

Absolutely. But, one of the things that’s hard for me about being in this position is having less student contact. The connections you make are very much person to person and there’s nothing more rewarding than being part of that young person or not so young person’s path. I think often they look to you as a mentor and how you help them, but also I view the world differently because of the experiences I share with students. They have taught me so much.

What is the Backstories series?

As an organization, we’ve learned the faces and stories of current and former prisoners are what most often leads people to understand how complex each individual in Washington State’s jails and prison system is. Prisoners are not one definable group. They are not the actions they committed, rather their lives are complex mixes of a larger history of abject poverty, addiction, mental illness, comorbidity, misunderstanding, and a large prison system that pushes them further into despair and recidivism.  We plan to spend considerable time interviewing people who bring to light the impacts of this system on individuals and their families. Defense attorneys, advocates, filmmakers, educators and our graduates and students themselves. These are the stories and perspectives that are buried, and these are the backstories we plan to spotlight. Check out our blog for some examples.