Public Service Awards 2008

Taylor Stoehr

Professor of Literature
UMass Boston

Over the last 14 years, Taylor Stoehr, Ph.D., has worked diligently to sustain the "Changing Lives Through Literature" program at the Dorchester District Court founded by himself and Presiding Justice Sydney Hanlon. Probationers are recommended by their probation officers to participate in a 10-week program during which they read, write about, and discuss literature in groups that include Professor Stoehr, probation officers, and often a judge.

Professor Stoehr helps lead a group of 15 to 20 men per semester. About 250 to 300 men have completed the Dorchester program over the last 14 years. About 3,000 men and women have completed it all through the state.

The primary text is Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, selected because it engenders discussions about issues familiar to many of the participants, including poverty, racism, family breakdown, and the struggle for social justice. Texts by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Richard Wright have also been used. Probationers who successfully complete the program are usually granted a six-month sentence reduction. Testimonies from the probationers indicate that the program helps them to establish trust with each other as well as with the teachers, judges, and probation officers; gives them time and space to reflect on ideas and issues; and causes them to understand that they are not alone in their struggles.

The curriculum that Professor Stoehr has developed includes questions that anyone can answer. Sometimes the participants are asked to answer the questions in the form of a poem rather than in prose. At the beginning of class, everyone spends 10 or 15 minutes thinking and writing, after which they divide up into small groups of three to five.

"They've reached a position where they can learn from each other," Professor Stoehr says. "What they learn is faith and trust and self-esteem, not just book-learning. If their lives are changed, it's because they realize they are not alone. They realize that having ideas and thoughts and talking about them is not a bad thing."

Professor Stoehr and his colleagues believe that the program has been effective in reducing further offenses by probationers. A recidivism study is now under way. Beyond the difference in recidivism is the personal growth that the participants experience. In 14 years of doing the program Professor Stoehr has seen only three or four people who had no desire to change.

According to Judge Hanlon, the program is "one of the most important things that we do at Dorchester Court."

Professor Stoehr is a professor of literature in the College of Liberal Arts at UMass Boston. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

Public Service Awards 2009

Public Service Awards 2008