Straight from the Underground

Criticizing the Conversion Model

By Alexander Coates

University of California, Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative has expanded into Berkeley City College. Ambassadors for the program can be seen tabling across from the front desk, helping to connect the formerly-incarcerated and system-impacted with resources to further their educational goals most Tuesdays throughout November and early December of the Fall 2017 semester.


Batya Brose is an Underground Scholars Initiative Ambassador at Berkeley City College. Photo: Batya Brose

“If I didn’t have tattoos on my face, maybe,” says Batya Brose, one of BCC’s Underground Scholars Initiative ambassadors, when asked if she experienced difficulty in broadcasting her formerly-incarcerated status to fellow students, teachers and faculty. But for students whose physical remembrances are not as conspicuous such acknowledgement can be problematic, says Brose, “If you don’t fit the part, if you don’t fit the stigma of what a formerly incarcerated student looks like, it’s very hard to want to involve yourself in something that puts that label on you.” Hence, the outreach.

Even getting the word out can be difficult. “Some people think they don’t qualify,” explains Brose, “because they haven’t been in prison or they haven’t done a whole bunch of time. But regardless of how much time you do, it affects you … There are so many who have been incarcerated,” and for each, a web of friends, family and loved-ones impacted by a unique American system of incarceration.

The model, of using personal experience as a badge of authenticity to reach audiences who might otherwise be wary or closed off to the advances of such programs, has become common enough. Many resource pools directed at marginalized and deviantized populations use the street-cred of their members as a networking tool. Substance abuse rehabilitation, veterans’ programs, sexual assault and abuse survivors, eating disorders recovery groups and addiction recovery services have all used or use this model to some degree and all share a common challenge of serving communities which must overcome lingering social stigmas in addition to their other trials and tribulations.

There’s an intuitiveness to the approach; it smacks of common-sense and anecdotally, alumni of programs which employ such tactics report feeling more comfortable sharing their experiences with someone who can empathize, rather than merely sympathize. Sociologist Steven Spitzer, in 1975, referred to the notion of using reformed individuals to manage members of the deviant population to which they previously belonged, as “conversion,” and categorized it as a systemic response to the potential political and social threat such individuals posed if allowed to re-enter unchecked into society.

However, it has largely been economic motivations which have spurred the proliferation of the conversion model. “Converts” are often volunteers or interns, or receive small stipends, or are compensated with non-monetary resources, such as room and board. Such penny-pinching and cost-suppression is often a necessity if these programs are to remain available and operating. Brose, in her role as Ambassador, is provided a $1000 stipend each semester.

Converts are some of the only individuals willing to engage with populations which have been marginalized and deviantized by the public at large. As a society, we have come to depend on the empathy of converts, and to pigeonhole the applicability of their experience to facilitate that dependence, because it seems easier than eliciting the kind of societal about-face necessary to address the issue otherwise.

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The conversion model is problematic not only because it uses the formerly-incarcerated to re-socialize the formerly-incarcerated, or addicts to counsel addicts, or sexual assault and abuse survivors to console sexual assault and abuse survivors, but also and more so because it positions these well-intentioned environs as social boundaries to contain and direct the actions and attitudes of populations who are not allowed to escape the stigma of their pasts. It is a further and subsequent marginalization to imply that their experiences have scarred them in such a way as renders them fit only for a narrowly defined set of roles.

The role of convert is on primary display for individuals who utilize these programs. Brose, and presumably her employer, is acutely aware of this.

“I recruit; I serve as an icon,” explains Brose, and her example does not go unnoticed. Brose, also employed as a counselor at a substance abuse clinic, often asks her clients, “‘What do you want to do when you get out of here?’ or ‘what are your goals?’ or ‘what are things you want to work towards?’ And most of them say,” recounts Brose, “‘I want to work with people who have been through the same things I have.'” Undoubtedly these aspirations stem from good intentions and from having admirable individuals lending their time and efforts to noble causes, but the feelings of guilt and indebtedness, while worked fastidiously against by many recovery programs, are intrinsic to the conversion model and spoken to — loudly — by the image of ex helping hopefully-soon-to-be-ex.

It’s difficult to criticize the well-intentioned, especially when the results are often encouraging: “I can speak for myself,” says Brose, “When you’ve done so much bad in your life, to be able to do so much good, it feels like it weighs it out. … It’s so rewarding to help people in the places where you started falling off.” And to be able to offer a path less fraught with the barriers to success that stand in the way of so many recovering from trauma or addiction or the often-incredible feat of coming-of-age in America is almost irresistible. “The things that would be considered stigma are beneficial,” says Brose of working within the convert model, “It’s a lot easier of a career path for people who have been addicted or [formerly incarcerated]. … I’ve gotten turned away from being a dishwasher at San Pablo Casino because of my tattoos, where no one could see me and I still got turned away.”

But we cannot, as a community, tie our heart-strings to our critical faculties. We cannot, as a community, allow ourselves the easy ignorance of assigning addicts to addicts’ problems, or pinning ex-cons’ problems to ex-cons because it is a failure to recognize those problems — and their solutions — as belonging to us all.

At the top – People pass by as University of California, Berkeley Underground Scholars Initiative ambassadors staff an outreach and information table at Berkeley City College. Photo: Alexander Coates

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