Name: Madison Dawkins
Hometown: Wynnewood, PA
Major: Political Science and Africana Studies
Activities: Founder and president of Beyond Arrests: Re–Thinking Systematic Oppression (BARS), Women’s Soccer, Friars Senior Society
34th Street: How do you think being a part of the soccer team has shaped your Penn experience?
Madison Dawkins: It has shown me the importance of discipline and keeping a schedule and routine, and just the importance of hard work and working as a team. I’m just so thankful that it has been my anchor while I've been at Penn. I think everything goes back to the team. We do everything together, whether it’s eating, practicing or homework. Because there are so many people, there are so many different resources of people who have taken similar classes or have done stuff in areas that you want to explore. There was always guidance. The coaching staff is extremely supportive, and is always going to listen to new ideas and help shape you and your experience at Penn. I wouldn't have traded that for the world.
Street: How did you get involved with criminal justice reform?
MD: During my freshman spring I took the “Race, Crime, and Punishment” seminar with Marie Gottschalk. She spoke a lot about parallels between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. We read The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy. After the class I still felt like there was so much to learn. A lot of the perspectives in the class where those of incarcerated men, and I felt that I wanted to learn more about women and how they play into the justice system. So from there, I ended up interning at Senator Gillibrand's office and I got put on a project to research prison nursery programs. I learned about all the rules and regulations, and how rare it is to have a nursery program within a correctional facility. From there, I took the “Women in Incarceration” nursing course and got some direct experience with women behind bars. And, again, I felt like I couldn't walk away from that. I was really recognizing their humanity, and just seeing all these injustices present that I had learned in that “Race, Crime, and Punishment” seminar. I realized that a lot of people around me weren't aware of these issues, and that was my motivator to start BARS.
Street: What are the kinds of things BARS does?
MD: BARS was designed to create a space on campus for people to come and engage about criminal justice reform. We’re essentially education–based, and we promote political advocacy. BARS has had several film screenings, panels, guest lectures, and some informal dialogues around different topics within the justice system. We’ve focused on women, solitary confinement, and different gender identities in the justice system.
Street: Have there been any experiences you’ve had, through BARS, that have forever changed you?
MD: Definitely. During my junior year, I got an email from one of my professors that Roc Nation wanted to collaborate with BARS—Roc Nation being Jay–Z’s entertainment company. They wanted to have an event at Penn, and wanted to utilize BARS as a student organization that can exemplify student engagement and push this event. I was asked to host the event, as well as invite panelists and coordinate the logistics. It was incredible working with Roc Nation, seeing things at a higher level, and having more capacity to invite distinguished speakers such as Bryan Stevenson; Meek Mill's lawyer was there. The whole event was designed to use Meek Mill's case to bring light to the injustices of parole. It was extremely eye–opening to me, being on that stage, in front of thousands of people—there were Eagles players front–row, Lil Uzi was there. I always knew I wanted to carry this beyond Penn, but I didn't know to what capacity, and how seriously I could be taken as a college student. Knowing that I could really use my voice to spark change, and that so many people were interested and passionate about the issue definitely encouraged me to continue this work.
Street: What was your experience in the “Women in Incarceration” nursing class?
MD: The “Women in Incarceration” nursing course opened my eyes a lot to the health disparities of people behind bars. The purpose of the class was for students to come in and design health–based workshops for the women who are incarcerated. We would often take their feedback on what they wanted to learn, so it was less of a lecture and more of a community dialogue. We talked about nutrition, and I learned about the different things on their commissary list, and how those are unhealthy. A lot of times women would go in with a regular BMI and come out severely overweight. A lot of people don't know that the prison system in the U.S. was specifically designed for men. They're just not the right things for women's mental, physical, and emotional health, and I felt like I could do something about that. With the soccer program I had been involved with mindfulness, so during my workshop in the “Women in Incarceration” course I decided to focus on mindfulness. We had great feedback. And from there I decided to do an independent study specifically focused on Health and Wellness. We really allowed the women to create a program for themselves. We weren’t initially going to start with doing exercise, but time and time again they talked about not being allowed outside as a unit for huge periods of time due to understaffing. So, we made an exercise program that they could do in their cells or in a very small space that they could keep up with. It was really interesting because all the women were from the same unit and they were not a community, they did not really hang out, but this class kind of brought them together. When they would get back, they would exercise together, and they would do mindfulness together, and I thought that was really special. I had so many incredible experiences meeting women behind bars and formerly incarcerated women, so I decided to TA the course for the last year and a half, which has allowed me to continue the mindfulness program.
Street: What do you hope students get out of the course?
MD: I hope the students get to create similar relationships that I've created with a lot of the women behind bars. Just knowing someone who is incarcerated, whether that be a friend, a family member, or through this course, is so eye–opening. I was able to have these personal connections and really see what is going on. Laughing with the women, crying with the women, hearing their concerns, and hearing how they have to conduct themselves to really survive in the system. I think it's really important that along with the course you’re also reading Caught by Marie Gottschalk, The New Jim Crow, and Just Mercy. If you're going to go in, you have to do your homework. You have to understand that this is not a spectacle, where you're just going to see women in jumpsuits in their units behind glass. You have to remember their humanity; you have to remember that they have family on the outside. We don't know why they're incarcerated. A lot of the women are awaiting trial, and they can't pay bail, so you just never know. If it was up to me I would require everyone to take “Women in Incarceration” because it gives you such a different perspective and it allows you to reflect on your life in ways that are unimaginable if you haven't been inside barbed wire or behind concrete walls.
Street: What do you plan on doing in the future?
MD: We'll see what I do next but it'll definitely be in the justice field. Hopefully I'll continue to do direct service with women. I have wanted to get a JD–Ph.D for some time. I'd love to advocate on behalf of people behind bars with that law degree, using the Ph.D to better understand some of the policies and histories that led to this phenomenon, but also I would love to teach at the end of the day. Kind of be a Marie Gottschalk in other people’s lives and really open students’ eyes to what’s been going on.
Street: If you were a building on Penn's campus, which would you be?
MD: I would be the new political science building. First, because it's a glass building that you can see inside and I feel like I'm a very transparent person. I just think it's modern, and I feel like I'm modern and hip.
Street: What is your favorite show to binge?
MD: I'm currently watching Criminal Minds but I am a comedy person at heart. I would say Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for life. I think Titus was the truer star of the show but it’s up for debate.
Street: What is your go–to coffee order?
MD: Not a caffeine person, but I drink green tea. I'm big on smoothies.
Street: What is in your go–to smoothie?
MD: Kale, mango, pineapple, blueberries, and then kale and apple juice.
Street: What is the number on your soccer jersey?
MD: 25. Also Ben Simmons' number on the 76ers.
Street: What is one piece of advice that you would give to students?
MD: Take your time. Don't rush.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn …
MD: Those who work hard and those who play hard.
Street: And which one are you?
I would say probably work hard.
This interview has been edited and condensed.