Amy Sheppard is concurrently completing a Master of Gender Studies while starting a PhD in the Department of Sociology this September. She has been working as a social worker for 14 years and the last 7 years has been with Stella’s Circle, a local non profit. Born in St John’s, Amy has an undergraduate degree in English from Memorial University and a social work degree from St Thomas in New Brunswick.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I attended Memorial and completed my undergrad degree right out of high school and had a great experience. I worked at a nonprofit for a couple of years after graduating, but it came to a point when I thought about returning to school to pursue a professional career. At that time, I applied to a few different programs, including the Master of Women’s Studies (now Gender Studies) program at Memorial, but decided I would complete a degree in social work in another province.
I currently work as a social worker with Stella’s Circle and I love it here! I work with a great group of coworkers and my job (working with women involved in the criminal justice system) is rewarding, interesting and fulfilling. While working here, I supervised a women who completed an internship with us as a part of her program for the MA in Women’s Studies at Memorial. That experience sparked me to think about school again. After going through some personal changes in my life, I decided I needed a new challenge and I went for it.
Memorial was a great choice for me because I was able to complete my studies part time and continue to work full time.
What drew you to explore gender studies originally?
I have always been interested in women’s issues and how gender impacts people’s experiences of the world. I have a minor in women’s studies and all my academic work has come from a feminist lens. Ultimately, I wanted to pursue a degree in gender studies for purely selfish reasons. I wanted to explore something I am passionate about with others with the same passion.
Can you tell us a bit about your arts-based research with women at the Clarenville centre?
When I was trying to decide on a project for this program, I knew that I wanted to combine my scholarly work with the work I do as a social worker with women involved in the criminal justice system. In my role, I deliver therapeutic programming to women living both in NLCCW and in the community. As such, I have the unique opportunity to speak with women who are currently and formerly incarcerated about issues both in and outside the prison. Women in prison have unique bodily experiences of being confined, strip searched and medicated and also often speak about how uncomfortable they are in their bodies because they have put on weight while in prison.They also speak about track marks and other impacts that drug use has on their bodies and appearance. Sometimes, depending on the time or what’s happening, women in prison have to ask permission to move, to go to the bathroom or to shower. Their bodies often suffer withdrawal from drug use and cigarettes and they have little choice in what they eat, when they exercise and what they wear. Given all the issues around body and embodiment I hear from women in prison, I wanted to help women talk about these concerns.
As a result of my own positive experience with dance, I connected the idea of dance and body movement as a means to explore body image and embodiment.
I studied feminist theories of embodiment and feminist work regarding women in prison. I examined how dance has operated in prisons in a number of prisons throughout the world. With these ideas in mind, I created a workshop template based on my experiences in dance class and facilitating workshops in prison on body image and other topics involving the body, such as addiction and trauma. In addition, I consulted with a dance teacher/choreographer for guidance on how to structure the workshop and for some ideas on creating movement
With approval from staff at NLCCW, I was able to pilot a dance workshop with two groups of 10 women over two different weekends and to hear their feedback. Based on these workshops and feedback, I created a guide for offering a dance workshop to women in prison settings. The workshop was created as an introduction to dance for the women in prison and as a means of talking about and exploring body image issues. The workshop builds toward the creation of a piece of choreography, however, the most important goal was for participants to experience a positive connection to dance and to their bodies.
How does prison impact the body?
Prison impacts the body in a number of ways. Nowhere is the body under more control than in a prison environment.
My own research echoes much of what the literature says about the impacts of prison on the body. I would also highlight weight gain in prison as a huge concern for women in prison. Prisoners have limited control of what they can eat. At NLCCW, meals are catered and there is no choice in what prisoners can eat. Some prisoners have access to canteen if they have family or friends who can put money into their internal prison account. Prisoners are able to order candy, chips, and other items. Bread, peanut butter, butter, milk, coffee and tea are provided as well throughout the day. One woman drew a picture of a prisoner as a loaf of bread, demonstrating concerns about weight gain and limited access to food. Most participants blame weight gain on too much bread and limited access to activity. Other participants acknowledged that weight gain can be healthy because when they entered prison they were underweight due to drug use.
During the workshop in prison, I showed a video by Clair Jenny, a dancer and choreographer from France called DanceDanse Ottawa Prison (Frigon & Jenny, 2013). Jenny has worked with Sylvie Frigon, a professor in criminology at Ottawa University to explore dance in prisons in Quebec. This video is based on interviews with women about their experiences of the body in prison. The dance features Jenny and some of Frigon’s students and takes place in an old prison.
In particular, there is a part of the dance where Jenny hikes up her skirt and squats, reminiscent of urination or defecation. Immediately, participants recognized this as an experience of prison, going to the bathroom in front of others or being in a room where others are going to the bathroom. This led to much discussion regarding humiliation, health issues, and privacy that are challenged in a prison environment. One of my research participants, Victoria, commented, “its like that old saying ‘you don’t shit where you eat.’ We don’t shit where we eat but we shit where we sleep. That can’t be healthy.” This led to discussion about adapting to life in prison regarding these private issues, such as dealing with constipation, completing a “courtesy flush” to reduce unpleasant odours, making sure to use the bathroom during times when cellmates are on the floor, and using menstrual pads as a cushion on the cold, steel toilet seat.
I think life in prison highlights the body in ways that those of us on the outside may not think about or take for granted.
What do you hope the impact of your research to be?
I had hoped it would be a positive experience for the participants of the workshop! And I think it was. I’m in a unique position where I am going back to see some of my research participants as I continue to work in the prison. A number of them have asked if I can offer it again.
I hope the research can share the stories of women in prison but I also would like the work to inspire more work in with women in prison, particularly in the area of arts. I believe that most women in prison would like to make some changes in the lives and exposure to different creative outlets might help some women to think about things a little differently.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor, Natalie Beausoleil bring to her role as your advisor and mentor? Can you explain how your work coincides with her role in the Division of Community Health at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine?
Natalie was really helpful in helping me center the ideas of body and embodiment in my research. She was also great in helping me to push the idea of arts based research. I had these ideas in my head, but she was really great in helping me to get some solidification in how I can make it work.
Community health is just about that, the health of our communities. Women in prison are, by fact of being in prison, excluded from our communities and then on release, are often isolated from communities due to stigma, shame and embarrassment. How do we create a healthy community? By encouraging all members to participate and valuing contributions we can all make.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
I worked really closely with Dr Rose Ricciardelli with the Department of Sociology on the criminology aspects of my work. She and I jointly published a paper in the Journal of Community Corrections examining the potential of dance programming in prisons to promote desistance. It was great working with her on that.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
I volunteer at the YMCA as a spin instructor. I teach a class once a week. I’m also involved with the Paradise Triathlon both as a volunteer and as a participant. I recently joined the board of Neighborhood Dance Works too. I’m just getting my feet wet with that organization, but they are responsible for the Festival of New Dance that happens every October. It’s an awesome week of really cool contemporary dance and I’m looking forward to being involved in that this year.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
I love the research and I love working with amazing smart people doing cool research. I like meeting other students and faculty and hearing what others are doing.
I understand you are starting a PhD in the sociology department this year – can you share some details about what you will be working on with Rose Ricciardelli?
I am going to look at continuing my work with women in prison around arts, health and the body. I’m not sure yet where the work will lead me, but I’m looking forward to the journey.