Early in his undergraduate career at Berkeley, English major Steve Czifra was invited to do support work for a hunger strike by California prisoners protesting the widespread use of solitary confinement in the prison system. A formerly incarcerated student who himself had spent eight years alone in a cell — and was now, against great odds, at Berkeley — he felt conflicted.
“I realized I could do myself a favor and focus on the job of being an English undergraduate,” since “…studying great works of art was a dream,” Czifra writes on the Berkeley English blog. “Advocating for prisoners, on the other hand, was not pleasant and did nothing to facilitate my own plans of becoming a literary scholar.”
English students at Berkeley, he says, “hunkered over the same texts — the Aeneid, Odyssey and The Inferno, Richard II and Paradise Lost — … that I had pored over in a very different setting, a cloister without the salve of promised redemption, a California solitary-confinement cell.”
Czifra equivocated about whether to lend his energies to the protest “for a few minutes. Less, probably,” he writes.
Later he won a Chancellor’s Award for Civic Engagement honoring his work supporting the strikers. Read Steve Czifra’s piece, on the dual call of activism and academia, on the Berkeley English blog.