URBANA — For more than a decade, Barbara Kessel has been in and out of the Champaign County jail, volunteering with an organization that puts books in the hands of inmates there and in prisons throughout Illinois at no cost.
For her work with Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners and other efforts on behalf of incarcerated men and women and their families — including the Three Rs (Reading Reduces Recidivism), a men's movie club, CU Citizens for Peace and Justice and its Courtwatch program — the Urbana woman and social justice activist has been named the recipient of this year's James R. Burgess Jr.-Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award.
The award recognizes humanitarian efforts of individuals and organizations that "improve the human condition by alleviating suffering and contributing to the basic human dignity of those in need." It will be presented to her at Friday's 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration at Parkland College.
Kessel, a retired teacher, was nominated by Dorothy Vura-Weis, a fellow social justice activist who got to know her through the Urbana-Champaign Friends Meeting (Quakers).
"We believe in the idea of equality and respecting all people," Vura-Weis said.
Vura-Weis also shares Kessel's concerns that too many people are being incarcerated and suffering injustices, including having little or no access to educational opportunities, in the current system, and admires the way her friend goes about her work.
"She deals with them directly as people and helps them maintain self-respect," said Vura-Weis, who quoted the slain civil rights leader in her nomination letter.
"Dr. King said, 'Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve. ... You only need a heart full of grace ... and a soul generated by love.' (Kessel's) life work truly exemplifies a person whose heart is full of grace and whose soul is generated by love."
From Africa to Appalachia
Kessel was born and raised in Danville by parents, who "valued honesty and integrity above all" and taught her "to pay absolutely no attention to what a person looked like and to find out what was inside." She said she has been sensitive to injustices and inhumanities since she was young.
She graduated as co-valedictorian from Danville High School in 1956, then earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois. At the UI, she lived at Presby Hall and served as president of the McKinley Foundation her junior year. She worked for two summers at Presbyterian settlement houses on Chicago's west side.
After graduating, Kessel traveled overseas with Operation Crossroads Africa and helped build an elementary school in the Ivory Coast. Upon her return to the U.S., she earned a master's degree in teaching from Johns Hopkins University, which gave her an opportunity to teach in Appalachia.
She taught high school English in the Chicago area for two years. She left to pursue a doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Iowa, where she had received a Kent Fellowship. She got married and left mid-degree "as the draft board was after my 30-year-old husband since we were anti-Vietnam War protesters."
Later, Kessel taught at Malcolm X College in Chicago, at San Diego State College in the first women's studies program in the nation, at the YMCA College in Chicago and at Truman College in Chicago, where the majority of students were immigrants from all over the world.
During that time, she remained involved in anti-war efforts, protested the torture of black men by the Chicago police, worked to prevent the deportation of poet Dennis Brutus and served as a union steward and activist with the American Federation of Teachers.
Connecting with prisoners
In 2004, Kessel moved back to the Champaign area with no real agenda for how she would spend her retirement. A couple of months later, she attended an event on volunteer opportunities and heard Sandra Ahten talk about a new program she was starting, called Books to Prisoners.
Under the program, inmates write letters requesting books or types of books they're interested in reading. Volunteers read the letters and do their best to fulfill the requests from the group's collection, built through donations and fund-raising efforts. They also staff and stock lending libraries at Champaign County's main jail and the satellite location. Since it started, the organization has provided more than 100,000 books to inmates at 26 prisons, where access to books is highly restricted.
"In the letters, inmates sometimes write for pages about themselves," Kessel said, adding volunteers can only answer the letters with books. "They frequently express deep gratitude for the books we send them in subsequent letters. Their letters are sometimes funny and often moving.
"After I got started, I realized ... now I could help people read what they wanted to in a place where there was little else to do. Reading is a conversation with an author through the means of a book. When you find the right book, it tells you that you are not alone in the universe, a very important message to someone in prison."
'Way too many' jailed
Kessel was prompted to launch the Three Rs, a project to build library collections at prisons, after discovering they were either non-existent or fell to the wayside due to budget cuts. While the effort was discarded as too liberal at first, she persisted, and there are now six chapters in the state that provide specifically-desired material to prisons within 100 miles of their location.
Kessel had volunteered at the jail library for a few years when she got another idea — starting a movie club where small groups of men could watch and discuss a DVD. She partnered with Tracy Dace, a Parkland instructor, to select movies and lead discussions every other Monday evening. Groups have watched, among other things, "Return of the Planet of the Apes;" "Trouble in the Water," a documentary on Hurricane Katrina; and "The Christmas Carol," which "gave rise to the most emotional discussion we ever had," Kessel recalled.
Kessel is also passionate about the work of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, whose members work to expose racial and class inequities and improve all aspects of the criminal justice system. In 2010, she got involved in the group's Courtwatch program, in which at least one volunteer, sometimes more, sit in on proceedings at the request of a defendant to make sure he or she gets due process.
"As for influencing the courts's own process, we are circumspect about that," said Kessel, who not only attends hearings but organizes volunteers. "However, one judge and several lawyers have assured me that having observers does cause them to all bring their A game."
This isn't the first time Kessel has been recognized for her community activism, focused on Illinois' incarcerated. In 2010, she received the ACLU Award for Service and the McKinley Foundation Award for social justice in the community activist category.
While she isn't entirely comfortable with being singled out, she's always happy to shine a spotlight on issues and reform efforts.
"I want to raise these and other issues in the consciousness of many people — the fact that there are way too many of them," she said. "Why should we incarcerate astronomical numbers compared to every other country in the world? ... Their exclusion from books and other forms of communication with the world and their families, their warehousing instead of rehabilitation.
"What does it do to our society when people come back without having been given the means — mental, physical, emotional, legal — to integrate back into society? ... We have a false notion that by shutting people up for X number of years, we have rid ourselves of any responsibility for them as members of society that most of them will return to, that punishment and exile will heal them and the wrong they might have done."
Three local individuals will be honored during the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration, set for 4 p.m. Friday at Parkland College:
Barbara Kessel, James R. Burgess Jr./Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award
Rohn Koester, Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award
Melany Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Outstanding Achievement Award