Today at Berkeley Lab

Jailhouse Lit: Public Affair’s Nicole Pagano Teaches Dante’s Inferno to the Incarcerated

— By Julie Chao

nicoleNicole Pagano’s day job as the Lab’s protocol officer involves a certain amount of adult education. But rarely, if ever, does she get the opportunity to share her true passion—Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Then she heard about a program at the San Francisco County Jail that aims to stop the cycle of violence in the community. She proposed teaching a class based on The Divine Comedy, and next thing she knew, she was in a classroom at the San Bruno jail with 17 violent offenders talking about 14th-century Italian literature.

“It’s a great tool for personal transformation,” Pagano says aboutDante’s epic poem. “They’re working through this cycle of violence that they’ve learned and that they’ve perpetrated and that they’re trying to break. I learned that the poem can serve as a kind of scaffolding for them to heal, and to look at the world and see how they can engage it peacefully rather than having to front.”

Pagano first read The Divine Comedy as an undergraduate at Georgetown University and was immediately captivated by it. When she pursued a graduate degree in art and religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, she built her entire curriculum around it. “The poem really spoke to me in college, especially about identity: Who do I want to be? How do I want to relate to my beloveds, my community, my country?” she says. “Every class I took, from Nonviolent Social Transformation to reading privately with the Dante scholar at Cal, related to the poem. It was an enormous gift.”

After coming to Berkeley Lab three years ago as the protocol officer, in which she oversees high-level visitors and tours of the Lab, she got certified in adult education through UC Berkeley Extension classes. Then she heard about Community Works, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that runs a program called Resolve to Stop the Violence (RSVP) in collaboration with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

Pagano decided that teaching a class on Dante would be an excellent way to combine volunteering with her favorite piece of literature. “I proposed the class based on a hunch,” she says. “We were all wondering how it would fly.”

For 17 weeks she taught in a jailhouse classroom for two hours, sometimes more, introducing Dante’s journey from Inferno (hell) to Purgatorio (purgatory) and finally to Paradiso (paradise). “Essentially it’s the journey of a man who starts in a dark wood, where he’s totally paralyzed by fear,” Pagano explains. “He tries to find his way in fits and starts, and comes across three creatures—a lion, a she-wolf, a leopard, who block his way. There’s a mountain of promise in the distance, but he simply can’t get there alone. When he meets Virgil, and his longtime love, Beatrice, he finds himself taking a wild and liberating trip that allows him to learn, to relate, and eventually to see life as a great opportunity.”

Students were asked to keep journals and make personal reflections on the text, which Pagano would often map onto situations in their own lives. She also wove in modern texts, such as “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes and President Obama’s speech after the attacks on Boston. “When we get to the dark wood, I ask them to reflect on questions like: What is your dark wood? Who is your Virgil to walk you through it? Who is your Beatrice, who sees a singular promise in you?” Pagano says. “The literature suddenly becomes something very personal to experience”

The program culminated with the students performing excerpts of their journal entries for about 50 of their fellow inmates, some of the sheriff’s staff, and facilitators from Community Works. One participant shared: “I grew up seeing and hearing about violence, so for me, it was normal. It was normal until I started to lose too much … I never understood why I was violent and why I would violate someone. Through some of the lessons that were taught to me from RSVP and learning about The Inferno, I am able to see where all my hurt and pain comes from. I am able to reflect on the past and understand the impact of my violence. I now hold myself accountable for a lot of things.” At the show’s close, everyone stood in a long ovation.

Although more than half of the original students either dropped out or moved on to federal facilities to serve their sentences, Pagano was impressed with the emotions and insights that came out in the students’ discussions and writings. “It was incredibly moving and humbling,” she says. “I had a facilitator attend about three-quarters of the classes with me. He was really amazed with what these guys have written, and I’m amazed too.”