Faculty Spotlight: Bret Gustafson

Bret Gustafson is an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He studies politics in Latin America and has lately been focused on the politics of climate change and fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas). He also studies social movements and problems tied to racism and inequality, and the ways people organize to try to transform the situation in which they are living. Professor Gustafson has done work in the St. Louis region looking at climate issues and the problems of coal-powered electricity. At WashU, he teaches courses on climate and fossil fuels and Latin American anthropology.

Professor Gustafson first heard about the Prison Education Project (PEP) from Maggie Garb and Danny Kohl, the co-founders of PEP, several years before the program actually existed when they both reached out to him and asked him for his support. Professor Gustafson recalls that “it’s really thanks to Maggie,” as she extended an invitation to teach with the program.

Professor Gustafson taught a class called “Global Energy & the American Dream” at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Spring 2017. The course is about the problem of climate change, otherwise known as global warming, and the main cause of climate change – the burning of fossil fuels. It explores the different ways we are using oil, coal, and gas in transportation and electrical systems, and examines the ways our daily lives are a problem when it comes to climate change by connecting them to global, political, and economic manifestations of the fossil fuel industry. The course also focuses on ecopolitical issues, including the connections between oil and war in the Middle East and closer to home, the problems of coal and public health issues in the United States. Professor Gustafson notes that “St. Louis is great example – we have very dirty air, partly because of coal burning and regional transportation infrastructure.” Ultimately, the course looks at the ways that the extraction of coal and gas have environmental impacts as well as social impacts. On the Danforth Campus, the course is very popular and often enrolls up to 200 students. Because Professor Gustafson was teaching this course on the Danforth and MECC Campuses simultaneously, he was able to enlist undergraduate students on the Danforth Campus to help compile resources for students at MECC to use to complete their research projects. He oftentimes shared insights from one class in the other in an effort to introduce and incorporate perspectives from both sides of the conversation, which he found added to the richness of both classes. At the end of the semester, he was able to take a group of students from his Danforth Campus class to meet with his students at MECC and exchange ideas in person.

Professor Gustafson recalls an interesting moment when his class at MECC was discussing whether or not the Danforth Campus student visit would be about them taking or extracting something from the students at MECC, since one of the students in his class had said, “They will get a lot more out of it than we will.”  Another student in the class responded, “We need people out there to see us not just as prisoners. They might look back and say, ‘There are minds in there.’ We need them to try to change how things are for the next generation of prisoners.” According to Professor Gustafson, “this really hammered home for me the multiplying power of prison education in transforming the way people think both on the inside and outside.”

The students are hungry for learning. They recognize that they haven’t had the same opportunities that students on campus have had. They engage with life experiences that are very different from on-campus students, partly because they’re often older and partly because they have very different life experiences. This makes for an energetic classroom and interesting connections that one doesn’t make when you’re teaching on campus. The students aren’t taking it for granted and appreciate that we treat them like people.

Professor Gustafson also taught a class on Latin American development in Spring 2018, which was an upper-level seminar that involved heavy reading on different dimensions of development politics in Latin America. The course focused on problems of mining in Peru, deforestation in Brazil, and the politics of Bolivia. It also involved research projects and culminated in an end-of-semester seminar that allowed the Danforth and MECC Campus classes to meet and discuss the last set of readings together.

Professor Gustafson notes that one of the books his students read for this class was The Right to Maim by Jasbir K. Puar. The book is about disability theory and the ways some systems of government target people for ‘disabling.’ Professor Gustafson points out that the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of this: “Lack of a structure for battling COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting people of color, essential workers, and disadvantaged communities. It is almost as if our society is treating certain groups of people as disposable, or able to be harmed/disabled.” The book argues that the way that society is structured means that some people are ‘pre-disabled.’ Professor Gustafson notes that many students in his MECC class understood this concept in a way that Danforth Campus students were not able to connect with: “They basically said, ‘This is us,'” which is a connection that brought home for students on campus the reality of ideas that may seem removed from their own lived experience.

When asked about the importance of PEP and other higher education in prison programs, Professor Gustafson reemphasized the relationship between Danforth Campus and MECC Campus students. He describes the program as a “force for good in a world that is characterized by a lot of harm” and “the best thing the university does.”

“Plain and simple, it’s a good thing.”

The program is “great for the university and great for the WashU students who are able to get involved with it.”  Professor Gustafson notes that “WashU grads and undergrads want to be involved with it, and not in a volunteerism or resume-padding way – there is a deep commitment to prison education because of way it interconnects with Black lives matter, social inequality, and the problem of the university existing in island of privilege. Students want to be involved with it, and involved with it for the right reasons, and the university should recognize this and deepen its support.” Professor Gustafson said it would be “ideal if the university could put development resources behind generating a fund for students who continue their studies after release or scholarship assistance to continue their education at UCollege. The university should not only maintain support for the program, but should look to expanding opportunities after release.”

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