In Pursuit of the Common Good

An assistant professor of English at Oxford College, Sarah Higinbotham continues to work with state prisons to provide incarcerated men and women access to higher education.

by Michelle Floyd

Teaching students at a private college and teaching people who are incarcerated in state prisons poses two totally different challenges, but they are what make professor Sara Higinbotham whole. Higinbotham in 2008 helped found Common Good Atlanta, an organization that provides incarcerated men and women access to higher education in prisons around Georgia. Now, she serves as an assistant professor of English at Oxford College of Emory University.

“Teaching bridges the divide that exists between people who go to college and people who go to prison,” said Higinbotham, whose uncle was in and out of prison during her life. “Oxford is geographically isolated and more traditional—it’s a beautiful celebration of what higher education can do. Both [colleges and prisons] are places where there is a lot of innate intellectual curiosity.”

“Teaching bridges the divide that exists between people who go to college and people who go to prison.”

Common Good Atlanta Founder Sarah Higinbotham

Higinbotham, who started the program as a graduate school project, acknowledges that the two populations are “really different” but believes both are home to people with passion for learning and a community spirit through which they are working toward the same goal: to graduate or to be released from prison. 

“They are very different life experiences but focus on the same ideas,” said Higinbotham, who founded the program with the help of graduate school friend Bob Taft. Through Common Good Atlanta, more than 70 volunteer professors teach at four state prisons run by the Georgia Department of Corrections—they include one women’s prison—four days per week. The group has taught thousands of hours of literature, science, mathematics, humanities and writing courses to men and women behind bars, some of whom earn college credit through accredited programs while incarcerated. In addition to Common Good Atlanta, Higinbotham feels programs like the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison are effective in working with those who have been incarcerated to help them continue earning credits once they are free.

“With felony charges, you come out of the prison and there are some challenges,” she said. “We want to lead them to confidently apply to a college or university or to form a community of formal ideas.”

Higinbotham’s daughter, Kathryn, a junior at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, helps her with writing grants, researching and assisting with other projects. Even some of Higinbotham’s former students have decided to volunteer with her organization. A junior at Emory University, Katie Pleiss started working with Higinbotham in 2018 after taking one of her courses at Oxford College when she was a visiting professor. She first visited Phillips State Prison in Buford when she was a freshman at Oxford and was surprised by what she saw there.

“It was an environment where students truly enjoyed learning—something that is rare, even in a college classroom,” said Pleiss, who is majoring in politics, philosophy and law. “My experience with Common Good Atlanta has far exceeded my expectations. I have met amazing professors and faculty who share my passion for criminal justice reform. I have also had the opportunity to meet inspiring scholars within the prison [system] who are intellectually curious and push me to ask profound questions and use a critical eye. I often feel that the scholars I mentor are inspiring me just as much if not more than I am inspiring them.”

Fellow Emory junior Ally Render claims that some of the men she has met in prisons are more driven than some of her fellow classmates. She hopes to one day implement a math program to prepare the incarcerated for college placement exams while also helping with fundraising and grant proposals for Common Good Atlanta. 

“I enjoyed discussing various topics of justice, philosophy and mathematics with them,” said Render, who is majoring in quantitative science and statistics. “I believe the negative stigmas surrounding prisons and the lack of resources available for these individuals motivated me to get involved. It’s very rewarding to help others who are disadvantaged.” 

For more information or to learn how you can support Common Good Atlanta, visit commomgoodatlanta.com.

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