Orange is the New Maize & Blue

Piper Kerman speaking at Rackham Auditorium

Piper Kerman speaking at Rackham Auditorium / Sean Carter Photography

When Piper Kerman, New York Times bestselling author of Orange is the New Black, gave the biennial Vivian R. Shaw Lecture last week at the University of Michigan, she drew a crowd which filled Rackham Auditorium and required live-stream video and overflow seating. Kerman’s memoir of her experience serving time in a women’s prison was adapted into a wildly popular, award-winning Netflix series by executive producer Jenji Kohan in 2013.

Kerman’s presence throughout the lecture was relaxed, yet pointed and, at times, refreshingly irreverent. She opened the lecture by describing life prior to her 13-month incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, CT. As she chronicled her time behind bars, the themes of her lecture were clear: sisterhood and empathy, gender, power, and racial inequality. Her presentation raised awareness about some damaging stereotypes and stigmas of incarcerated women, as well as challenges that occur upon re-entry to society. Kerman encouraged the audience to use the show as a lens into the greater institutional and systematic oppressions of mass incarceration and how they impact women prisoners – specifically women of color. The Q&A session that followed touched on a variety of topics including popular culture and identity, the importance of arts within prisons, and how to donate books to incarcerated women.

While Kerman currently serves as a consultant for the show, she’s also adamant about supporting nonprofits and other organizations working to advocate for female prisoners, their families, and overall prison reform. Additionally, she teaches creative writing courses to female inmates and serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. She has been called as a witness by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners. She has spoken at the White House on re-entry and employment to help honor Champions of Change in the field. In 2014, Kerman was awarded the Justice Trailblazer Award from John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime & Justice and the Constitutional Commentary Award from The Constitution Project.

In this talk, Kerman offered incredible insight and compassion as she both humanized female prisoners and advocated for thoughtful, intentional, and long-term policy changes.

The 2015 Vivian R. Shaw lecture was co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Women Studies Department, Michigan Law School, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the School of Social Work, the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, the Department of Sociology, and the Screen Arts and Cultures Screenwriting Program.


Community contributor CristiEllen Heos Zarvas is the Meetings and Special Events Assistant for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.

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Romeo is Bleeding, and You Are Sobbing



Romeo is Bleeding

There are very few films that can leave a person full-on ugly-crying in their seat and contemplating gun violence, poverty, creativity, and Shakespeare simultaneously, but Jason Zeldes’ 2015 documentary Romeo is Bleeding manages it.

The film follows Donté Clark, a young poet and emcee from Richmond, California as he struggles to rise above the violence of his hometown and the endless turf war between North and Central Richmond, two cities with bad blood to spare.

The film can claim a whole host of achievements, but above all, it succeeds in truly masterful storytelling. The story of Donté Clark’s journey from aimless youth to poet and activist and the story of the decades-old turf war inherited by the inhabitants of Central Richmond and North Richmond are seamlessly interwoven. The entire film is given perspective and focus by following the timeline of a third story: the efforts of a group of Richmond’s teen poets, including Donté, as they create and perform a production of Romeo and Juliet—with a twist, of course, because if there’s one thing this film doesn’t offer, it’s predictability. The well-known rivalry of the Montagues and Capulets is replaced with the completely different, but eerily parallel, rivalry of North and Central Richmond.

That’s right. Plot twist.

It’s amazing how well these two ideas come together, as the timeless verse of Shakespeare translates so perfectly to the gritty, almost slam-style poetry that the kids of Richmond perform when they take the stage.

And while the film may take place hundreds of miles from Ann Arbor, there’s a lot of local interest, not only through the film’s homegrown director Zeldes, but through one of the documentary’s main characters: Donté’s teacher and mentor, Molly Raynor, an Ann Arbor local who learned her love of writing and passion for poetry at Ann Arbor’s very own Neutral Zone.

The film is currently on the film festival circuit and recently won its 10th award.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and her cry-face is hideous.

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