Thinking back on her first semester-long class at San Quentin, which she titled Art in Response to Gang Violence, Kiefer recalled, "A lot of these guys needed this creative outlet, or channel, and I needed to find a community."
Her attachment to the place was so profound that she returned to San Quentin in 2005, a year after her fellowship had ended, to teach one night per week while running down an MFA at San Francisco State University all while holding a full-time position at Saint Vincent's in Marin, where, she said, she learned how to handle emotional turbulence in young people after being threatened, groped, and cussed at, seeing desks and chairs fly, and watching a BBQ grill crash to the ground from a second-story window. Trying times at St. Vincent's taught her how to be available at an authoritative distance.
Kiefer took the Roots job at Balboa High School just last year, the final one of her MFA program at SF State. Some attribute her teaching skill to her lifelong study of the written word, as students do make the best teachers. However, while acknowledging her diligence, she noted that fate, more than any other factor, has landed her right where she needs to be. Ask her if educating kids who've been affected by incarceration is something of a calling, and without hesitation she'll tell you, "Totally."
"Prison education has been proven to prevent recidivism, and it injects humanity into the reality of being incarcerated.... Our society has it so wrong: we're doing nothing to rehabilitate," Kiefer said with obvious sincerity. Her urgency is born of six years' hands-on experience, and it still has her visiting prisoners and their families on her own time and acting as an advocate.
Notwithstanding her clarity of vision, though, she says she can be very wrong now and again. For example, I asked if she'd ever failed at anything. "I have a terrible sense of direction," she said. Well, Ms. Kiefer, I beg to differ. Your inner compass seems perfectly calibrated.