Wende Ballew’s journey into Georgia’s prisons began in Texas. At 35, she went there to visit her father, who lives behind bars and who she hadn’t seen since she was a toddler. The trip changed her life. Shortly after returning to Atlanta, Ballew felt a calling. She knew she needed to work in prisons and decided to teach a theater class. “I realized the first day that I was where I was always supposed to be,” says Ballew, founder and executive director of Reforming Arts, an organization that offers a liberal arts education to people incarcerated at women’s prisons in Georgia.
Ballew earned her undergraduate degree in theater and has worked as both a freelance theater professional and arts manager. She holds two masters degrees, including a Master of Business Administration, and is currently working on her PhD in qualitative research and evaluation methodologies at the University of Georgia.
Since Ballew founded it in 2009, Reforming Arts has helped hundreds of students, fostering creative critical thinking skills and offering hope where there was little or none before. Students earn certificates for taking classes in subjects such as theater and women’s studies, and they will soon be able to earn actual credits through a partnership with Georgia State. “The core thing that pushes me is that belief that a human cannot be summed up by the worst thing they’ve ever done, and that we all deserve some type of chance,” says Ballew, now 44.
There are practical concerns, too. Some 95 percent of people in state prisons will return to society, she says, and research shows that dehumanizing them while they are incarcerated does not prepare them to return as productive citizens. “Education is transformative,” Ballew says. “It changes the way you view yourself and [the way] you view the world.”