I just had an amazing week of unforgettable opportunities. First, I was invited to speak at the quarterly meeting of Maricopa County Adult Probation Managers and Supervisors. When they invited me, I learned I was the first ex-prisoner to ever speak to this group and there would be about 110 managers in the audience. I must admit my stomach churned a bit. Why would they ever want to hear my story? I was assured they did want to hear it and cautiously I accepted.
I approached the Court House meeting place with trepidation. It’s hot enough in July, but I felt even hotter, until I entered the room. They immediately did their best to welcome me and help me to feel at ease. As I told my story, they laughed in the right places and I even saw some tears. In prison, inmates tell horror stores about their P.O.’s (Probation Officers), but P.O.’s can tell horror stories too. Everyone has a point of view.
What I learned at their meeting was the incredible new efforts they are making to improve reentry and help every willing ex-prisoner to build a successful life. That’s why they listened to me. They are open now to hearing about the challenges we faced in prison and the difficulties we face on a daily basis to reintegrate. There are so many places we cannot live or work. There are an overwhelming number of licenses we cannot qualify for. In Arizona, you cannot be a mortician if you have a felony, even one DUI. Not sure what one has to do with the other. How do you rebuild your life if you are denied a job and a roof over your head? There are so many Americans unemployed (without the stigma of a felony) and the rejection wears at everyone. Sometimes, facing homelessness and unemployment, the ex-felon feels there is nowhere to go but back to their old life. The Probation Department is aware of each challenge and now they have been directed to listen and do their best to help. I wish every ex-prisoner could have experienced what I did last week. It gave me hope.
My second opportunity also addressed reentry. GINA’s Team was part of the first Reentry Forum held at South Mountain Community College this week. It’s the first ever, organized by a significant list of public safety officials who truly care about this ussue. The list includes the US Attorney’s Office, the AZ Department of Corrections, the Department of Adult Probation, the Phoenix Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as faith-based groups and service providers. Senator Leah Landrum Taylor was there both as a member of the government and a member of the community. They were all at South Mountain to meet the public and hear their stories. Nearly 200 people showed up to see what this was about. Some were looking for help for their newly released loved ones. Some were looking for help to prevent more crimes. It is a very complicated issue.
I was particularly inspired by Shawn Pearson of Open Table. She lives in the community and her home was recently robbed. She said she had a choice. She could see the situation as hopeless or she could work even harder to help those who are driven to commit the crimes. She decided to work even harder. Shawn Pearson walks her talk and is an amazing role model for all of us.
The most exciting part of the evening was seeing the community come together in the realization that they can make a difference. They have the power to help both their community and the ex-prisoners coming back. This forum is the first of many in other communities. We already have a date for the next one, on November 4th, again at South Mountain Community College. The conversation will continue.
No matter what the issue, we have the power to come together and make a difference. There’s a lot of talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but no one succeeds alone. Successful people understand the power of networking and building a strong base of support. Communities can do the same. Instead of staying shut in your living room isolated from your neighbors, come out and join a coalition to build a strong base and help your neighbors. That is the only way we will succeed.
This is really about my motto: Been there. Done that. Now how can I help? Are you an ex-prisoner who has succeeded in your reentry? You are the perfect person to mentor someone just released. Are you a family that has dealt with the challenges of reentry? You looked forward to having your loved ones home; now why can’t they get jobs? You’re the perfect person to offer advice or resources to a new family faced with that challenge. Are you the victim of a crime? You can help other victims. Perhaps together you can help those men and women seeking to rebuild their lives by volunteering at a shelter or teaching reading.
Everyone of you has a story. That story is an open opportunity to help others, an opportunity to turn pain into power, frustration into triumph. What’s your story? How can you help?