Imagine you are a gatekeeper of opportunity, whether that be a manager of some kind, an administrator who decides which applicants attend your program or school, or simply someone who gives a reference so a contact/friend can get a job. In your discretion lies the power of opportunity, the power to change lives. As I have written about previously, my life was changed from homelessness and failure to community and success when I had the opportunity to attend William & Mary.
Starting this summer, I began working with the local United Way’s Re-entry Program for former offenders. We support these men so that they make the most out of their second chance, their opportunity to reintegrate into society. Those of us with a criminal history have that record held against us in many ways, despite having paid our debt to society with sometimes years or decades of our lives. It’s a barrier to employment, prevents you from voting, creates a stereotype whenever someone finds out you’ve been incarcerated, ends relationships, and creates a divide with your family. It creates a divide between those with a criminal past and those who seek to maintain judgment against us as if they have the right to do so and as if they are a beacon of immorality. I gua-ran-tee that every one of you who holds this judgment has done something wrong before. Maybe something pretty serious; you just didn’t get caught. We all fail, we all make mistakes, we all have regrets.
During my short time at this United Way job, I have met some of the hardest-working, most focused individuals I have ever met. One guy has been working two jobs for months – a construction job in the morning from 8-4 Mon-Fri and a restaurant job 5pm – midnight every night, including weekends. In all my time at William & Mary, I have never witnessed that level of drive in a fellow student. Yet, it is the future degree holders who will become gatekeepers of opportunity and the current gatekeepers who will judge this man when he seeks a wage more than the $9/hour they easily hand to some high school teenager with no work experience. They will do and do this because a piece of paper shows he made a mistake in his past that resulted in a couple years of jail time. They will do this because they think past failures indicate a flaw in character or psyche that has no temporal bounds. They will do this because they don’t understand.
They do not understand. They do not understand how this failure ruined one’s old, current, and future life. They do not understand how someone doesn’t fit their stereotypical mental mold of a criminal who can be nothing more than a derelict and continued failure. They do not understand that past failures can drive future excellence. Failure is what motivated me to work 30 hours/week while enrolled in 20 credit hours semesters at community college so I could complete my two year degree in a year and graduate summa cum laude. Failure drove me to this esteemed educational institution. Failure has strengthened me and will drive me to success in my next venture.
I no longer have a criminal record after the old charges I incurred while on the streets homeless were dropped or annulled. But, I learned this weekend from a law school admissions dean that just having those arrests on my record will negatively affect my aspirations to attend law school next year. One of those arrests was for trespassing and resisting arrest. At the homeless shelter where I was staying in Indiana, they kicked us out during the day for Thanksgiving. It was 20-something degrees and nothing was open, so I went to the university food court (the building is open to the public) where I used to eat as a student. While sitting there drinking a Coca Cola and watching television, a short, white, male police officer came up to me and started asking me questions. When he found out my situation, he instructed me to stand up so he could put handcuffs on me. I asked him what I did a few times. He said I was simply under arrest. I threw my hands up and said, “this is [bull], man.” This reaction resulted in a quick martial arts takedown where he swept my legs out from under me while pulling my arms back behind me, followed by his knee pinning me to the floor while he handcuffed me. I lost my spot in the shelter and spent a few weeks in jail for this “mistake.”
Not all criminal charges are stories like this, but just think for a second: this arrest for trespassing while homeless with nowhere to go while the rest of America is spending Thanksgiving with loved ones could potentially prevent me from attending law school and pursuing a career as a federal attorney where my life will be about preventing injustice and seeking justice on a national level. That’s the only real crime here. To you current and future gatekeepers of opportunity: I beseech you to think of my story and the struggles of the men and women trying to reintegrate into society by working two crap jobs which employers dole out to high school kids without hesitation. Don’t be someone who blindly perpetuates these criminal stereotypes and aids society in keeping an entire population impoverished. Remember that past failure drives future excellence.