I Believe in Approaching Things from a Place of Possibility. If We Lose Hope, Then We Have Nothing.

August 9, 2018

“I am a Field Building Project Manager at Heartland Alliance, a national anti-poverty organization based in Chicago.”

In this role, I conduct trainings, support amazing programs, and lead policy change. Currently, I play a leadership role in the Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois (RROCI), working with people with records and advocating for the expansion of their opportunities and for broader criminal justice reform in Illinois.  One of our priorities is opening up higher education to people with criminal histories.  This issue is very personal for me.  The last time I got out of prison, after serving two stints starting when I was only 17, I went back to school and earned an Associate’s Degree, followed by a Bachelor’s, and then a Master’s Degree in Sociology.  Today, I’m a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Loyola University, where I also teach part-time.  So I know the value of higher education, first hand.

RROCI is working to pass a bill that would prohibit public universities from considering criminal histories during the admissions process.  We know that statistically speaking, the serious crimes committed on college campuses throughout the country are overwhelmingly committed by people who don’t have a criminal record.   But we are still facing opposition from some folks within the law enforcement community and some college administrators.  My hope is that by educating those who oppose through impactful dialogue, sound research and lived experience, we can change hearts and minds and get this bill passed.

One of the things we want the bill to include is the right to counseling for students with records regarding their field of choice. At Heartland Alliance, we believe that everyone has the right to work, but these students need to be aware of the fact that there are barriers that exist in certain fields and professions, so giving them advice about which studies to pursue and setting them up for success are crucial.  We hope to move this bill soon, because too many qualified individuals are self-selecting out of the admissions process as soon as they see the question about a criminal conviction on the application.

I also teach courses in Race and Ethnicity, Social Deviance, and Gangs in Society at Loyola University.  One of my number one goals as an educator is to raise awareness among my students (I always ask my students if they know who their elected leaders are) and to challenge to take that awareness and become active in creating change. At times, I see a sense of hopelessness in the face of the current political climate, but I truly believe that my job is to give them hope because I believe in approaching things from a place of possibility.  If we lose hope then we have nothing.

I’m seeing an evolution in my students’ consciousness, and I’m very encouraged by the notes and letters I receive from former students about what they’re doing in the world today.  I got a letter from a student who, after taking my class, went to the Philippines and is doing work in communities over there.  I have another student who decided to change his whole career path and become a lawyer in order to help people with criminal records.  In every academic year I end up having several students who demonstrate to me that they have truly turned their awareness into activism because they go out and get involved. They keep me hopeful.

JustLeadershipUSA keeps me hopeful as well. One of the most enlightening things about Leading with Conviction is being in a room full of doctors, professors, executive directors and leaders.  They all have incredible stories of pain, triumph and leadership. And I’m bringing some of these leadership practices I’m learning back to my colleagues at Heartland Alliance and helping to making connections with other JLUSA leaders whose work overlaps with ours.  It’s great to see the synergy we’re creating!

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