You’re Born with Either a Fight or Flight Response, And Luckily I was Born with the Fight Response. I’ve Been Fighting Since I was a Child.

November 19, 2018

I am the Founder and Executive Director of Reentry Campus, a program to give people coming out of prison opportunities to access post-secondary education. I know from my own experience that there is a huge disconnect between the educational programming that happens behind the walls and what happens once you are outside. When I was in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, I accumulated 90 college credits, but when I was transferred up to Rhode Island, they didn’t want to accept my credits. I realized something needed to be done to make higher education more accessible and more affordable for currently and formerly incarcerated people.

The way Reentry Campus works is we prepare students for DSST and CLEP exams. They take a series of courses that we have built around these exams so they can earn transferrable college credits quickly and for free, saving thousands of dollars.  When people are released from prison they have different issues going into an educational environment than a 17-year-old does, so we provide them with support services so they can focus and concentrate on their studies. If they need housing, we help them find housing. If they need substance abuse counseling, we help them with that. Once a student gets through these introductory courses with us we register them with our partner institution, Roger Williams University, my alma mater, where 90 percent of them will be eligible for Pell Grants and Financial Aid. We’ve had about 50 students come through our program in our first year and attracting people hasn’t been a problem. In fact it’s been hard keeping up with demand.

I dropped out of school in the eighth grade and spent most of my adult life in and out of the penal system. During my last stretch, I decided enough was enough. I was working in the prison’s employment resource lab and the more I read the more I realized that without a post-secondary education you couldn’t get far in the new economy. I read an article that was pivotal for me about a man who was locked up in Rhode Island and went to Brown University when he was released and then got his law degree from Yale Law School. I couldn’t believe someone could get out of prison and go to Brown. That motivated me to get my GED and I got my Associate’s Degree in Psychology, with Honors, while I was still inside. When I got out, I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Community Development at Roger Williams University.

Education = more money = more freedom–not necessarily physical freedom but the freedom of choice that education brings. I have freedom now and I have multiple choices and it’s only right for me to want that for others. There was a guy who helped me get back into school when I was struggling. I asked, “Barry, what do I owe you, man?” He said, “You don’t owe me anything. Just make sure you do it for somebody else.” That is what Reentry Campus is all about.

The best thing I got from Leading with Conviction is I’m never alone. There’s always someone I can reach out to across the country.  I’m in Rhode Island where the population of people like me is small. So to go to New York and be around a lot of individuals who are like me and to have the support around the work I do is everything.

James Monteiro is the recipient of NAACP’s Joseph Lecount Award and is an Echoing Green Fellow. He was named was named as one of Rhode Island’s “15 to Watch” for his work in youth programs that address violence in the city and prepare the next generation of Providence leaders.

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