Mass incarceration is just the fourth generation of slavery, and collateral sanctions are just Jim Crow all over again.

July 2, 2019

I am the Director for the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry. About thirteen years ago the City of Cleveland launched a reentry initiative and, working together with a group of stakeholders, it put forward a series of recommendations.  One of them was to create a government office at the county level, and two years ago I became the third person to hold the position of Director.  I take a systems approach to my work.  I see Reentry in the context of a human capital that is directly impacted by all systems, not just the criminal justice system. The harmful effects discriminatory practices have on returnees affects every other system, from housing to child welfare to education.    So my goal is to create a community-based collective impact movement with a multi-disciplinary team focused on eliminating all barriers for justice-involved individuals and families throughout multiple systems.  Through this systems lens, we are looking at both micro and macro practices. An example of that would be economic development rather than just workforce programming as has been done in the past.

The work is going well, and we are celebrating some real successes.  I was able to bring on strong, nontraditional partners to chair our subcommittees.  The Director of the Economic Community Development Institute, a small business lending organization, has agreed to chair our economic development subcommittee along with an administrator of Ohio Means Jobs, a government agency.  And the Reentry Director for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has also agreed to chair a subcommittee.  We were just awarded a $1 million federal grant to pilot some system-wide strategies, including a new reentry legal clinic that will be run in partnership with Case Western Reserve University’s Law School.  We are continuing to observe Cuyahoga County Reentry Awareness Week, declared by President Obama in April 2016 at a national level, and we’re finalizing plans for this year’s week of events.

I have been in public service in various capacities for 16 years, as both a social worker, program officer and an attorney, and I have always been passionate about fighting for social justice and against racial inequities.  I come from East Cleveland which is about 95 percent African American and where the median income is under $20,000 a year. I have a friend who’s doing 16 years in a federal penitentiary, and my son’s father is a formerly incarcerated person.  I had the wrenching experience of taking my then two-year-old son to visit his father in prison and watching him have to go through metal detectors.  The school-to-prison pipeline is not an abstraction to me; it’s personal and very emotional.  For me, mass incarceration is just the fourth generation of slavery, and collateral sanctions are just Jim Crow all over again.  As a public servant working with the community I intend to continue the legacy of government in exploring and making the right changes at the right time.

Leading with Conviction is amazing.  I have had training opportunities before and usually I’m thinking, “I could train you; why are you wasting my time.”  But David Mensah is phenomenal.   He has taught me about taking responsibility in ways I’ve never thought of.  We may think we’re taking responsibility, but to really own it we need to look at things as opportunities, not challenges, and lean into them.  It’s not easy to change any behavior, but it is so worth it, and I just can’t say enough positive things about Leading with Conviction.

Crystal Bryant holds licenses in law and social work.  She serves as Advisory Board Member for the Cleveland Young Professional Senate, Community Engagement Chair and Recorder for the Norman S. Minor Bar Association, Board member for the Greater Cleveland Drug Court, Volunteer for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and Co-Founder of Cleveland VOTES.

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