I see my path from prison to college and then to academia as a series of ordinary events that led to an extraordinary outcome.

November 8, 2019

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.  As the founder and principal investigator for the Post-Prison Education Research Lab (PERL), I’m researching and studying the internal and external barriers that people face as they transition from prison to college. The institutional, or external, barriers like the question about arrests and convictions on college applications or the exclusively online applications that are inaccessible to people in prison are obvious.   Less understood are the internal barriers that prevent justice-involved people from ever considering higher education as a possible path.  In my research I’m learning that people internalize many of the stereotypes associated with their identity as a “criminal” or “convict” and can’t see their own potential for growth and change.  My next step is turning my research into action by developing a program that I’m calling a “post-prison-to-college pipeline.”  In June we’re holding a summit meeting of people around the country who are involved in post-prison education work to discuss how we can better support people who are in transition.

I grew up in poverty in rural Illinois.  No one I knew had gone to college and my high school principal told me I was too smart for my own good.  That was after I had accidentally hacked into the school’s computer system while working on an assignment.  It wasn’t until I came out of prison that one of my uncles suggested I go to college, and I was like, “sure, I’ll try that out.” Then one of my college professors asked me if I’d was going to graduate school, and I thought, “I guess I should think about that.”  I like to talk about prison often being the culmination of a set of ordinary events that leads to an extraordinary outcome. Similarly, I see my path from prison to college and then to academia as a series of ordinary events that led to an extraordinary outcome. I just continually sought out ordinary opportunities, was fortunate to have those opportunities, stepped into and made the most of them, and then somehow found my calling along the way.

Five years ago I co-founded a Facebook group, the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network.  With the help of nine other co-founders, it has grown to a formal nonprofit organization with over 1000 members across 43 states.   Our mission is to promote the education and empowerment of formerly incarcerated people through a collective community.  Again, this was accomplished through persistent, ordinary events.  The Network does three things.  First, it builds the social capital or collective capacity of formerly incarcerated college graduates by helping network people together. Second, it challenges the social narrative about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people so that we can have a different perception of what is possible in our own lives and so that the public at large can see who we really are.  Third, we work on policy changes related to education and career-building.  I believe we have the potential to build a truly extraordinary community.

Leading with Conviction has been a great experience.  I’ve learned a lot about my own leadership responsibilities and about the importance of cultivating leadership in other people.  I have always valued collective leadership but I hadn’t realized some of the ways I was discouraging it.  LwC is helping me work on that.

Chris Beasley has a Ph.D in Community Psychology from DePaul University, an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Roosevelt University, and is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters.

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