In this work you have to believe in the magical and mystical.
by Christopher Zahn, #LwC2021
August 5, 2021
What do you work on and how did you get involved in it?
I primarily work in coordinating two programs in the community. The first is reentry based for anyone with criminal justice involvement. I’m working with people getting out of jail or prison, or on supervision, or sometimes, discharged a long time ago, sometimes even 20 years ago, but it still affects them today. So I work in areas where they need referrals to providers, primary care physicians, employment, whatever is necessary. My goal is for successful reintegration back into the community.
The other program is called Back to Work. I work with 17 community business partners and this gives an opportunity for people to come through the employer, and the employer is not looking at any criminal justice background. We get them in the door and that way the company can see this person work instead of going through the normal human resource channels.
The reason I got involved in this work was because even though I came from a good background I still ended up incarcerated. Even after my incarceration it was so difficult to reintegrate back into the community because I’m a person with a co-occurring disorder, and it’s extremely difficult to navigate that complex system. You need a person that has that knowledge of the community, and I stood on various committees and boards to be a voice at the table so that we can build up those connections and network in the community for all our returning brothers and sisters.
What is the most satisfying thing in your work?
I like to see when people do not become society’s expectations. Because we know the expectation is for people like us to fail. And when a person does not become that and succeeds in life, then that is what makes it worth it. That’s the biggest thing I enjoy.
What do you want to get out of Leading with Conviction?
To become a better advocate, to learn those tools, knowing that we can have a starting point at the local level to change policy and if we can do that, we can take it to the state level and then it could become national policy. Learning that from Doug in those aspects was so important. One of the things I use all the time is VPSA: it’s such an amazing tool and it works so successfully.
I’ve learned so much from the people and the work that’s being done that I’ve actually reached out to ask them how they do that. Having that opportunity to network and learn and grow from one another, to further our cause is very important.
What is your vision for the future?
I can only speak for Wisconsin, but my vision is to close prisons. If people are not returning and there’s less recidivism, there’s no choice. My vision is to help people be successful in their lives and walk with them in that journey to navigate that system, and eventually we’ll have to close those prisons. I want to see a real reinvestment of correctional dollars back into community services. In Wisconsin we spend 1.5 billion dollars a year on corrections.
If you had to invite any three people to a dinner, who would they be?
My mom. She went through so much with me and I would love to invite her to see the man I am today and the work that I do. That would be my first one. Then, my best friend, somebody I was mentoring, passed away recently and I’d love to see him again. I really miss him and I want him to see that I’m the Vice President of his nonprofit, that it is growing after his death and his legacy is continuing. Third, I had the utmost respect for Pope John Paul II and I would love for him to sit at the table because he had such an empathy and compassion for the incarcerated. He was there—he really got the Catholic Church to look at things differently.
Where were you a year ago today?
Like everybody else, confused. Especially in the work I do, I was thinking outside the box. I still had to figure out how to meet my people, and we would meet in Walmart parking lots or cars. I was seeing how the whole world was thrown into adversity and it was like, how do we deal with it?
What is your motto?
So, I love unicorns—there are unicorns all over in my office. My national animal, the national animal of Scotland, is the unicorn. As I tell people, if you think about everything that we do, in this work you have to believe in the magical and mystical, because we move things forward and people get to be a part of the lifeblood of the community again. You have got to believe in the magical and mystical in this work.