Edwin Fuller on the JustUs Speaks Podcast

March 16, 2023

He found dignity inside of prison through reading books about others in even more dire circumstances. Today he is helping other justice-impacted individuals in Ohio find dignity and hope. Edwin Fuller joins the #JustUs Speaks Podcast!



Read the full transcript:

Lester Young: Peace and blessings everyone. Welcome to the new JustUs Speaks Podcast from Just Leadership. I’m your co-host Lester Young.

Hakim Crampton: And I’m your co-host Hakim Crampton. JustUs Speaks is being produced to amplify the voices of directly impacted people, particularly the voices of formerly incarcerated people.

Lester Young: Just Leadership was founded on the principle that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, but too often further away from the power and the resources to affect positive change.

Hakim Crampton: So, on this first season of The JustUs Speaks Podcast, where we’re interviewing leaders from the most recent 2022 cohort of Just Leadership USA’s Leading With Conviction leadership training program.

Lester Young: Today, we’re talking with Edwin Fuller. Edwin organized around criminal justice reform issues in Ohio, Miami Valley region. Raised in San Diego, he has made Dayton, Ohio his home since 1998.

Hakim Crampton: Currently Edwin is involved in contesting the building of a new jail from Montgomery County, developing a juvenile oriented pre-arrest version model for the county, and growing and organizing [a] vehicle focused on the inclusion of formerly incarcerated people in partnership with faith-based organizations.

Lester Young: Edwin started organizing in 2016 focusing on faith communities. He is a US Marine Corps veteran, holds a bachelor’s degree in history from San Diego State University, he currently serves on the board of faith in action Unitarian Universalist Justice, Ohio and leaders for equality and action in Dayton.

Hakim Crampton: Edwin also runs marathons and lives in a home filled with the mischievous pitter patter of his dogs Jasper and Max. Edwin welcome to the JustUs Speaks Podcast.

Edwin Fuller: Thank you so much for having me.

Lester Young: Edwin, tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive into some of the questions that we have. We had an opportunity to let the listeners hear your bio, but what is it that we didn’t mention in that bio that you want our listeners to hear about you?

Edwin Fuller: I think probably the most significant thing about me is I always like learning new things and growing and life experience. As a formerly incarcerated person, it’s definitely about growing, definitely about learning and reaching new limits and growing and challenging yourself in every way you mentioned. I run marathons, definitely that was a challenge and growth area for me physically, but also it encourages me to try and grow and become even more than I can mentally and spiritually as well.

Hakim Crampton: Wonderful, so you know that opens up a great conversation about your most recent graduation from Leading With Conviction’s 2022 cohort. Congratulations, once again, congrats. Tell us about that learning experience for you, about being a member of that cohort: What are some of your favorite parts of that? What are some of the things that you glean from that, that you’re going to take into your future?

Edwin Fuller: Leading With Conviction was absolutely one of the best experiences that I’ve had in recent memory. I think probably the biggest takeaway for me was the community that was developed with others like me, my people, who have been through a significant change in their life, and there are so many out there for whom incarceration is the beginning of the trip down the well to things that don’t go well. They never recover from it. It’s so encouraging and positive to be around others who have said, “You know what? This is not going to destroy me. It’s not going to end my life. And no matter what anybody else thinks, I am going to change. I am going to grow from this.” And not just me personally, but I want to bring that to others. and  in the cohort, just the opportunities for being able to network and have conversation with others who have overcome, in many cases, I think, wow I have never grown out of that one, and yet they have become excellent in every way out of that challenge. It inspires me to want to do that as well.

Lester Young: You know Edwin, Hakim, I was listening earlier, and this just came up as I was listening to you, Edwin, speak about how important [it was] when you graduated from the Leading With Conviction, of being a part of Leading With Conviction and how community meant so much, and how like this Leading With Conviction really highlights, how leaders have truly been able to grow from the concrete. As Tupac Shakur mentioned the rose that grew out of the concrete. And I was listening to something that Mike Tyson mentioned. He says that for the entire three years of his incarceration he found the most peace inside of the prison. He said before he went to jail he was making over 30 million dollars for a fight, but he said in an interview, the person who was interviewing him asked, “Hey Mike, how was that possible for you to be making 30 million dollars, but for the three years of your incarceration, [it] was the best time for you?” When I think about my time of incarceration, to listen to all of the leaders talk, it was like we really found our voice inside of that prison. So, my question for you is, what was that model for you while you were serving that sentence in prison? What was the model of life that gave you a sense of peace, gave you that resilience to keep pushing through, when it looked like you wasn’t going to make it, but you kept telling yourself you was? What was that thing for you?

Edwin Fuller: That is a really piercing question. I’ll never forget when I first got locked up and I looked at the time ahead of me, and I said there’s no way I’m gonna make it through this. And honestly, yeah the first couple of years, there was a lot of struggling with depression, struggling with loss of hope, and struggling with not even being sure where to go. But I think it’s interesting you mentioned the example there from Mike Tyson. In that time in there, it forced me to do something, and also gave me the liberty and the freedom to do something that in the outside world I was always too busy to do, and that is to come face to face with me. It was it was that time, where if I was going to survive this–physically, mentally, spiritually–I was gonna have to get honest with Edwin, and I was going to have to spend time with Edwin, understanding what got him in there, and what it was going to take to get him out of there, and how is he going to fix what has gone wrong? And not just fix, but how am I going to thrive once I come back out? So, that was the biggest takeaway for me in that time is that it allowed me the freedom, and I think too often on the outside we have too many distractions. We have too many excuses. We have too many other things that keep us from coming face to face with ourselves, and that’s not fun in a lot of instances. It’s not fun having to tell yourself the truths that you don’t want to hear, often, and have other people speak truth to you as well, but that’s what we grow from. I know for me that’s what made me grow, made me actually get honest enough to where I wanted to have hope again. Because at one point, I didn’t even want to have hope. But once I turned that corner, then it was, honestly, it was the beginning of a long road of hard work, and that hard work did not stop when I passed through those gates and came back, that hard work continues. Having to be conscious of that and what is it going to take for me to continue to thrive and to be able to speak truth to others who are either in that situation, or they may be on the road to that situation. That is the biggest takeaway for me out of that experience.

Hakim Crampton: That’s powerful. So, you know that really opens up a good question as it relates to that lived experience, because you come out of that lived experience that you just described as a butterfly of having been a caterpillar in a cocoon. So, do you have a motto of life after all that experience right there? And is there a relationship between that motto of life that you have for yourself and the meaning of leadership? And if there’s a connection, share that with us.

Edwin Fuller: You know I looked when I was coming out and coming back into the real world, and looking at what I was going to look at as a model for my life, personally, what I was going to look at as a model for how I interact with others. And I look at–there are many great faith leaders– no matter what system of faith you subscribe to. There there are commonalities between leaders, powerful leaders. And that is that they walk with others, and they are willing to be walked with. Walking is slow. Walking can be scary. Walking can be tiring, but I know for me that that is what the model, and my motto changes probably every week. I find some new way of… I look for some new way of taking things and breaking them down to something that’s easy that I can say to myself every day, in addition to “keep on keeping on.” Today is a new opportunity to “keep on keeping on,” Doing the next right thing continues to ring in my mind. But the motto and model that I work with is walking with others. I think when we look at the great faith leaders, whether we’re looking at Jesus, whether we’re looking at Muhammad, or we’re looking at anybody else, that they actually spent time with others not trying to lead, but I like to put it this way–what I need is not someone ahead of me, not someone behind me, but what I need is a witness to my life that validates me and that validates my experience.

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Lester Young: I love that and reading your bio and having an opportunity to talk to you in the Leading With Conviction cohort, it comes off like I love to hear that power of faith that resides in you as a person. Faith played a role in shaping you into the leader that you are today. The reference you made to many of the great men who preceded us and how that plays an important role for us to try to model and have an opportunity to look at. So, we know the power of vision. We know that as a leader, we have to have a vision. My question for you is, what is your vision for your life in the next five to ten years as a man who’s doing this work around challenging this system called mass incarceration?

Edwin Fuller: Five years. Some days, I have a hard time getting five weeks down the road. But some of the work I’m involved in here in Ohio, one of the organizations [is] Building Freedom Ohio, which is an organizing vehicle that is built entirely around those who are formerly incarcerated. We prefer to put those who are justice-impacted–because it’s not just those of us who go behind the walls, but families as well–but it is my vision for the impact that I want to have, is to walk with these men and women. To walk with them and first of all, helping them to have the same, hopefully reaching the same epiphany that I did, that because I served time that is not the end of my life. That is not the end of value in who I am and what I can contribute to my family and to my community. But that by working together, that we in community, by investing in our leadership, by investing in our experiences, not being the showpiece for other advocates, bless than work that they do, but investing in ourselves. That in five years we can actually have a power role in governing the state. When you look at–and I’m just talking about the state of Ohio–the number of formerly incarcerated, if we add up all those folks, that’s enough to move something. That’s enough to actually make changes in the conversation and the narrative. In five years my vision for me is I want to be a critical player in shaping that narrative and empowering those who want to be in that conversation to learn how to get there. Often we want to have that vision, I want to be there in five years, okay well, what’s the bridge that gets me there? I want to be the bridge maker.

Hakim Crampton: Powerful. So in order to get to that bridge Edwin, your bio clearly shows the footprints that you’ve made. So why don’t you to tell us a little bit about your journey in particular, how you got involved specifically with the work you’re in? Where you’re at this position now to where that five-year vision can be realized because of the ultimate work that you did?

Edwin Fuller: One of the things when I came home, I think I went through that perhaps that many of us do. When we come back, and we’re trying to figure out, how do I just get my feet on the ground and get a roof over my head, and figure out how to take care of my responsibilities? In my journey, my family was not here in Ohio. I was blessed, and I really literally mean blessed by friends and those who believed in me when quite often I did not believe in myself. You ever go to, whether it’s a new church or an organization, and somebody befriends you and you’re going like, “Okay, well why do you want to be friends with me? What’s the agenda here? If they only knew… those types of things. But, I was blessed, and as I started to build friendships, I’ll never forget one day when I was having lunch with a friend of mine. I was going on a rant about something that I was upset about in regards to coming home because I wasn’t able to put my finger on what it was that was bothering me and that I was angry about. And he said, “You know what?” He said, “I want to ask you two questions.” He said, “First of all, first question is, have you ever thought about talking to somebody? So, I’m not saying you’re crazy, but you would really benefit from talking to somebody to help you share and work through those things.” He said, “The second thing is, have you ever thought about becoming an organizer?” And I said, “Well, what’s an organizer?” And so that began a conversation about what exactly formal organizing is all about. He said, “You’re doing a lot of it, and you definitely have the passion and the interest in it, but if you are open to that, let’s have a conversation about it.” So that conversation literally began my entry into the world of organizing, but even more so, I think it unlocked a door inside of me that took me two or three years honestly of therapy to really put my finger on what it was that was bothering me. I was trying to recapture something. Wasn’t trying to recapture the job, I wasn’t really trying to capture the family, because we all know that when we come home, we cannot just pick up things and go back to business as usual and pick up the old lives. We have to build a new one. In building my new life, I said there was something I was reaching for. I finally came to the conclusion that I was reaching for dignity. I want my dignity back. I want that dignity to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and see myself as a man, see myself as an agent who has the ability to shape my life and my future and those around me that I love and care about, [I want to be someone] who has the ability to do that.

So, as I stepped into the world of organizing, that was what really… that’s the burning in the belly, that coal, that ember that keeps me going and points the direction. I want dignity back for my life, and I want others to have that as well. I think each one of us coming back yearns for that. Not only as I keep saying those of us who have been actually incarcerated, but our families and loved ones who bear that burden with us, they want their dignity back. They want their agency back, the ability to shape their lives and then move forward. So as I’ve had the the blessing to be affiliated with a lot of individuals, formerly incarcerated and allies who want to be part of that fight, it has given me a vision that it can happen, and happen if we can put our fingers on the dignity of our own lives, and be hungry enough to go after it together.

Lester Young: I love what you meant, [that] you lifted up about having dignity. Something that a lot of people, our families included, don’t understand how dehumanizing prison is, and how it strips you of that dignity. I share with people how prison also makes you feel invisible. You live in this invisible world inside of prison because you know all prisons are so far out of the sight of the community. And you live in this place where you almost start to feel like you’re actually invisible, especially for families who don’t go and see you, the officers don’t see you as a human being. When you’re constantly being strip-searched, it strips you of that dignity, and when you walk out of prison, we fight with that. We really fight with trying to hold on to and redefine our dignity as men and as women. That’s a part of the re-entry conversation we don’t have enough of and how we restore our dignity after living in an environment that is intentionally stripping us of that dignity. So, in that whole process, we know that self-care is important. Getting out of prison, self-care is so important, and you lift up the conversation about counseling and a therapist. What are some of the things outside of the marathons that you do that you take care of Edwin? To make sure that you continue to control your agency when it’s related to your dignity, your respect as you’re moving forward in this world?

Edwin Fuller: That’s an excellent question, and I’ve had to come to learn through constant reminders about the importance of self-care. My father’s a physician. I come from a family of physicians and high energy achievers and professionals. And my major? I’m a workaholic. The work is always on my mind, and that’s what I focus on. The reason I fell into marathons was because I needed it. As a matter of fact, when I was locked up, I started running because I’d always hated it beforehand, but that started to get me into a zone where I could actually do my mental housekeeping and thinking, and it was tuning my mind and my body together. And in partnership with spiritual work, I think that gave me a good basis for trying and for moving forward.

I think the most important thing for me when we talk about the conversation of self-care, for me it’s being intentional to be outside of myself. To read as much as possible, to seek out others’ lived experience through conversation. I love movies, I’m definitely a fan of those. But self-care, to me, is always about how do I actually step out of myself, take care of myself, and yet see what is going on outside, what’s constantly running around in here. I definitely think there’s always room for it for spiritual nurturing of whatever faith you are, but there needs to be something bigger and more than “I” and my problems that calls me for the…actually, to quote a character, “It makes me want to be a better man.” Whether it’s for my family, for my loved ones, my friends, just for my community, I want to be better. Not only because of the burden that my past actions brought to them, but because I believe that is what I am called to be, is to be the best that I can. So like I said, I try to reach out. I definitely cannot over emphasize the need for talking with people who you should be talking with, and sometimes we have to get out of those toxic situations and relationships, but I believe in therapy. I think when I was including my time with my therapist, and she was actually kicking me out of the nest, and I said, “Really? Are you saying I’m cured now?” And she says, “Edwin, we don’t use that word now. We don’t use that concept.” I said “Well, okay so I’m good to go now?” And she said, “Let’s put it this way, all I did was give you the safe space to do the work that you needed to do.” And she said, “You kind of cleaned up your own mess.” So, she encouraged me to continue doing that and always be willing to step back into that type of a situation if I need to, and not be afraid to. It doesn’t make me less of anything, to get advice, to get perspective, to have somebody. She would often tell me about myself, and be able to move on from there. I think self-care is so important, and it is so much a product of looking outside of myself and being appreciative, of not only what others are living through and going through, but how I can help to lift them up to be better individuals.

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Hakim Crampton: Thank you, so it’s been a great interview with you Edwin, we really appreciate you taking this time with us. One of the things we’ve been asking a lot of the leaders is about, what one inspirational book did you read while you were incarcerated that you would like to really share with our viewers so that they could perhaps be inspired as well?

Edwin Fuller: I read so many books when I was locked up, but I tell you some of it…an author who really moved me, and there are not many authors who [make me] need to have a box of Kleenex handy, because I do get emotional in my reading, but Khaled Hosseini, who wrote, The Kite Runner and The Mountains Echoed, and I forgot what his third book is called. What I find moving about his work and what inspired me is that he writes about events that are a lot about women and their lives in Afghanistan and in parts the world where the things– even being locked up, that I had more and safer than many of those individuals grew up with, and yet how they rose out of their situation, that what they valued in their lives and their relationships. That really inspired me to really think about, as I like to say, “first world problems” and have perspective, you know? First world problems are like, my cable isn’t working or I can’t get my Wi-Fi and there are many others who are literally living in circumstances where there’s bombs and bullets that are flying, and it has been generational for them and yet how they rise above that, and how that does not limit them and who they are. That was just powerful for me because number one, as an author, he unlocked emotions in me, but even more so he inspired me to have perspective on my life, perspective on the things that often allow us to go down that road into criminality, criminal thinking because we don’t have perspective. That is important. So his works inspired me incredibly because it’s just about life, and that’s what this is.

Lester Young: I think too, it helps you gain a level of gratitude for what you do have. Gratitude is so important I remember sitting in prison, and I used to complain about everything, and this guy–one of the volunteers–says, “Hey, man let me go to your prison cell one day.” And he did, and he walked into the cell, and he’s like man you got a TV, you got clean sheets, you got a bed, you got toilet paper, you got a toilet that flushes. Imagine the people in the world that don’t have none of this. So, he’s like, “Man get a hold of yourself. Even though you’re incarcerated, some people who are living in torn communities would love to possibly be here where you at because you eat three times a day, and you complain about the food, so it’s about having that level of gratitude, and I like what you mentioned about that perspective.

Edwin, as we’re about to conclude this, is there anything else that you will want to share with the leaders? Share before you leave, give some word of advice for a young person, meaning no matter the age, but someone who’s coming out of incarceration and getting into organizing, what will be that tip you would give them as we conclude this podcast of being an effective organizer, family man, etc?

Edwin Fuller: My personal walk in organizing that I think speaks to this, and hopefully I can put in a nutshell here, is that when I first came into organizing, my mindset was, wow I’ve got certain sets of skills, talents blah blah blah that I can help these other people get to where they want to be or to organize them. And yet what I really found is that organizing has been a continual journey into me. To the extent that I am willing to be real and to be real with others about who I am, where I’m at on that bridge that I’m trying to cross in the agency and dignity, the more I’m willing to do that, the more effective I can become, because organizing is about relationships. You got to be willing to be real. And you gotta be willing to be you. It’s not about who has the right set of skills, it’s who has the right set of authenticity. And that speaks to whether you’re getting into organizing, or even trying as we come home and trying to re-establish ourselves in our own life and in our community, is that we got to be real. We got to be willing to let people in in order to give out.

Organizing is a journey. I think leadership is a journey…and that’s something else I found in the cohort. As people as each person, each man and woman was open about, “Where I was at, here’s where I’m trying to go. And I’m looking for somebody to walk with me in that.” And that’s what attracts people and not just attracts people to you as a leader, but is what makes you open to growing and changing, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Hakim Crampton: It’s been a powerful, wonderful time engaging you, learning about your story, and your “why.” It’s just been wonderful, so we do definitely thank you and once again congratulate you on your journey last year graduating from 2022 Leading With Conviction.

Lester Young: Continue to do great work Edwin. We appreciate you being a guest on our podcast.

Edwin Fuller: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure, and really just, wow, literally a privilege and honor being part of Just Leadership and my people.

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