Kim Woodson on the JustUs Speaks Podcast
March 22, 2023
She was sentenced to life in prison at age 17. Twenty-nine years later she was released. Today she has a global vision for providing reentry services to fellow formerly incarcerated individuals. Kimberly Woodson 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: I’m your co-host Hakim Crampton. JustUs Speaks Podcast 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 from the resources and power to affect positive change.
Hakim Crampton: So, on this first season of the JustUs Speaks Podcast, we are 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 our sister, Kim Woodson. Kim is a civil rights advocate, legal scholar, public speaker, directly-impacted organizer working to end mass incarceration and expand opportunities for people upon release from jails and prisons.
Hakim Crampton: After being sentenced for life in prison at the age of just 17 years, Kim took her first step on the road to redemption after the Supreme Court ruled the juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life.
Lester Young: Kim became one of the only two female lifers who were released in Michigan in the wake of the Supreme Court decision for Montgomery vs. Louisiana. Ten more remain incarcerated.
Hakim Crampton: In May of 2017, Kim was released after serving 29 years and vowed to do all she could to help save others from making the same mistakes she made decades prior. She was determined to do something positive with the rest of her life, and in 2019 she founded Redeeming Kimberly, a non-profit dedicated to assisting returning citizens transitioning from prison life to society and helping those who were previously incarcerated navigate the many challenges of re-entry: securing housing, food, clothing, employment etc.
Lester Young: Wow, man it’s truly the example of a rose growth on concrete. You said it’s been 10 years since the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentence or juveniles were unconstitutional, making nearly 2, 000 juvenile lifers eligible for re-sentencing and for parole. In August 2019, Kim joined Michigan Liberation as a fellow and has since served as a leading voice advocating for the re-citizens of juvenile lifers in Michigan.
Hakim Crampton: In 2020, Kim played an integral role in Michigan liberation’s prosecutor campaigned to reform Michigan’s criminal legal system and help to elect Oakland County prosecutor, Karen McDonald.
Lester Young: Kim is the mother of Kai Erica, and J Marie, her miracle baby born in 2018. Kim, welcome to the JustUs Speaks Podcast. You’ve been busy!
Kim Woodson: Once you said it like that I was like, “Wow, who are you talking about?” I’m just amazed at how God will give you the strength you need when you’re on the right journey, and you just keep going. So, wow she’s a phenomenal sister, and I hope to see her do great things in the future.
Lester Young: You’re already doing it. That’s the beauty of life. When you get a chance to listen to your own bio, and you sit back, and you’re like, wow. When you think about it, you were sentenced to life in prison at a very young age, and did 29 years inside of that facility and came home and founded Redeeming Kimberly, there’s so much that we can unpack on this podcast and agree that there’s definitely a God of power, a God of redemption, to pull all of us out of the furnace, and put us where we at today. So sis, I want you to continue to wear your crown and continue to walk with your head up because God has brought you out of those circumstances to do some phenomenal things which you are already doing. Continue to wear that crown and continue to walk in your greatnesses, sis.
Kim Woodson: Thank you, Kings, thank you.
Lester Young: So Hakim, what are we going to start off today with Kim? What do you want to get into? There’s so many things I want to unpack.
Kim Woodson: First, I just want to unpack the name, because you pause and the name signifies everybody is in a stage of change. Everybody is in a stage of redemption, and for those of us who are incarcerated, we are coming home, and we are constantly in a state of proving ourselves. I wanted to remind our loved ones that was incarcerated and made that mistake, that no, you’re in a constant state of redemption. So you’re redeeming. So, that K, it can be anybody’s name. It can be redeeming Hakim. It could be redeeming Lester. I wanted people to understand that we are in the redeeming business, and as long as you have hope people can change and don’t give up on anybody. I’m not gonna leave nobody behind just because they’re an incarcerated state, so I want them to know redemption is possible.
Hakim Crampton: Absolutely, let’s start right there, Kim. You know she gave us a good nugget right there, but let’s start right there. For a person like yourself who was essentially condemned to die in prison, what does it mean to have hope, and then see that actual hope fulfilled? You actually received your freedom in which you were previously condemned. What does that mean? How powerful is hope in this leadership journey?
Kim Woodson: It’s everything. It’s like, if a person cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel, if they’re surrounded by darkness, and it’ll have just a flicker of a light, that one little match can light up a whole cave. And that’s a flicker of hope, and if they focus on that light the darkness fades away, and that’s how important it is. You cannot see your way through any situation without the power of hope.
Lester Young: When I was given life in prison, I had a possibility of parole, but you were given a natural life in prison, with no possibility of ever possibly walking out of prison. When you heard that sentence being passed down to you, and your first day walking into that adult prison, did you ever like [think] that you would be [at] this point where you had today? And what did it take for you to push through all of that stuff inside of prison to be standing on this side of the fence many years later?
Kim Woodson: Well, my transition was a little slower because my judge could not bring it to himself to say what my sentence was. He was crying. Everybody in the courtroom was crying, and he never actually said on record that I had a natural life sentence. He just said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do in his whole career was to sentence me today, and it was a mandatory sentence that had to be carried out, but it was against his will. So, I really didn’t know and understand until I got to prison and they handed me my timesheet, and it had letters. And the person that walked in with me, she had numbers, and she was asking me to explain something to her, and I couldn’t explain. I said, hold up. I got l-i-f-e in bold letters across this, and it says, I don’t know what E R D mean, but whatever it is, I have letters. So, I walked up to the counter, and I said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Can you tell me what this means?” And of course you know prison politics and people, the lady looked at me and said, “That mean you ain’t never going nowhere.” So me being pregnant with my child at the time, I held my child, and I said the devil is a lie, I have my only child inside of me, and I’m going home to her. I don’t know when, but I am, and I sat down and something shook me. And that shaking settled me enough to face it in real time without being so emotional and not focused on the future, but just focus on what’s ahead of me, and my first goal was what I just said, accomplish something, you too bright. So I want to prove to him that I can get a GED, so I got it. And I said, “Okay, I’m gonna take a vocational class.” So, it enabled me to focus on things right in front of me and enable me to eventually become the woman that I am because I kept focusing on a better future with hope, but I built on the present, on just trying to be a better Kimberly and trying to enhance everybody’s life around me that I could. It wasn’t always easy in an environment but I stayed true to who I was as an individual, and I was sometimes an outcast. I was…some looked at as prey…telling me I was crazy, because you should be wilding out, you should be bucking out, and I had my share of immature moments. But in the end of the day, it was by the grace of God that I held on to that hope that there was something better, and I had to prepare for that better, and that’s what propelled me.
Lester Young: You just mentioned something that I was unaware of as you went through the Leading With Conviction. You mentioned that not only were you given life, but you were also pregnant entering inside of the prison facility with a natural life sentence?
Kim Woodson: Yes.
Lester Young: How did it affect you as a mother knowing that you’re giving birth to someone that you may not be able to spend quality time with after they’re born? Could you share with our listeners what [that was like]?
Kim Woodson: I almost gave her up for adoption. I almost gave my baby up, and I’m so grateful that I fought, and I was willing to suffer the pain that every visit endures, every time she had to leave. Every phone call that ended. I’m so grateful to this day that I was willing to suffer that pain. I knew it was coming. As a mom, I was so grateful, and I am because I almost gave her up.
Lester Young: Wow, that’s powerful sis.
Hakim Crampton: Yeah, super powerful.
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Hakim Crampton: Let me ask you how that experience translated into your passion for your work Redeeming Kimberly, and that brought you into Just Leadership USA, right? To get the training, development, so that you could make sure that Redeeming Kimberly is an effective organization. Tell us about that.
Kim Woodson: When I first came home, somebody kept begging me to go on the radio, and I couldn’t understand for the life of me what could I possibly have to say that was so impactful to be on somebody’s radio station? So they kept pestering me and they kept saying please, and then of course it was six a.m in the morning on a Sunday, and I was like, are y’all kidding me? but I got on and I finally called, and I said, “Okay, I’ll be on.” And another juvenile that had done 44 years in prison, he called in, and he was ready to give up, and he said I just want to go back. And I said if you meet me at this rally today about juveniles, just give me one chance to talk to you. And me talking to him, inspiring him to keep going, to give society a new opportunity. To grow because we were so young, and yes, we did through the majority of our time, incarcerated. And a lot of things in life we would never experience or have something to draw on to make informed decisions about. And I know it can be very overpowering, but just meet me. And he did. And I was able to give him the hope that he needed to keep going, and that made me have a voice, it was like, I do have something to say. Because everybody at this rally is talking about juvenile lifers, but they haven’t experienced what it is to be a juvenile, and here I am right here, listening to them talk about what they think we feel. But I know. So, who am I not to say yes? I’ll take the mic, and when I took it, something took over me, and I cleansed myself, and each time I speak, and I’m able to give a little part of my experience, it makes me feel like I’m reaching that little Kim that’s out there in Brooklyn. That little Kim that’s in Cali, or that little Kim that might be an Ethiopia. I’m trying to reach her so that she can have a voice sooner rather than later.
Lester Young: Yes, I think about, we know the famous rapper Tupac Shakur, wrote The Rose That Grew From Concrete, right? We know that in prisons people pushed us, and we made the decisions, unfortunately [people are] sitting in prison for long periods of time, and many people who didn’t expect for us to walk out of prison and be the people we are today. So, we, like, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, meaning that it’s very rare that a rose grows, because a rose needs nutrition, proper soil, and everything like that, but a rose defies the odds of gravity and busts through the concrete and grows. That’s how I see a lot of us who are formerly incarcerated. Our lives, we were the ones, that rose that grew from concrete, and here we are today. So, just thinking about you, your story, you becoming a first time [mom], your motherhood inside of prison, and then for 29 years you know that you had a daughter, and even visits you, you still weren’t able to fully impact that role as a mother. As you go into this personal development, what were some of the challenges you faced as a mother inside of prison, and what kept you going?
Kim Woodson: Always being connected, that was a challenge, because you always have to depend on the caregivers to bring your child to you. You have to depend on them to bring your child to answer the phone or come to the phone when you call. You have to depend on them to respond to your letters…or to volunteer to come visit you. Those are challenges, and I learned that I wanted to treat my daughter (because I learned like most mothers) we treat our kids like they are our possession, [but] I started treating her early on as an individual in her own rights and her own feelings, and I think that solidified the bond between us. Because I never saw her as mine, I saw her as a gift that was given to me each visit. Each phone call. Whatever she shared with me, I saw it as a gift, and I treasured it. I tried to instill every lesson that I’ve learned from the last visit with her. I may have schooled her too soon, but my fear was that I would never make it to her, and she would be ill-prepared for society.
Lester Young: It’s almost like you had hope that you would walk out of there, but it’s still like let me give my daughter, in this precious moments that we have, rather through calls, letters, let me embody everything that I need to give her now, just in case I don’t walk out of here as a free woman. I feel you on that, I feel you.
Kim Woodson: Yes, it’s like holding a double-edged sword. You want to use it to hack your way through, but you can kill a lot of things as you go fast, but you want to say, okay I can work through this but the how…you don’t know how to navigate it. You don’t know how to be a parent because you’ve never been a parent. You don’t know already how to be a prisoner because you’ve never been a prisoner, and you definitely don’t know how to do a natural life sentence because you’ve never had that, and who’s to say for your whole natural life you’re going to be in an incarcerated state. That’s something I don’t believe anybody can actually grab a whole to and hold on and maintain. And I believe that it’s the hidden key to every lifer– survival and getting back out, because they can’t grab a hold and say, “I can’t fathom never leaving here. There’s got to be a way. As long as I have breath I got to figure out a way.”
Hakim Crampton: You’ve experienced a lot having a life sentence, having children, having a child taken from you, and and we know this work involves a lot of trauma, so we need to care for ourselves. So what does redeeming Kimberly do you know to take care of herself and practice self-care and de-plug from the trauma and the work and just relax?
Kim Woodson: First, I am very, very spiritual. I believe in a higher power. I believe in all things that I are higher, and I believe the universe gives you everything you need five minutes before you need it, so I try to trust in that process, but I also do everything I need to slow down when I need to. I enjoy bubble baths. I enjoy walks. I enjoy listening to some jazz. And even though I can’t stand to drive, but I find that even relaxing and soothing if I have something deep on my mind, I just put on a track, get in my car, and just kind of drive around…nice and slow at a cruise, and just get off into a zone. I find that the nature and just realizing that I’m free to make a decision, and if I wanted to get in my car at two in the morning and take a night drive. That is okay. I may be putting my safety at risk, but I can do it. That in itself always re-energize me instantly, no matter what I’m going through, I remember, Hey, I could still be locked up. So I say, readjust, regroup, take out the time to take care of Kimberly, because you can’t get from an empty cup, and I want to enrich everybody’s life I encounter so I have to have a full cup. If I don’t have a full cup, I can’t give it to you. I have to give you my surplus.
Lester Young: I think again, I’m like right there in the seat with you even though I’m doing this interview, I’m feeling all of these emotions because I was thinking about what it felt like to walk on the grass in prison. You see that’s a sign in prison that says, don’t walk on the grass and you see this beautiful grass…I want to take my shoes off. So now you have this opportunity to walk and be free, eat, and just enjoy life the way you want to. So self-care is important, but I want to take self-care to another point, too. In that 29 years of incarceration, what does therapy look like for you? What does counseling look like for you? Is that something that you have added into your self-care? Because I know the trauma I’ve experienced just doing 22 years in prison. I’m still trying to work some stuff out, so what does therapy look like for you?
Kim Woodson: I am so glad that you asked that question because so many people stay away from mental health, and it’s like such a stigma, but I personally believe that it’s always wise to have somebody, some form of counsel even if it’s somebody that helps you reach your essence, at least somebody that you can talk to and unpack. A spiritual mentor. I have mentors in every area of my life. I have a spiritual mentor, a business mentor, I have an older lady that’s been a wife, she mentored me–I have relationship mentors. It’s like so many different things that I feel like I’m behind about, and I even have a therapist that I talked to, and I meet, and it’s no problem. I recommend therapy to anybody because even if you just have one six month session with a therapist, if you were incarcerated for any amount of time, you need at least six months to unpack one day of incarceration. That the handcuffs, the bracelets, hearing the metal gates close, just sleeping on that thin mattress, to stand still full, you need something to unpack that to say that you are still worthy of something better. Because once society threw you in that dungeon and told you that’s what you’re supposed to deserve, it plays mind games, and you need help to unpack that, to learn what you are worthy of, and that mainly that you have a voice, and your voice ain’t crazy. It was tried to be stifled. It tried to be silent, but in order to find that voice you might need therapy, you might need a counselor to help you unpack all the guilt trips that everybody has laid on. All the green gaslighting things that people have done to us in the past. It’s things that we are traumas on top of traumas that people don’t realize they have experienced, that you have to unpack. A lot of our macho guys don’t think we need to unpack those things. They feel like, we okay. It can be something that happened to you at four that you haven’t dealt with that you still reacting to today at 40, and you’re gonna keep acting that way at 60 if you don’t deal with it and unpack it. I recommend therapy to anyone. Talk to somebody.
Lester Young: Come on sis, come on now. Would you want to become a minister too?
Kim Woodson: Wow, I’m not going to tell y’all, my mom, what I come from, I’m a PK, so don’t say it on the podcast. My mama gonna be thanking you, sending you checks.
Hakim Crampton: Let’s talk about inspiration as a leader. You know leaders are inspiring figures, it’s just who we are, right? But let’s talk about while you were incarcerated, was there either an inspirational leader, a figure, or a book that really captured your attention and gave you some type of insight to help guide you to the future where we’re standing at today?
Kim Woodson: Well, when I was got incarcerated, I started focusing more on our history, so I dug a little bit deeper than the Detroit School Board version of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and I began to see the philosophy of how much more alike they were than different. They always try to make Malcolm X as this violent person, and that he was deserving of the death that he got, and Martin Luther King as this so righteous person, and he was undeserving, but in all actuality neither one of them deserve to die the way they did. It was the representation of the fight that both of them had that inspired me as an individual, and I began to kind of fuse the two together, and see it in similarities versus as how they always wanted to see them in different polar opposites, instead of exactly, the fight for our people, and the advancement of equality. So that inspired me, and then, believe it or not, I don’t even know who wrote this book, but it was called, The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Soldier. This book, for whatever reason, I’ve never read hood books and nothing like this before, but somebody said, read this book, you’re gonna love it. The mentality behind it, taught me more about our people and the stereotypes, and it made me face harsh reality better. It made me see the stereotypes that I had started putting on my people, too. Believe it or not, that book changed my mentality and my perception of my people.
Lester Young: Wow, Sister Soldier, shout out to her, man. When you said that I thought about the coldest winter ever in this book called Midnight…yeah it’s like, yo’, I’m saying movie, I’m surprised she didn’t make that into a movie, right?
Kim Woodson: Yes, those books were so good, so good.
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Lester Young: Listen before we wrap this up, sis this has definitely been truly a pleasure. I just want to tell you that I’m over here just really cheerleading and jumping out of my seat because I’m so excited to not only hear you, but as you went through the Leading With Conviction as I said, this is the purpose of the podcast, is to really to get to know the leaders. In that little small box, we wouldn’t really get a chance to feel your spirit because we were just focusing on teaching. So, I’m just telling you I love the spirit that is radiating from this podcast right now, and thank you for sharing everything you’re sharing with us, and definitely I believe this audience is going to definitely just continue to benefit and feel what I’m feeling from you.
As we come to a close my thing would just be, we know that we completed this Leading With Conviction, what is the five-year goal for Kimberly when it relates to leadership in community? Taking that 29 years of incarceration, breaking through the concrete, where do you see yourself in leadership in the next five years?
Kim Woodson: I plan to have a Redeeming Kimberly Village, which consists of tiny homes for residents coming out of incarceration states. They will have a hydroponic firm on the premises so they can have free fruits and vegetables. I want them to have a trade building, so they can learn trades, and I’m going to be reaching out to all of my Just Leadership members. I’m going to be using all of my networks and resources to connect to make it a Redeeming Kimberly Village in all major cities so that our people coming home will have jobs, food, and housing available to them. I feel like the sky is the limit. It don’t have to be the Redeeming Kimberly Village, it could be Just Leadership Village in the state, but I want the concept and the idea to be in every state where we actually do wraparound services for our returning citizens. In Michigan, I plan to take over re-entry, period. I plan to show them how to do it right. I plan to show them that more than just paying a rent or leading a person to a job– sometimes it’s giving them the courage to say, you can do this job. You may not necessarily have the skills that they [are] looking for, but you have all the life skills that you incarnate incarcerated that you can instill in this job, and do it better than the person that actually went to school for it. It’s a wraparound thing that it enhances more than just getting a job, or a house. It’s counseling, it’s support groups, it’s a one-stop shop for a Redeeming Kimberly client to come and learn their resources in whatever state they in, no matter what country they’re in, they should be able to go on a website and see, where’s the nearest Redeeming Kimberly Village, and how can I get involved. That’s my five-year goal, and my ten-year goal, and before I die, my global goal.
Hakim Crampton: I see that’s vision right there.
Kim Woodson: To bring healing, one returning citizen at a time to our community.
Lester Young: Wow, wow. That’s all I can. Hakim, what else is there to say?
Hakim Crampton: The mic done dropped.
Lester Young: Most of us just looking at just myopically, since you went global, you mentioned Ethiopia, because we have to understand that incarceration is not only in the United States, not only in Detroit, or South Carolina, it’s globally too. People be impacted with trauma, so I love that 10-year vision, and I say asé, may the Creator and the ancestors make that to be the reality, asé.
Hakim Crampton: That’s it!
Lester Young: You dropped the mic on us over here, this leadership is not just Detroit, it’s global, bro!
Hakim Crampton: We definitely thank you for sharing your history, your experience, your vision, your dreams racing with us and for the Just Leadership alumni that’s out there, we definitely extended appreciation for the work that’s been put in by people like yourself, and like us. Thank you.
Lester Young: Thank you again sis, thank you on behalf of Just Leadership and our entire team. We just want to say thank you for sharing, and I’m sure that when the individuals get a chance to hear this podcast they’re going to be blown away and going to continue to contribute and help build the Redeem Kimberly Village. With that being said, may the peace and blessings be upon everyone who has an opportunity to listen to this podcast and look forward to connecting with you again soon. Peace.
Kim Woodson: Looking forward to growing with y’all. Thank you.