Daniel Bullman on the JustUs Speaks Podcast

April 4, 2023

He was a police officer who went to prison and discovered that the people inside the walls were not the “bad people” he imagined they were. Today he is helping formerly incarcerated people like himself with reentry, especially with pursuing higher education. Daniel Bullman 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 close 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 Daniel Bullman. Daniel is a public health graduate student who works with justice impacted individuals to build a web of support, particularly in higher education. He’s a certified community health worker and peer recovery specialist, has been previously recognized by the city of Indianapolis and Ball State University alum associate for his work addressing placemaking, healthcare asset, and full insecurities in Central Indiana. Daniel received his bachelor’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis for Ball State University and is an MPH student with Georgia Southern University, where he holds chair of the maternal and child health research group. He currently served as an instructor and justice-impacted coach for the Inside Out Prison Exchange program at Temple University. Health Data science fellow for the Q-side Institute, as well as the Board of Directors for the Indiana chapter of Society of Public Health Education overseeing continuous education and certification. Daniel welcome to the JustUs Speaks Podcast. That was a lot bro, I got exhausted trying to read all that stuff!

Daniel Bullman: Well, wow Lester, you told me to go out there and get it, so I went out there and got it. What can I say, just following the leaders.

Lester Young: So, what do you think when you hear people read your bio? What does that do for you? Does it make you say, damn I really accomplished a lot of stuff or what? How does that make you feel?

Daniel Bullman: If we’re being honest here, you and I talking, sometimes I hear it, and it doesn’t sound like enough. I mean we know it’s enough. We know what it’s like to put in the work, to earn our seat at the table, but then, but be excluded from it, not be able to sit at that table, because all that great stuff you just heard, there’s a box I gotta check when I walk in the door. And so, you know what that’s like. It’s sometimes, it’s exhausting, honestly.

Lester Young: I mean I was just thinking about how we’re in this JustUs Speaks Podcast, we’re just talking about highlighting leaders who have completed the LWC Leading With Conviction cohort and just reading your bio brother I’m truly impressed by your accomplishments, the things you have done, and the the continuous impact that you’re making in the community. And just being a perfect example of what the Leading With Conviction is all about, or what Just Leadership really stands for, is educating, elevating, amplifying, the voices of those who’ve been directly impacted, and the work that you’re doing, I’m really impressed by that work and how you’re continuously adding value to the educational spectrum of that. Could you just share with our audience a little more about who you are and why you do what you do?

Daniel Bullman: Absolutely, absolutely. So, my name is Daniel Bullman. Back in, what is it? 2016, I came into conflict with the justice system. Very fortunate that I was able to come home just at the end of 2018, so unlike a lot of my peers that sat in my JLUSA cohort, I didn’t have to put in as much time as they did, so I guess with that spirit of tenacity and leadership, I hit the ground running. I was home two days, and I applied to a community college, and it was there that I first started running into the barriers that people face. Even though I was accepted, I wasn’t accepted. I got the acceptance to attend school, but I didn’t necessarily feel welcome, and that sort of followed me through my academic career. So that sort of fueled, I guess my passion, for wanting to change that for others, being able to reach back and help others forward, and not have to experience what I did. And through that work, funny enough I interact with other JLUSA graduates who, full circle are saying, hey, you’d probably be good for this program. I’m going to recommend you here.

Lester Young: I mean that’s just the beauty of Just Leadership, but then I always, and all of the interviews we have done, always think about how I was like you and I, how [we were] able to push through some of the most challenging things that were intended to break us. We know that when we look at the prison population nationally, we know the historical understanding of why prisons were made, [they were ]built and continue to be structured in various parts of the world –it was never intended to bring about this type of individuals that we are today. People who have college educations, leaders making tremendous impact in the communities and in the world, the prison wasn’t designed for that. How did education play that role for you when you walked out? You said you faced the barriers, but you had a tenacity, but just speak about education and why it matters for those who are formerly incarcerated or currently incarcerated.

Daniel Bullman: When I look at it maybe it’s not necessarily that book knowledge that I gained. I can spout facts. I can spout statistics. I can run code, but really at the end of the day, it was those pro-social connections that were built while in school. I met mentors. I connected with faculty members who could look past any kind of…having to check that box, having to explain what I’d done, and they saw my future. They didn’t see my past anymore. And then that just lit a fire within me to want to continue to do more. When somebody else that is doing the work says, oh, you’re good, you can do this work, it makes you want to move forward with that. So those pro-social connections, and kind of what we had discussed, my work now is in building those webs of support within communities, rather than having the city tell you what your community needs, you telling the city what your community needs is what’s important. So, they were doing that for me. They were asking what do I need to succeed, and so I guess I have taken that, synthesized it, pulled from all these different leaders that I was able to connect with through my academic career to become and develop as a leader that I want to be, to again reach back and then offer that to the next generation of folks and hopefully disrupt some of these cycles of incarceration for folks as they’re coming home, so that it’s not being passed intergenerationally, to their children, to their grandchildren.

Lester Young: Yeah, that’s very powerful, and it just made me think about– I just had a recent conversation here, because we know the Pell is being reinstated in a lot of places now, a lot of colleges a lot of universities now looking at how they can implement the Pell, but the barrier that I see that most of them are facing, is how do we integrate those with felony convictions into schools, and how do we educate staff in how to address and treat people with a felony conviction. That scarlet letter definitely stands out. We got these pendants with Just Leadership. So, how do you, as someone who’s formerly incarcerated now, how do you go about actually educating staff around this particular issue? As someone who’s formerly incarcerated, now you have acquired levels of education, you got a better understanding of the landscape and you’re now using your lived experience to actually change the narrative when it comes to that because you know the barriers that we face with a felony conviction. What are you doing now to educate college staff about why it’s so important to create a warm welcoming for those who are coming into the college space with a felony conviction?

Daniel Bullman: I’m really glad you asked that because there’s two fronts that I’m approaching this in. For one, I’m in a state that’s not necessarily welcoming of individuals. I know out West there are a lot of institutions that are doing amazing work in creating support spaces, support groups, and even branches of their institution to help integrate and support students as they’re coming through their college or university. Out here, not so much. So first off, personally what I do is, I don’t hide anything. Right off the bat, they knew who I am. I mean, all it takes is a Google search, so why, I don’t need to hide. If I say something that makes you uncomfortable then that’s cool, but just me being in the room, that might be on you. Second of all though is one of the big things that I work with Temple University in the Inside Out Prison Exchange program, so it’s about to have its 25th year anniversary this year, and essentially it’s two things: One, the program itself brings college classes into prisons, or has been doing this, and it mixes outside students, or community students from a local university and brings them inside the wall to have a regular college class with folks on the inside. So, the folks on the inside are getting college credit generally for free from the university that’s presenting this course. Additionally, it’s a pedagogical model, so what I do as an instructor and justice-impacted coach for Temple is we host training development for new faculty who want to be able to teach inside a prison, who want to be able to work with currently incarcerated students. It’s a one-week training boot camp essentially in which we deliver this pedagogical model and also help them understand, here is the population you’re working with, and they don’t need to be essentially fetishized, these are smart people. Don’t be surprised, we don’t send a high school teacher to a low performing school and have a high school teacher say, “Oh, wow because of your test scores in this school I’m surprised you’re able to understand or do this.” We don’t do that in any other circumstance, so we’re training folks, don’t do that when you get into a facility and what we’re seeing is that one these instructors are incredibly surprised by the work that’s being put out by the incarcerated students, not because it’s amazing work, but because they realize you and I can jump on the computer and Google whatever we need, we can we’re going over to the library and look stuff up, but if you’re incarcerated, you’re in your cell. Maybe you got the law library you can jump to, maybe your facility [Lester Young: everything is outdated] but you have students that are cranking out papers that are top-notch without having–they’re doing it old school, the way  folks were cranking out papers in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s, and so this faculty is impressed in that manner that they’re able to produce this level of work despite the barriers they’re facing. So, what it’s also doing is as those courses become more successful, as the college students on campus are saying, “Oh, we want to be involved in this,” we’re seeing more advocacy, more allyship and then actual institutions are saying, why not have that person come to our school once they get out? What can we do to support them when they come home?

Lester Young: I think that’s important because through the Leading With Conviction and just knowing the the space that we’re in, we know that there’s over these 48,000 collateral consequences, and we in most cases, we only focus on employment and not really thinking about how higher education has these barriers as well. Banning the box in certain applications deny you access to going to certain schools because of that. So collateral consequences [are] extended waving, I mean so broad, and a lot of people don’t understand that it is a hindrance. I’m excited to know that Pell is now being reinstated and now individuals who are in prison don’t have to just sit in prison and just be idle, they now have an opportunity with education.  I mean, because that’s one way I believe we change the narrative of those who are coming home from prison, and it humanizes them, but we know the challenges we face with those and elected officials and community members, is that they always, no matter what you do, they still see you as a person committed the crime rather than the person who has now made another choice with their lives and now they’re taking the path to education. What do you say to these individuals who are very critical in saying that a person who’s in prison should not get a Pell? What do you say to these people as a person who has gotten this education now and benefited from it?

Daniel Bullman: I have two approaches to this. One, we call them Departments of Correction, so do you want the individual to come home corrected? Do you want them to be a productive member of society? Part of that is going to be job training, job placement, and what better time to do it than while they’re being, quote unquote, corrected within the state? So, we have that aspect, but then additionally, what I would stress to individuals is the greatest predictor of your child’s future success is parental educational attainment, and so if we want to break intergenerational bonds, if we don’t want someone to come home, go right back to, who may go back to the environment that may have brought them into conflict with the justice system, not pass that on to kids, we have an answer to that. The data is out there that tells us education can stop that cycle. Education can improve that household’s quality of life. Education can set the children of that individual on a path to success. So why would we not want to do that, but then in the same breath, we’re trying to stop crime. When we can stop crime, we can improve our community simply by trying to help an individual attain higher education. So, when we look at it like that, I think the answer is clear.

Lester Young: Brother, that’s a great argument,

Daniel Bullman: Yeah, I mean we’re here trying to be crime fighters. What better way? I don’t need four cars rolling by my house every 15 minutes. We know criminal justice majors out there, we know that the presence of police has no deterrent effect on crime, but you what does? Higher education.

Lester Young: Wow.

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Lester Young: Another question I have is going back now. As you said you went into prison at 2016. Let’s talk about that experience for you. We see your accomplishments and all the accolades you’re receiving now, but what was that like, who was Daniel at that point in his life at 2016 walking into prison. Did you envision this life for you, or what was going on in your head at that time?

Daniel Bullman: When I walked in I still had high hopes. I still thought, oh, the process will work even though the process clearly was not working. I still believed in the system. At some point the system will work and it’ll recognize it’s wrong, but when I went in, I found one, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I actually met a lot of good people inside. Some, I wish I could still maintain contact, but a lot of states, because I gotta check that box, I’m not allowed to send letters to them and a message to them, and I just look forward to the day they can come home. But I think it was when I came home that I realized very, those 48,000 collateral consequences broke me. Man, they broke me, trying to find a job. At one point, here I am a mid-level manager for a municipality, and now all of a sudden, I can’t even get hired to sweep up cigarette butts at the parking garage. Getting a job as a door greeter, that’s now the high, that’s the the goal or the career aspiration because that’s about as good as it gets, and it didn’t take me long to realize it shouldn’t be that way. What kind of life is that if you want folks to quote unquote rehabilitate, to be productive again, to move on, you can’t keep a roof over your head with a lot of those jobs, those second chance jobs that are available out there. So, I guess the initial fire that launched me and started my own journey and what keeps me going now–to make sure that other people don’t have to deal with that, that there are options.

Lester Young: What made you keep going and didn’t wanted to give up? I know what it feels  for rejection, rejection hurts. I don’t care how tough your skin is, rejection hurts, especially when you want better for your life and your rejection is only based upon because you have that felony conviction. What are you doing internally to keep yourself moving forward in spite of all the rejections? They’re telling you can’t even sweep a cigarette butts. What was that thing you had to do internally that got you through? Not just for when you got out of prison, but helped you survive prison from 2016 to 2018. What was that thing man?

Daniel Bullman: So, the big thing is, my spouse now, at the time we were dating, but I met an amazing person who believed in me. Again those pro-social connections and a lot of the folks that I did meet on the inside didn’t have that. When I say I’m very fortunate, I came home to someone who loved me, a roof over my head, who could help as I was starting to rebuild. A lot of the guys we know are coming home to not that. They’re gonna go to a halfway house. They’re going to to work release, and then as soon as that’s over, they’ve got to find an address, or they’re going to get violated on probation or parole, that’s their options. And so they’re gonna have to pick and they can’t be picky, they’re gonna have to take whatever they can get, they’re gonna have to beg, and so when I say I’m very fortunate, I recognize that I had that for me, and so that’s kind of what kept me going. When I came home though, I’m going to be honest with you, I was probably motivated by the wrong reasons. I thought when I started my academic journey, I was, they might call me a mope, but they’re gonna call me Dr. Mope at the end of this, and again wrong reasons, I’m in a different place now, but in the beginning I was doing this out of spite. I’m 100% doing this out of spite.

Lester Young: But that’s the motivation sometimes for people walking out of prison sometimes you gotta, I’m gonna prove you wrong. I believe finding anything that would set that flame on fire for you to keep you moving, and I think that when we look at those who are getting out of prison, and unfortunately turning back to prison, they didn’t find that thing. They didn’t find those social connections that believed in them, and it’s something as simple as having someone say, “Hey, man I see you, and I respect you. I see that you have the skill and the gift for higher education. I see that in you.” Just those words of affirmation, and affirmation can push an individual who’s been beaten down by rejection after rejection and incarceration, those things could give someone life, and I would be like, I’m gonna prove everybody wrong.  What I’m saying that was my motivation when I got out of prison because people, when I had these big aspirations, people feel, oh, yeah you just another one of these guys talking this big talk. You’re gonna get out of prison, and you’re not going to do none of that, so initially for me too, I can admit, my thing was, I’m gonna prove all of you wrong [Daniel Bullman: Right] that kept me moving forward, and you got to find that thing that keeps you moving. So, thank you for sharing that. Another thing is just wanting to understand, we want to always highlight how important it is for leaders to take care of themselves. Self-care, especially getting out of prison, being in prison, it’s not a lot of time invested in self-care because you’re in survival mode. You walk out of prison and you’re still back in survival mode, trying to find a place to live, reintegrate back into family, the world. What does Daniel Bullman do for self-care and all the things you’re doing now? What does self-care look like for you man?

Daniel Bullman: In the beginning there wasn’t, like you said it was survival mode, you’re coming home from the war and you can’t turn it off, and and that in itself was exhausting. And then when you’re meeting all these barriers and everybody says no, you start finding yourself saying yes to every single thing that somebody does toss your way when somebody’s like  here’s a couple crumbs, you’re like, yeah I’ll do it, yeah I’ll do it, I’ll do this, I’ll just to get back out there to start doing things, and in the beginning I was. I was burning the candle on both ends. I was splitting it in half and burning it four ways, but yeah I realized really quickly that I was setting myself up for failure, not just myself, but my family. Because if I’m out here doing all this in an effort to build something for my family, what is it worth if I’m not there for them? Does my kid care that I gave a talk somewhere, so I could score a couple bucks? No, they want to go play at the playground. That cost me nothing. We can just walk across the street and go do that, and so pretty quick I found that I needed to set up boundaries. I had to set up work emails to where they’re not coming to my phone, so as soon as I turn off, I’m sorry, I’m off. You’re not gonna get a reply.  Prioritize my family, prioritize the things we enjoy doing because it sounds very, live, laugh, love of me, but it’s the memories that matter and those are memories that were taken away from me, time that was taken away from me, those two years that I was gone, so why am I going to waste it spreading myself thin and just essentially putting myself in another prison and not being there for my family? When I sat there and just told you that for two years my family is what kept me going, so that was what I had to do.

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Lester Young: Listen, man we about to wrap up in a few more minutes, and I just, again I really thank you for this time, you sharing with me, and I definitely learned something from you as well and that’s those boundaries. Having boundaries in your life, you say when you’re coming home from prison, it’s about, how I’m gonna take anything. I’m going to say a whole lot of yeses and a lot and less nos and sometimes that creates that burnout for you, especially for a formerly incarcerated person, I see that happens a lot. Individuals come home, they want to get into the speaking, they want to just tell their story, and they’re telling their stories with a lot of yeses and they’re not, they’re pouring out and no one else is pouring back into them, so that takes away from them–traveling and not getting paid for it, and that’s something that we definitely got to change, and one thing I love about Just Leadership as well, where we emphasize to our leaders, is, yo if you say a yes, and you’re sharing the story, make sure that you’re going to monetize that story, that there is going to be some benefit for you other than you traumatizing yourself again telling that story, and then you walk out of there with a t-shirt. That’s not leadership. There’s nothing wrong with giving, but making sure that you’re not being exploited for someone else’s benefit, and you’re not doing it, and sometimes we do it out of guilt.

Five years from now, where do we see Daniel? Five years now for all of the work you’re doing, five-ten years now, what is that, what is that leadership goal for you?

Daniel Bullman: Lester, I wish I could tell you that we’d be sitting on a yacht together at some point,  just chilling. I guess that’s the dream, but the reality is I’m still going to be here, right here in Central Indiana, I’m going to keep doing the work I’m doing, because when I talk about the barriers and the things that I face here, the easy answer, the answer I get from everyone is head West, Washington’s better. California is better. You’ll make it out there. That’s not what I want. I want people to be able to make it here. This is my community. This is where  we have set our roots. I want it to be a better place for my kids. I want it to be a better place for the people coming home, and I want it to be better for their kids, and so leaving is not an option.  I’m not going to abandon my home just because it’s done me wrong, instead I want to change the policies, the processes so that it does people better, so that they don’t have to go through the things that the people of the past did. The only way we move forward is inclusivity.

Lester Young: That’s good man, and that’s going back into leadership. In the LPI, I was your coach then, and we used to highlight that shared vision, that inspired shared vision, that’s what you have is that you want to see people live a life that does not have to live with the barriers and live in shame. Also, we talked about what’s that model, the way you’re doing exactly all of those things that we covered in our LPI which is called the leadership challenge practice, is modeling the way inspires your vision, enabling others to act, challenging the process, you’re definitely challenging the process by pushing through the barriers and most importantly encouraging others to act. So those are the five practices, and I definitely love that I met you at the start of the LWC training and now I’m seeing you after graduation and months later, and see that you are displaying all five of those practices in a manner which you do man. So, I’m truly proud to have you on this show, but most importantly to be a person that saw your growth as your coach in this and you’re doing some phenomenal work right now man.

I always want you to tell you this man, don’t be too hard on yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments and take time to breathe because like I said in seeing you now and hearing you speak about where you at, and why you do what you do, it makes so much sense now in how your LPI was set up and then to see the growth just from talking to you in the LPI. Is there anything else that you would want to share with the audience before we conclude.

Daniel Bullman: Two things come to mind. So, we touched on it earlier for our listeners, justice-impacted or not, if you’re an ally, if you’re asked to speak, and you’re sitting on a panel, it’s okay to ask those panel members how much they’re getting on that honorarium, because if yours is zero, and it was never mentioned, that’s a problem. Everybody else at that panel is getting paid, I can promise you that. If they got an alphabet after their name, they’re getting paid to sit there, and second if you’re thinking, if you’re a justice-impacted individual and you’re thinking about applying to cohort do it, because Lester can tell you, when I came in I was a paperwork man. I was like, oh, if we’re gonna go protest, I can arrange buses. I can make phone calls and get them paid and process some payroll or whatever, whatever we need. Now, I mean I’ll still do that, that is my forte, I’m still good at it, but I just think working with Lester, working with my peers, and being in that space with other leaders has helped me realize there’s more to it and that shared vision is huge, and I think inspiring a shared vision and was my weakest score in my LPI, and just in the course of that year, I’m able to now say what it is I want for for my community, and then also get folks on board with driving forward with that. So, if you’re thinking about applying, just do it, do it.

Lester Young: I’m glad you point that out man because see a lot of people don’t understand the value of the LPI as you’re going through the Leading With Conviction training, but like you said, you identified that was one of your low areas in communicating what that inspiring vision was, and there was a little hesitation in the beginning… but now listening to you, seeing the growth yourself, and I’m listening, watching you, and seeing that growth where you’re talking about what that is, and you’re articulating that very well about how I want to see this. I’m not going to run to the West, I’m going to stay here in Indiana, and I’m going to work because I’m going to challenge this process. So thank you my brother, thank you for all of the work that you do, continue to push forward. You’re always a part of the Just Leadership family, continue to use that family network, continue to grow with that family, continue to share information with the family because the only way that we will continue to change this social narrative about those living with felony conviction is that we have to continue to network together and share information.

Daniel Bullman: Thanks, brother.

Lester Young: Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks everyone for taking the time out to listen to the JustUs Speaks Podcast. I’m your co-host Lester Young. You all have a blessed day, peace.

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