Paul Rothschild on True Second Chances

April 10, 2024

By Paul Rothschild (Leading with Conviction™ 2024 participant):

When I walked into the “chow hall” in federal prison, I saw immediately that there was something wrong, systemically. I know the relative percentages of different ethnicities in the Midwest. The disproportionate representation of Black, Brown, and other BIPOC people could not be an accident. I watched, read, and listened, and learned that this was just an extension of the legacy of racism and colonialism that permeates our culture. I learned so much in that time, about myself, about society, and about the deep humanity of the people with whom I was incarcerated.

A true second chance builds us up, makes us whole, and honors the pain we have been through …

After eight years in federal prison, I didn’t know what my life would be like, but privilege persisted, and I was able to find professional employment quickly. It was a white-collar job in healthcare finance and tech. The employer was willing to overlook my background because of the skills and experience I could bring, at a discount, because I was “damaged goods” on the job market. They paid half of what I would have been making without my background. They asked me not to share my background with my coworkers, customers, or vendors. I succeeded, and over time, my responsibilities and compensation grew.

During this period, I used LinkedIn to start connecting with social justice advocates globally, nationally, and locally, and I would spend my evenings and weekends volunteering. I found local leaders, most of them alumni of JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction™ (LwC) leadership program, in the Chicago area, and just started showing up when they were gathering. They taught me so much and built up my pride in myself by seeing how they valued my input. They showed me how my difficult experiences with the criminal legal system and incarceration were the fuel that could be used to drive change in the very systems that feed mass incarceration.

In May of 2023, an opportunity to follow my passion opened up, and. I came to work full-time with Marlon Chamberlain (LwC 2019) and the amazing team at the Illinois Coalition to End Permanent Punishments, the new home of the Fully Free Campaign and a core partner in Clean Slate Illinois. Here I use my skills and experience from the business world, in conjunction with my lived experience, to help scale efforts to dismantle post-incarceration barriers to education, employment, housing, and civic engagement.

The healthcare job would be called by many a second chance, but at its core, any position where we have to hide our past or fear that coworkers will find us out is a position that diminishes us and makes us less. A true second chance builds us up, makes us whole, and honors the pain we have been through and our efforts to transform that pain into purpose. Today I can stand in front of a crowd at an event, and speak the painful truth of my past mistakes, but from the other side of the void, where I have found something even better than a second chance, I have found a path to redemption.

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