On March 26, 2015, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins as I took the stage to deliver the closing remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform.
In the midst of this historical moment — a moment defined by the left and right agreeing to work together to reform a broken justice system — I stood. On that chilly spring afternoon, I approached the podium as a symbol of what is possible, when we create space for transformation and redemption to take place. As optimistic as I am, no one could have told me 10 years ago that I would one day be sharing the stage with the likes of Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, or delivering the closing remarks right after President Obama’s video on justice reform was shown.
In the five years since I have been home, I have accomplished many things, including speaking at TED’s 30-year-anniversary conference, teaching a class at the University of Michigan and becoming an MIT Media Lab fellow. This moment, however, was different. It was different because, for the first time in my life, I felt like justice would truly be served.
Despite this, the gravity of the 19 years I had served in prison came pressing down on my shoulders. It was the second time in a little over a month that I had felt the heavy weight of the time I served in prison — including seven years in solitary confinement.
One month prior, I had been invited to speak at a Black History Month program at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. When I walked inside the prison, everything about serving time came rushing back to me. The sound of gates crashing closed, officers barking orders and the painful laughter and jokes of incarcerated men, all reminded me of the years I spent inside. It reminded me of my darkest days, and how deeply I desired to have a second chance to prove that I could be an asset to society. It reminded me of the lonely days pacing my cell, dreaming of the day I could work a regular job, be a father and enjoy the small creature comforts that we so often take for granted. However, the most important reminder was my reason for being there.
I was there in fellowship with my incarcerated brothers. I was there to pour love, hope and inspiration into men who continue to inspire my work today. I was there because I wanted these men — my brothers — to know they weren’t and will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I drove to the prison because I wanted to tell them face to face, man to man, brother to brother, that I carry them in my heart everywhere I go, and that every time I share my story, I am sharing their story, because we are forever connected by the misfortune of our circumstances. Most importantly, I drove the two hours to the prison to be searched and run through metal detectors several times because I want these men — my brothers — to know that they have a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. Yes, that’s why I was there.
Once inside the auditorium where I was scheduled to speak, thoughts of how the men would react to my presence bounced around in my head like a ping-pong ball. I wondered how many of them I had served time with. I wondered what old friends would look like. I wondered who would absorb the food for thought I had to share. Although I had thought about what I was going to say on my drive up to Ionia, when the first man walked in the room and came up and hugged me, all of that went out of the window. In that moment, I knew I had to let my soul speak and not my head.