Washtenaw United: A Brighter Way gives former inmates hope in reentering society
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
ABOUT ADAM GRANT:
After serving 27 years in the Michigan Department of Corrections for a bank robbery, Adam still believed in A Brighter Way and he is grateful A Brighter Way believed in him as well.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair with this week's edition of Washtenaw United. You know, we all make mistakes and want and need a second chance. Sometimes, a third and fourth chance is required. For our smaller mistakes, we often get them. But if you commit a crime and you go to prison, the path of forgiveness and redemption is far more difficult. Here in Washtenaw County, the nonprofit A Brighter Way is carving out a path for those being returned to society. Our guest today is Adam Grant, and he knows firsthand how difficult it can be and serves as the organization's executive director. Adam, thank you so much for the time today.
Adam Grant: Thank you for having me.
David Fair: I think before we fully dive into the work you're doing and what lay ahead, we should set a foundation of what brought you here, because I understand that you did spend a good deal of time on the inside. What circumstances put you behind bars?
Adam Grant: A number of circumstances. The last time that I found myself incarcerated, I served 27 years for a bank robbery I committed when I was 27 years old. And it's important for people to know that this wasn't the typical hand a note to somebody. It was an armed bank robbery. So, I'm not minimizing the impact that I had on people. And in fact, it was the impact that I had on people that made me turn my life around because I never wanted to affect people like that again.
David Fair: As we talk about the process of turning one's life around, you know, I've heard it said that what the American prison system is often more about is punishment than rehabilitation. Did your turnaround begin in prison or after you got out?
Adam Grant: It definitely started well before I was released. I think it has to for it to be able to fully take root. But it's also done in opposition. The last couple of facilities that I was at, I was actually written out of them or transferred from one facility to another because I was doing too many positive things. They thought that I was getting too big for my britches in some ways and that I couldn't possibly be doing the good that it appeared to be doing. So, I did do a lot of the work while I was in there, but it wasn't always encouraged. It was often discouraged.
David Fair: It sounds quite oppressive. So, how shocking was it then to walk back into society after so many years of regimented and removed existence?
Adam Grant: The interesting part about that is I came home two years before the whole world started to shut down with COVID. So, I think I was probably more prepared than many for the circumstances that we've been faced with. And it might have actually even helped me in some ways because it opened...for a lot of people, it made the world smaller for me. It made my world larger as I was able to do things internationally, even though I couldn't physically leave the state. I was doing podcasts in Australia, in the United Kingdom, and, you know, getting to know people, doing convict criminology and getting published in that regard. So, it was an interesting adjustment, but I'd already started many of these adjustments before I'd come out.
David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Adam Grant continues on 89 one WEMU. Adam serves as executive director of A Brighter Way. So, how did you first get involved with A Brighter Way after release?
Adam Grant: It was kind of an organic experience. I was involved with other organizations that were doing, you know, criminal justice reform and prison reform work. I was working with Nation Outside. I was working with Safe and Just. And these are kind of small circles in some regards. So, I got to know Aaron Subanuma, and I got to know the former director here and was impressed by the work that they were doing. And I just loved the mentoring model that they were employing. In fact, we've gone to our catchphrase now is "reentry through relationship," because, ultimately, that's what it's about, is working with people side by side. So, that's how I came to A Brighter Way.
David Fair: So, in forming all of those relationships and reentry through relationships, I think that everybody has a different concept of what relationship means. What does that mean exactly in reference to A Brighter Way?
Adam Grant: I think that, I mean, people relate to one another through a narrative form. So, through their stories, they get to know each other on a personal level. And so, when we start talking about stigma reduction, you know, when we start talking about education, I'm a firm believer that nobody cares what you know until they know that you care. And I think ultimately that's what this model is. It's about relationships with mentor and mentee. It's about relationships with other agencies, about relationship with self, and it's about relationship with the community as a whole. The community that many of us took from at one point in our lives, many of us are extremely motivated to pour back into that community and make it as good as possible.
David Fair: So, as we talk about relationships, sometimes those are harder to form when incarcerated. Prison life is often quite segregated within the walls. In many facilities, inmates encourage racial separation and sticking with one's own, as it were. How impactful is that in trying to create trust in relationships once on the outside?
Adam Grant: I think prisons are a microcosm of the world as a whole. So, I think navigating things in there is just sometimes on the extremes. There are definitely racial divides in there. They're not as extreme as they were when I went in in 1993. But anybody who's ever been incarcerated, when you first walk into a facility, you go to the chow hall, and everybody knew there was a white and a Black side. My way of doing things has never been that way anyway. So, I always chose to go to the Black side to make a statement as soon as possible, because I don't believe in segregation, and I certainly don't believe in doing it ourselves. So, I think it informed the way that I walk through life in a lot of ways, but I think it informed it in a positive way. I think I have a better view of the concept of equity and what it means to actually have a true level of diversity. I would never get into the statement being colorblind, because I'm not. I respect and appreciate the differences we have as opposed to acting like they don't exist.
David Fair: But not all are treated the same. We know recidivism rates are quite high, particularly among African American men and people of color. A good deal of that is systemic in nature. But there's another component, and that's lack of financial and support resources to successfully build a different path once on the outside. What methodology are you employing at A Brighter Way to help overcome some of those real-world obstacles?
Adam Grant: One of the main things that we're doing right now is we're pivoting to a professional mentor model. So, we want people who are mentoring, people who are coming out of prison, who have formerly come out of prison. So, this is a professional development model. It's not a dead-end position where you're not going to be able to do other things. We are trying to change the systemic issues that are in place by creating a quality of life and going back to the model of upward mobility. You know, this is probably one of the few places that a person who has a criminal history is actually going to benefit from it and get their foot in the door. One of the biggest problems that people face when they come home from prison is that people tell them, "Come back in six months. Come back in eight months. Come back in 12." They want them to come back after they're successful. What A Brighter Way wants to do is just work side by side with individuals to help them be successful, so that they can move on into other positions and so that our voice can be heard in boardrooms and staff meetings, you know, across the board with different industries.
David Fair: Once again, you're listening to Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with A Brighter Way executive director Adam Grant. You know, a big part of this is going to be community buy-in. When you left prison, Adam, did you find that people were fearful of you because of where you had been and the crime you had committed?
Adam Grant: I found that some did. I was pleasantly surprised. But, again, we're talking about, you know, racial issues. And I enjoy white male privilege. So, there's a lot of people who have probably responded to me differently that if my pigmentation was different. But I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that everybody wasn't holding me captive to my past entirely. They did in some ways. There's a really big move right now for lived experience and the importance and value of that. But I often joked that they didn't quite want as much lived experience as I had. So, I would say that the way that I would sum it up is that I was pleasantly surprised. It still does exist. And you still have some major pushback from some people, especially, you know, people who've been in the industry for a long time, people who've been working in criminal justice, or something like that, for 30 years, have a much different bend to their work than more of the people that are getting into it now that have more of a social work background.
David Fair: For those who have been incarcerated, there is a stigma that is carried with it that tends to follow someone around sometimes for a lifetime. What do you want us to know about those who are working into and through reentry?
Adam Grant: Well, before I speak directly to that, the idea of stigma is also an internal component of it, too. So, many of us walk out, and we have our own stigmas that we have to overcome about ourselves and about the way the world views us. But, ultimately, just speaking to the masses, I would say that we're everywhere. You don't necessarily know that we are there. We're your coworkers, we're people who go to church with you, or people who go to school with you. There are a lot of people in this country. I heard a statistic that people with a criminal record in this country are somewhere around 70 million. And when you see that on a chart, it's more people than are married in this country, and that's more people than own a dog. That's a pretty intense statistic when you think about it. So, we're just another person often more motivated than most because we know we have an amends to make, and we're motivated to do so.
David Fair: Adam, I'd like to thank you for taking time to spend with us today and for providing your insights. I'm grateful.
Adam Grant: I'm grateful for the opportunity, and I hope that somebody get something out of this when they hear it.
David Fair: That is Adam Grant, executive director of A Brighter Way. To find out more, you can go to WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is presented in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
UWWC has been connected to A Brighter Way since we delivered seed funding to support its pilot launch in 2016. From 2016 to present, UWWC has invested nearly $50,000 in ABW to drive their mission forward. Their efforts are designed to lower recidivism in Washtenaw County by providing mentoring and support services for returning citizens. ABW promotes communication skills; job retention; and building, maintaining, and utilizing social support networks.
Most recently, UWWC committed to investing 30k in general operating support annually for the next 3 years through our Community Impact Fund and investing in the advocacy efforts of ABW through a one-time grant totaling 25k through our Justice Fund.
In the past, UWWC has funded different projects of ABW through the FY19 Financial Stability Fund; FY20 Opportunity Fund; and most recently the FY20 Community Relief Fund and FY21 State of Michigan Community Relief Fund to support efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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