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Tapping ‘bright’ minds behind prison walls

Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr. is right to use the $4.8 million that he’ll receive from Bloomberg Philanthropies to reduce handgun violence and spur job creation as a way to revive the inner city.
 Joe Robinson
 Joseph Robinson

Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr. is right to use the $4.8 million that he’ll receive from Bloomberg Philanthropies to reduce handgun violence and spur job creation as a way to revive the inner city. Senseless violence and blighted neighborhoods conspire to destroy dreams and thwart progress in hard-pressed communities in Memphis, and across the nation. If we are serious about meeting these daunting challenges, old thinking and outdated paradigms must give way to innovative practical solutions. As the Mayor said after learning about the grant, “We have to be more creative than ever when it comes to serving our citizens, keeping them safe, and helping them prosper.”

Thus, as Mayor Wharton seeks an “Innovation Delivery Team” to tackle these issues, he would do well to turn the searchlight on some of the best and brightest minds that inner-city communities have to offer – those behind prison walls.

There is a wealth of untapped intellectual and social capital among the more than two million men and women who are incarcerated in America’s prisons. To use this talent and energy for the greater good would cost Memphis nothing – amounting to a limitless return on investment.

In a prison in upstate New York, incarcerated men have already committed their hearts and minds to the very challenges that Mayor Wharton plans to confront. We have formed the Civic Duty Initiative (CDI), which, like Innovation Delivery Teams, seeks to help transform dying neighborhoods into vibrant and productive communities. We see it as the start of a unique  national volunteerism initiative led by currently and formerly incarcerated people, who have at their disposal three invaluable assets: time; bright, active minds; and a redemptive desire to give back to the communities they once helped to destroy – and to which they will someday return.

A program of the recently founded Think Outside the Cell Foundation, CDI was formed in part to dispel the myth that currently and formerly incarcerated men and women have no redeeming value, and to demonstrate that this population can be “givers” instead of “takers.” CDI believes that those who are or were in prison are stakeholders in their respective communities and that, working together, community leaders and people with prison in their backgrounds can help to renew those neighborhoods most affected by crime, drugs, poverty and violence.

The incarcerated and formerly incarcerated are among those with the most far-reaching and deeply rooted neighborhood intelligence. Their lives embody the symptoms and root causes of community deterioration: fatherless homes, a lack of positive role models (especially male), a lack of marketable skills, a shortage of job opportunities. Behind prison walls, some of them have transformed their lives and begun thinking about solutions to this bramble bush of problems. They are prepared to be agents of change.

Since its establishment in November 2009, CDI has launched two paradigm-shifting projects. One was the first-ever New York State Prisoners’ Gun Buy-Back Program. After hearing about the efforts of the Rev. Charles Muller to take illegal guns off the streets of Albany, N.Y., CDI raised nearly $400 from incarcerated men’s meager wages for Rev. Muller’s gun buy-back program. Rev. Muller said that CDI’s gun buy-back effort was the first such program by the incarcerated that he’d heard of in the nation.

The second project involved a massive book drive in which more than 400 books were collected from other incarcerated men for at-risk youth in the crime-plagued city of Newburgh, N.Y., in an effort to help to break the cycle of multigenerational illiteracy and incarceration crippling that community.

The Civic Duty Initiative has a range of ideas for Mayor Wharton. For starters, we ask that he consider exploring these:

1. Adopt CDI’s community capacity-building model, which calls for a diverse base of community stakeholders to form alliances in order to improve communities, support youth and end gun violence.

2. Replace illegal handguns not with monetary compensation but with the offer of participation in a bottom-up jobs creation program, including the creation of a business incubator that offers values-based entrepreneurial life skills and a micro-lending program for business start-ups.

All of us – including currently and formerly incarcerated men and women – must come together to bring an end to the mindless violence and unyielding deterioration that are robbing our people of a bright future. It’s time for uncommon approaches and unlikely collaborations.

(Joseph Robinson is the author of “Think Outside the Cell: An Entrepreneur’s Guide for the Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated (Resilience Multimedia).” He co-founded the Civic Duty Initiative with Bruce Bryan, William Holmes and Stanley Bellamy, all of whom are incarcerated. For more information about CDI, visit www.thinkoutsidethecell.org.)

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