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Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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A growing community of re-entry pathways serve current and former incarcerated individuals needing work upon release.

Many re-entry programs are run by people who’ve been in the criminal justice system themselves.

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said ReConnect Inc. founding director LaVon Stennis-Williams, a former civil rights attorney who served time in federal prison. “You have people like myself coming out of prison no longer waiting for others to remove barriers. There is a network of movements being led by formerly incarcerated individuals taking control of this whole effort to make reentry something more than just talk. We’re developing programs that try to ensure people coming out are successful and don’t go back to prison.”

Some area re-entry programs are formalized, others less so. Several are grantees through the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ administered Vocational and Life Skills grant stemming from 2014 state prison legislation (LB 907). Programs work with individuals inside and outside state prisons.

ReConnect provide services Stennis-Williams didn’t find upon her own release in 2010.

“When I came out of prison, many second chance programs started under the 2008 Second Chance initiative either did not get refunded or the funding dried up,” she said. “So when I came out there weren’t many out there – just kind of the residuals.”

What there were, she said, were disjointed and uncoordinated.

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“I wanted to create a program I wish would have been in existence when I was navigating re-entry. What I realized from my own personal experience – it did not matter how well educated you were, how much money you had, what connections you had, when you’re going through re-entry, you’re going to face barriers. I developed a program to fill service gaps and to be not so much a hand-out as an empowering thing to help overcome those barriers.”

Employment assistance is a major piece of ReConnect.

“We look beyond just helping them with creating a resume and building interview skills. We spoke with employers to find out what soft skills they’re looking for in people. In our employment readiness program Ready for Work we put a lot of emphasis on those core competencies employers want: dependable, reliable, strong work ethic, problem solvers.”

ReConnect’s Construction Toolbox Credentials Training workshops prepare participants for real jobs.

“We worked with construction companies to find out what they’re looking for in people and we developed a training program using industry professionals to come teach it. They issue industry recognized certificates.”

Metropolitan Community College has convened around re-entry for more than a decade. Today, it’s a sanctioned service provider with 180 Re-entry Assistance Program.

“The thing we constantly hear from employers is that the pool of potential employees they’re fishing in do not have employability skills,” said director Diane Good-Collins, who did a stretch in state prison. “They don’t know how to show up on time, how to communicate with their supervisor, how to be a team player. Those are the things we’re teaching clients while they’re still incarcerated, so when they come out of prison they’re on a level playing field with those without criminal histories they’re competing against for jobs.”

Programs like 180 and ReConnect build background friendly employer pipelines.

“We work now with over 80 employers,” Stennis-Williams said. “These employers are very receptive to hiring men and women who participate in our job readiness workshops. I think employers’ attitudes are changing, partly because of economics. Employers are realizing they cannot ignore this labor force anymore.

“That’s why I think they’re making an effort now to reach out to programs like ours.”

Metro’s 180 program sees a similar shift.

“We have worked hard talking to employers about the population and helping destigmatize them. Employers understand this is the hidden workforce. Individuals are coming out trained, ready to enter the workforce and have the support of MCC and others in the community as they transition. They are ready to do something different and really what they need is an opportunity,” said Good-Collins. “Statistics show those who get educated while incarcerated are many times less likely to go back to prison.”

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Good-Collins said MCC closely vets participants.

“We’re not just going to send employers 10 people we don’t know anything about. We prescreen them to make sure they’re ready to be a part of their organization.”

Despite rigorous standards and numerous success stories, she said, not all employers want in.

“Some of the barriers are nonnegotiable. Some employers say they absolutely will never hire somebody with a criminal history. Some companies are limited to who they can hire due to liability concerns. Some have no idea they aren’t willing to until we talk to them about it. People with particular criminal histories can’t get hired in certain jobs.”

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Good-Collins found a receptive audience at a Human Resources Association of the Midlands diversity forum she presented at in October.

“Several HR directors said they’d be willing to work with us and we’ve established relationships with their companies. I feel like the proverbial door was kicked open and destigmatizing took place.”

Metro’s credit offerings inside prison include business, entrepreneurship, trades and information technology.

“We chose to teach those four career pathways inside the correctional facilities because those are areas the population can find a job in when released.

“Employability Skills and Introduction to Micro-computer Technology are our foundation courses because they give you a foot in the door with an employer.”

Process and Power Operations is a manufacturing and distribution certification course. Upon completion, she said, “its national certification equals gainful employment upon release,” adding, “We’ve worked with guys who got this and are making very good money.”

“Manufacturing and construction are popular career fields and well-paying options,” she said. “With our forklift training, you can get a job almost immediately at one of our employer partners. Other graduates work in food service  – entry level to management level.”

More re-entry efforts that focus around employment readiness include Intro To The Trades and Urban Pre-Vocational Training programs offered by Black Men United.

Big Mama’s Restaurant and Catering owner Patricia Barron has a long history hiring wait and kitchen staff with criminal histories.

Comprehensive programs like Metro’s 180 and ReConnect offer wrap-around services to clients, including transition support, referral to community agencies, coaching-tutoring-mentoring and employment assistance.

“We serve as a liaison in case there’s an issue that comes up at work and if the employee has a barrier with transportation or child care,” Good-Collins said. “We basically stand as a support and advocate.

“If they’re not at a point in their education and training to be eligible to go into a career position, then we guide them to survival employment, so at least they get working. Meanwhile, they can pursue their educational-employment goal to get to where they want to.”

Teela Mickles has worked with returning citizens for three decades. Her Compassion in Action seeks to “embrace the person, rebuild the family and break the cycle of negativity and recidivism.” CIA’s Pre-Release-Education-Reentry Preparation focuses on the individual and the unresolved core issues that led to criminal acts.

Personal validation, self-exploration and personal development activities help clients change their thinking and behaviors, said Mickles. “This allows each individual to succeed in other services offered to this population: drug rehabilitation, advance education, employment readiness and gainful employment.”

CIA, ReConnect, 180 and other programs refer clients to mental or behavioral health counseling as needed.

There’s also a prevention aspect to e-entry work. Adult clients with kids learn parenting skills and strategies that can help keep their children from entering the system. ReConnect and CIA both have youth and family components.

Jasmine Harris is Post-Release Program manager for the area’s latest re-entry player: Defy Ventures, a national organization with regional chapters. its intensive six-month CEO of Your New Life program

explores character development, transformational education and employment readiness. Participants learn to transition their street hustle experiences, talents and skills into career applications. Clients develop a life plan.

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“Getting them to see that skill set and how to use it on  the positive side of things really turns on a light for them and they love it,” Harris said. “We bring in volunteers for business coaching days. The entrepreneurship part is the hallmark of our program. We call our participants EITs or Entrepreneurs in Training. They get one-on-one basic entrepreneurship.”

Volunteers assist clients in developing a business plan.

“Our curriculum is vetted by Baylor University,” Harris said. “and if participants pass they get a certificate of career readiness. We do a full cap and gown graduation. That’s when we have our business pitch competition. We bring in volunteers, business execs, entrepreneurs and do a shark tank style competition. Everyone graduating pitches their business idea.”

Cash prizes are awarded.

In terms of post-release, Harris deploys the same six month program on the outside that’s offered in prison.

“Anyone in the community with a criminal history, whether they were formally incarcerated or had a misdemeanor or a felony probation, can participate if they’re looking for another option.”

Harris also runs the program’s business incubator.

“Our Entrepreneur Incubator is an additional 12 to 15 months of training. We match clients up with executive mentors who’ve gone through the process of starting their own business. Mentors help walk them through the business start-up process.

“We have business coaching nights and workshops where we bring in subject matter experts who give more in-depth information.”

Harris connects clients with workforce development resources. help with resumes and two big barriers – affordable housing and access to transportation.

“We connect them to services in the community where it makes sense. Everybody doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur or go to school. We let them know there’s a program over here doing a trades piece or there’s another program doing the education piece.”

Re-entry experts agree there are more and better services today but Harris and others see a need for more collaboration among providers.

Good-Collins said no matter how one feels about reentering citizens, they’re here to stay.

“Maybe you can look at it from a dollars and cents perspective and realize it doesn’t make fiscal sense to do what we’ve been doing, which is paying to re-incarcerate people.”

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Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight


Omaha’s had its share of social justice champions. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles. Tommie Wilson may not be the best known or the loudest or the flashiest, but she’s been a consistent soldier in the felds of doing the right thing and speaking out against bias. Her work as an educator, as president of the local NAACP chapter and more recently as a community liaison finds her walking the walk. Read my profile about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight

Retired public school educator lives by the creed separate is not equal

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped.

While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistricting legislation that would have re-segregated Omaha schools. As Community Liaison for Public Affairs at Metropolitan Community College she chairs a monthly Table Talk series discussing community issues close to her heart, especially reentry resources. A grandson did time in prison and his journey through the system motivates her to advocate for returning citizens.

“I’m interested in how we can help them to have sustainable, productive lives,” says Wilson, who often visits prisons. “You know what they call me in prison? Mommie Tommie.”

Giving people second chances is important to her. She headed up the in-school suspension program at Lewis and Clark Junior High and the Stay in School program at the Wesley House.

“It took the kids off the streets and gave them the support they needed to be able to go back into school to graduate with their classes.”

Though coming of age in segregated Nacogdoches, Texas, she got opportunities denied many blacks. As a musical prodigy with an operatic voice she performed for well-to-do audiences. She graduated high school at 15 and earned her music teaching degree from Texas Southern University at 20.

She knew well the contours of white privilege and the necessity for she and fellow blacks to overachieve in order to find anything ilke equal footing in a titled world.

Her education about racialized America began as a child. She heard great orators at NAACP meetings in the basements of black churches. She read the words of leading journalists and scholars in black newspapers. She listened to iconic jazz and blues singers whose styles she’d emulate vocalizing on the streets or during recess at school.

 

Through it all, she gained a dawning awareness of inequities and long overdue change in the works. She credits her black professors as “the most positive mentors in my life,” adding, “They actually made me who I am today. They told me to strive to do my best in all I do and to prove my worth. They challenged me to ‘be somebody.'”

She and her late husband Ozzie Wilson taught a dozen years in Texas, where they helped integrate the public school teaching ranks. When the Omaha Public Schools looked to integrate its own teaching corps in the 1960s, it recruited Southern black educators here. The Wilsons, who came in 1967 as “a package deal,” were among them.

The couple’s diversity efforts extended to the Keystone Neighborhood they integrated. Tommie didn’t like Omaha at first but warmed to it after getting involved in organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority, charged with enhancing opportunities.

“I’ve never shied away from finding things that needed to be done. I’m a very outspoken and vocal person. I don’t have a problem expressing what I feel. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, I don’t care who it hurts. That’s my attitude.”

She was often asked to lend her singing voice to causes and programs, invariably performing sonatas and spirituals.

Much of her life’s work, she says, has tried to prove “separate is not equal.” “I’m a catalyst in the community. I try to motivate folks to do what they need to do.”

She feels the alarming rates of school drop-outs, violent incidents and STDs among inner city youth is best addressed through education.

“Education is the key. Children have to feel there’s love and care about them learning in the classroom. Teaching is more than the curriculum. It’s about getting a rapport with your kids, letting them feel we’re in this together and there’s a purpose. It has to be a personal thing.”

Schools can’t do it alone, she says, “It’s got to start with church and home.”

She applauds the Empowerment Network’s efforts to jumpstart North Omaha revitalization.

“I love everything they’re trying to do because together we stand, divided we fall. If we can bring everybody together to start working with these ideas that’s beautiful.”

She’d like to see more financial backing for proven projects and programs making a difference in the lives of young people.

Since retiring as an educator, Wilson’s community focus has hardly waned. There was her four-year stint with the NAACP. She then approached Metro-president Randy Schmailzl to be a liaison with the North O community, where she saw a great disconnect between black residents and the college.

“We had students all around the Fort Omaha Campus who had never even stepped foot on campus.”

She feels Metro is “a best kept secret” for first generation college students,” adding, “For affordable tuition you can get all the training and skills needed to be successful and have a sustainable life.”

The veteran volunteer counts her 15 years as a United Way Loaned Executive one of her most satisfying experiences in helping nurture a city that’s become dear to her.

A7 79, Tommie Wilson finds satisfaction “being able to share my innermost passions, talking to people about their issues, trials and tribulations and teaching and guiding people to change their lives.”

What’s a good day for her?

“A good day is when I make a difference in the lives of others. Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn’t ask for advice.”

Passion Power: Dominique Morgan’s voice will not be stilled


So, everyone has a story, and that’s certainly true of two Omaha native music talents, one now passed, Julie Wilson, and the other, Dominque Morgan, whose future seems bright after some dark days.  Julie Wilson performed on and off Broadway, in movies and television, but she made her greatest mark as a cabaret singer in New York City.  Life wasn’t always roses for her, though.  A marriage to a famous theater figure didn’t work out.  Her folks back here got ill and stopped her career to care for them.  Her two sons went through some wild times, including right here in Omaha.  One of her boys died young after years of drug abuse.  In more recent times Wilson suffered health problems that affected her voice.  But she was one tough broad who wouldn’t give up.  She was only human though and after fighting the good fight she died the other day at age 90.  I only interviewed her once and she was a hoot.  I also interviewed her actor son Holy McCallany, who spoke lovingly about his mother. The subject of this story though is a musical artist of a very different kind, Dominque Morgan, who is only his 30s and has a modest career as a R&B, soul and hip hop artist based in his hometown.  Dom, as his friends call him, spent some years behind bars for bad decisions he made as a young man and he lost both his parents.  But he’s all in these days with doing the right thing by his life and music.  He’s very active as an advocate in the gay-lesbian-transgender community.  My profile of him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reminds me that we all carry baggage, we all experience heartache, we all long to express passion.  He and Wilson couldn’t have been more different, yet they both loved performing music and sharing their gifts with others.

NOTE: Later this week I plan posting the interviews I did with Wilson and her son Holt as a kind of tribute to her.

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Passion Power: Dominique Morgan’s voice will not be stilled

Singer-songwriter doesn’t let travails slow his roll

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

R&B and soul singer-songwriter Dominique Morgan, 33, has emerged as an urban music force with multiple Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards nominations for his Love Chronicles album.

His tunes of love and loss come from personal experience: an abusive relationship, homophobia, both parents passing, incarceration.
Alfonzo Lee Jones, founder-president of Icon One Music, the local label Morgan records on, says the artist has “absolute determination.”

Music is Morgan’s passion and sustenance. When he bravely came out at 14, he leaned on music for solace.

“It was an important part of my secret life. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music.

No one knew this was my salvation, this was my safe space,” Morgan says. “I was very closeted about music. I didn’t sing in front of people. But I had this desire to perform. I wrote songs in a notebook I hid under my bed. I was just very insecure and being a performer is the ultimate exposure.”

He got up enough nerve to sing in Benson High’s mixed chorus and to audition for its Studio Singers show choir.

“I was frightened to death to audition. I didn’t know how to dance in time, I didn’t know how to read music, I felt so behind.”

He made the cut anyway.

“It was the first time I had been chosen for something and somebody saw something special in me. That experience was amazing. It opened me up to discipline, group dynamics, being a leader.”

Though his parents accepted his sexual identity they didn’t want him dating. At 16 he got involved with a 21 year-old man. Full of rebellion, Morgan left home to live with his partner.

He says he silently suffered abuse in that co-dependency before finally leaving at 19.

“I really had no self-esteem. The relationship tore that completely apart.”

Broke and feeling he had nowhere to go, he lived a gypsy existence between Omaha and Lincoln

“I did not want my family to see me.”

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He committed nonviolent crimes – stealing cars in a valet dodge and writing bad checks. He slept in the cars and attended to his personal needs in public and dormitory restrooms.

“It was how I was surviving.”

His desperation led to many poor choices.

“I have this need for people to like me and to want to be around me. I was constantly putting myself in precarious situations because of that.”

He let friends think he was going to school.

“I had to keep up a facade with them.”

He did the same with a local boy band, On Point, he joined.

“It was my first experience recording in a studio and performing outside of high school. It was bittersweet. I was enjoying it but I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew eventually it would blow up in my face.”

The pressure of maintaining the illusion grew.

“Those internal thoughts are hell. All these balls i was juggling. I found myself in a cycle. I didn’t want to face how bad of a situation I was in.”

Once again, his only comfort was music.

“It was how I got through each day. It was just peace for me.”

Wracked by fear and blinded by denial, he says, “I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t go on much longer like that. I just didn’t know what the stopping point was for me.”

Getting arrested in Lincoln in 2000 was that point. Assigned a public defender, he pleaded no contest to several counts of forgery and theft. Unable to make bail, he sat in Lancaster County

Jail months awaiting sentencing. The judge gave him eight to 12 years.

Morgan’s reaction: “My life is over.”

His next tour months were spent at the state correctional system’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

Life in stir came as “a complete culture shock,” he says. “I couldn’t let anybody know I was frightened because you can’t show any weakness. Besides, I was out. I was young, gay and black – three strikes against me. So I came in fighting. I wanted them to respect me. I was watching boys get raped, people be sold, stabbed, beaten with padlocks. I was like, I just want to make it home.”

He didn’t pursue an appeal – “I thought if I fought it I was going to go crazy” – and instead accepted his lot.

He served in Omaha, Tecumseh and Lincoln facilities, sometimes segregated from the general prison population, for his own safety he was told. Other times, he mixed with convicted murderers and rapists.

While incarcerated his father died suddenly. He’d been Morgan’s only regular visitor. Morgan stopped calling home. Hearing freedom on the other end only made his confinement worse. “It was too much for me.”

He turned to music to cope.

“It was like this wall burst in my head and these words, these songs, these melodies just flooded out of me. I thought, One day I want to sing my songs. Music kept me going. It was my saving grace.”

He wrote the songs in long-hand, with a pen, in notebooks and on kites (internal request forms). He utilized mics and mixing boards in prison music rooms, buying access to the gear via handmade checks he covered with the $1.21 a day he made working in the kitchen. He earned a culinary degree he uses today as a caterer.

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In a prison talent contest he revealed music chops he’d kept on the down low. The prospect of using those chops on the outside kept him sane. After serving eight-plus years, he got out February 2009 and cared for his ill mother until she died that December.

“It was devastating.”

His youngest sibling, Andrea, came to live with him.

He tracked down Icon One’s Alfonzo Lee Jones and began writing songs for the label. Jones admires “the soul and feeling” Morgan puts into his writing,” adding, “Dom paints a vivid picture with every song he composes. You can feel the emotion. That’s powerful.”

Morgan says in Jones he’s found “more than a producer – he’s like a brother to me.”

Meanwhile, Web and radio hosting gigs brought Morgan to the attention of East Coast artists he’s now working with.

His music took off as a recording artist and live performer, he says, once he stopped trying to position himself as a gay singer-songwriter. That transition came with his outreach work for the nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, Heartland Pride.

“I am a singer who happens to be gay. I can still be myself through that but I let the music speak for itself.”

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His life and career were rudely interrupted last fall when informed he’d not served the mandatory minimum for one of his charges. He found himself detained four months at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

“It was like watching my life die. It almost killed me wondering how much of my life is slipping away while I’m gone.”

A parole board review set him free in February.

During that limbo he was removed from the Pride board for not disclosing his criminal past. That prompted a Facebook post by Morgan laying out his troubled journey and hard-fought redemption.

“I can’t be OK and love who I am now and be ashamed of such a large portion of what made me who I am,” he says. “I felt I needed to own my story. I wanted people to really know where I came from.”

He’s since co-founded Queer People of Color Nebraska. It seeks to start conversations in the African-American community and larger community about the challenges of being black and gay in America.

His advocacy for equal rights led him to co-direct a recently released “Black Lives Matter” video.

“I want to do it loud and proud,” he says.

The release party for his new album, Loveaholics Anonymous – Welcome to Rehab, is April 25 at The 402 in Benson.

Follow Dom at http://www.facebook.com/dniquemorgan.

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Reader Oct. 30 - Nov. 5, 2014

 

I rarely write about politics.  Here is an exception.  It’s a cover story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the two men vying for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican incumbent Lee Terry and Democratic challenger Brad Ashford.

 

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.

Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign’s still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp’s deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.

Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.

“I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy,” says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.

Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father’s strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn’t have to look far for influences.

“My father’s a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn’t be in Congress or probably even care about politics,” he says. “As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,”

“My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it.”

At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska’s autograph went up next to Evil Knievel’s on his bedroom door at home.

Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says “someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan.” Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.

 

 

Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry’s. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford’s unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he’s a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.

Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family’s’ progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.

“It was a big part of how we were brought up,” he says. “We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn’t live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what’s causing it and try to eradicate it.”

He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.

Ashford’s rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family’s principles and business practices.

“For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it’s not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That’s really what’s happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there’s all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn’t.

“Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn’t left out. If they’re left out than you can’t buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed.”

 

 

His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.

Ashford’s prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford’s support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad’s been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.

Terry’s own campaign is running ads with Jenkins’ image that suggest Ashford’s prison reform actions lead to “assault, robbery and murder.” Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people’s emotions.

“I don’t understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads,” Ashford says. “I mean, he’s really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that’s trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he’s trying to mine the fears of people. That’s a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that’s what he’s doing.

“I can’t imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful
or I would never stand for such a thing.”

Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: “That’s a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn’t have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad.” Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it’s kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.

“Everything I’ve brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We’ve used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins’ name and we never talk about that crime, and that’s out of respect for the victims’ families as well as the fact I didn’t want to glorify a mass murderer.

“But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That’s fair to talk about.”

Ashford believes it’s a crass strategy to distract voters.

“He’s trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He’s trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That’s a complex issue. It’s hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we’re trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety.”

Ashford, who often uses “we’ to mean “I,” defends his own record.

“Certainly prison reform, the one issue they’re criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that’s smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.

“When someone says you’re soft on crime it really doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t because if they have enough money to say you’re soft on crime than people will say, “He’s soft on crime.’ We’ve had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we’ve been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we’re trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won’t get further into the system.”

 

 

When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry’s done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. “He can’t touch me.”

“Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record.”

Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.

“Well, they’ve been watching me,” he says of the paper. “One thing about the Legislature, we’re under the microscope of the press every day. We’re a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record’s pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don’t like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.

“Terry doesn’t have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He’s a party guy. That’s the game he plays. I think that’s the main difference – I don’t care about parties. I don’t care really at all about parties other than I realize it’s a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I’m sure I won’t agree with them on everything.”

 

 

Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.

“You can take a guy like Lee Terry who’s totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That’s what he’s done for two or three elections that I’ve followed closely.”

Terry takes exception to suggestions he’s done little in office and is strictly a party man.

“I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I’ve been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There’s two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.

“Sixteen years ago I wouldn’t have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker’s office or the Majority Leader’s office and say, ‘Here’s where you’re wrong.’ Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn’t run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who’s chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he’s done “started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme.” As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.

“When people say I don’t get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It’s sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid’s desk right now.”

Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.

“What I’m trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s really cut off individuals from their government.”

He says he’s interested in “developing policies around what’s going to help the entire society.” Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong “to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did” he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says “only perpetuates the problem.” Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he’s voted for ACA’s repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.

 

 

 

 

Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society “because it will bring more dollars into circulation,” adding, “Immigrants are hard workers, they’ll pay taxes, they’ll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country.”

He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.

“You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed.”

Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.

“In the last year or two since there’s been a lot of discussion and we now realize there’s a great deal of overlap and it’s not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past.”

On the other hand Terry says “there are four or five issues where it is really tough” to find bipartisan consensus on “because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I’m not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let’s find a way to a balanced budget and let’s put everything on the table,’ then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you’re right, I’m going to differ with that and I’m just going to say no.”

The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.

Terry says, “We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table.”

“In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can’t get people to do that you’re not going to be effective in making legislation,” says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.

“It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it,” Ashford says, “because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There’s so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and
understand there is no one answer.”

Terry says, “I’m not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change.
I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent” responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline.”

With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters’.

Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. “It’s a close election, it’s expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I’m hopeful we’re going to win, I believe we’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, Terry isn’t even considering the possibility he won’t be returned to office by voters. “I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut’s telling me things are going our way. When I’m out and about there’ an urgency in the feedback I’m getting of you’ve got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I’ve really felt a shift.”

Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? “No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win.”

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System


Teela Mickles of Omaha has been doing the good work of prison ministry for a long time.  She doesn’t so much preach to offenders as provide them lifelines and guides for transforming themselves and breaking the cycles that landed them in prison in the first place and that led them back in prison after release.  Her Compassion in Action program is expanding to serve men, women, and children touched by the judicial and penal system.  I did an earlier profile of Teela that you can find on this blog.  And I extensively quoted in another piece about programs in Omaha that aid returning citizens.  This new story that follows below will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

Compassion in Action’s move to the former Wesley House campus at 2001 North 35th Street is symbolic for CIA founder-executive director Teela Mickles.

Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system will return community-based human services to a site that housed Nebraska’s oldest social service agency.

The Wesley House Community Center was a United Methodist Church mission for decades. Most recently, Paul Bryant operated a youth leadership academy there. When it closed in 2010 the Methodists pulled support and the two-building campus, which includes a church, was acquired by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation.

The buildings sat unoccupied until Mickles and OEDC president Michael Maroney reached an agreement for CIA to move operations into the main structure this spring. She’s subleased the church to a Native Assembly congregation pastored by Rev. James Bollinger. CIA and the church will offer a community food pantry.

She hopes to raise $300,000 through donations, grants and fundraisers to support operations the first year. Proceeds from a June 28 Performance for Peace event at the Kroc Center, 2825 Y Street, will go to CIA. The 6:30 p.m. event will feature live music performers, spoken word artists and dancers.

Mickles is also seeking donated materials and labor to address various building needs.

For Mickles. who’s added extensive youth services to the CIA mission, moving from her home to a building with multiple office, meeting and classroom spaces, made sense. But relocating to this northeast Omaha site is also personal. She grew up in a home where the center now sits.

Maroney, the man entrusting Mickles with the place’s legacy, has warm memories of Wesley House. He worked there on three separate occasions. The organization he runs today was birthed there, as were other black-run enterprises, including a bank and radio station.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly back in the late ’60s and early-mid ’70s when it actually was doing things unprecedented in terms of creating those entities,” says Maroney. “That’s why we were careful to ensure we leased it to an organization that continues to add value to the community going forward.”

Mickles appreciates that past and intends on being a positive force in a community reeling from gang violence, truancy, dropouts, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“I think these things could be prevented if people were aware of the root causes and were willing to go after those root causes,” she says.

It’s why she’s partnering with a gang prevention program. Raw Dawgs Youth Corps, whose focus is boys, and with two programs, ICARE Youth Services and IMAGES, whose focus is girls. Kainette Jones runs ICARE and Helen Wakefield runs IMAGES. The women laud Mickles for her commitment to empower people to change their lives.

The LITE (Ladies in Training Everyday) Mentoring Partnership for at-risk girls is a collaborative between CIA, ICARE, IMAGES and the city.

“Kainette works with girls who are in the judicial system, Helen works with girls in the public schools system and I work with girls locked up –in detention. The girls can come out of my program and go into the other programs,” says Mickles.

 

 

 

It’s akin to the human and social services once offered at Wesley.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Mickles notes. “Mike Maroney didn’t want to give it to just anyone, he wanted to keep it in the community, he wanted to keep it doing what it’s supposed to do with its history of serving families and reaching our little kids. And I have my own history with it because at age 10 my mother and father sold our home and two adjoining lots so the Wesley House could be built. There’s a tree my dad put a tire in so I could swing.

“So I’m coming back home. It’s amazing I’ve come full circle and am back where I started.”

She’s coming with an ambitious plan, too.

“This is a major opportunity for Compassion in Action to expand with all the organizations I partner with to keep our babies from going through that cycle. We’re going to break a whole lot of cycles.”

Mickles, a certified Assemblies of God minister and an addiction counselor, has worked with incarcerated folks for 30 years.

As part of her faith-based work she’s developed a curriculum to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. She also trains individuals and organizations dealing with offenders.

For inmates to buy into a program, she says, “it’s gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.” Her early work with women taught her that preparation before release is key.

“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”

Many of the same things hold true for male offenders.

Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever leave prison.

“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release. We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”

Family reconciliation can take time. The focus must first be on recovery.

Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she says.

For a time she operated CIA transitional homes where returning citizens stayed in preparation for “independent living.” That included making residents employable. Today, she refers ex-offenders to transitional living and employment programs.

Her work received a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide parent education to women in prison.

“We had some really good results.”

In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

 

 

 

She says, “A man has to feel some type of significance in order to continue his survival. These men are not dead. There’s a lot of intelligence, creativity behind those walls.You’d be surprised how a light comes on. But the problem is they’re not able to express that behind the walls.”

She believes men need encouragement and guidance from other men inside and outside the yard. “A man I think needs to take him down the journey.” Finding enough mentors is a challenge.

She’s proud that CIA’s become a trusted provider.

“Our specialty is prerelease education, reentry preparation. We know all the resources necessary for them to connect but we won’t send you someone who did not commit to working on themselves while they were still locked up. If they’re not willing to do that that means when they come out they’re going to continue to play games. We address all that on the inside. Their heart has to change.

“We let them know there are opportunities for them to make a change. There were things that happened to them when they were young. It was a process. So we help them look at that process. We work well with individuals who are committed to the discovery of their own purpose and own true personal worth. I believe validation breeds motivation for education to find their vocation.

“If you’re going to do that work, and it’s very difficult and meaningful, then you can come out here and be anything you want.”

In her experience those who make it follow a common path.

“When they stick to their plan, they will succeed and God is always at the core of that. Their gifts and plans had to be spiritually connected because they tried everything else and it didn’t work,” she says.

 

“Embracing the Person, Rebuilding the Family & Breaking the Cycle”

 

 

Mickles has many success stories among CIA graduates. One, Tracie Ward, works as her program manager while pursuing a master’s degree in health and human services.

Ward, says Mickles, found herself “in the wrong place at the wrong time “and ended up incarcerated when her children were still young.

Ward says she’s come a long way with the help of Mickles and others.

“Her program is faith-based which I believe is foundational for a lot of people transforming from something old into something new,” says Ward. “I call myself living proof because I’m living proof of overcoming a lot of things. Although I may have made mistakes I am also an overcomer and an achiever.

“I was able to tap more into my spiritual beliefs and that’s what helped me get through a lot of what I was going through. Miss Teela believes in people, she believes in validation, she believes in inspiring a person, she never comes off judgmental.”

Ward says it’s essential returning citizens find individuals like Mickles “that will see past your past.” She adds, “My past does not define me. I am who I am today, Years of sobriety. An associate’s degree. Great accomplishments. I love being the grandmother I am today.”

During her incarceration her three sons were matched with a volunteer family Mickles recruited and trained to act as a support system.

“They were able to fill in in some of the areas my family needed some assistance in,” Ward says. “Being able to keep that bond while you’re away is a big part of transitioning back into society or into your family or into your role as a mother. It kind of makes or breaks the relationship.”

The family remained engaged with Ward and her sons until she was free and reunited with her children. Now Ward’s using her own experience to help young women facing similar challenges as she did.

Mickles increasingly sees her work as a continuum. The problems that land adults in prison, she says, start early in life and tend to repeat from generation to generation.

“The men that are locked up all say the same thing – that they joined the gang for a sense of belonging. That’s a mandate on society that young men will be OK with getting the crap beat out of them so they can belong and young girls will be OK with having the option of being gang-raped so they can belong. Shame on us.

“The gangs are out there taking our kids. We need to consider an option the boys can go to where they can belong that’s positive. That’s how CIA got into what we’re doing now. All the pieces started falling in place. We’ve got the whole spectrum covered.”

 

 

Teela Mickles

 

 

She recently began working with young men at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.

“The boys are just like the men, once you get to that little child inside they let you know everything,” she says. “And there’s a fear factor. They don’t like what they have done, they don’t like the choices they have made, but they don’t think they have options. They are looking to die before they’re 25 or to spend their life in prison. That’s what the path of life looks like to them.

“When these young men graduate from my class they’re asking, ‘What is your main fear about being free?’ They say, ‘My life.’ It all stems from having been engaged with gangs. If someone had a tiff with you from back in the day they will find you. So that gun thing comes into play here. These guys really are holding their piece because there’s somebody that might come after them. It’s dangerous.”

Mickles advocates Interrupting the cycle before it starts.

“What if we don’t let the kids get the guns in the first place? What if we gave them an option?”

That’s where Raw Dawgs comes in. The Atlanta, Ga.-based program’s founder, Joseph Jennings, expects to have it up and running here by the fall.

“The Raw Dawgs program will provide that alternative to gang membership for boys 7 to 18,” says Mickles. “It’s an incentive program. Tutors will work with kids to help with their academics. Mentors will help with their home life. Kids will be rewarded. It’s a youth corps, military-style program. The kids will be drilled.

“We’re hoping that within five years with all the operations and networks we have here that we will see a reduction in bullying and dropouts and incarceration of our young people. We don’t need another prison, we need more people working together to help our babies see another perspective so they can get out of this situation before they get into it.”

Mickles enlists male lifers in the state pen to write cautionary letters to incarcerated young men at NYCF to provide a dose of truth from those who’ve walked in their shoes. The author of one letter writes:

“Little homeys,

“It’s no help to stay bitter and angry…Yes, its easier to be that way because you don’t have to be strong enough to own up to your own bad actions…You don’t have to be strong enough to accept the help offered to you…Bitterness and anger make it easy to hide, I get it. I don’t have no magic words or cure to fix your situation, whatever it is. There’s no simple or fast resolution here…

“Ultimately I have learned no one else has the answer…we are the ones with the answer. If you want life to get better you have to be one who works for it and when you slip up you have to be the one who faces that and fixes things as you get back on track. Never give up on you. Just the fact you have someone who has handed or read to you this letter means there are others who haven’t given up on you. 

“I make you a promise, homey, you don’t give up on yourself and I wont give up on you, and one day we’ll look back on life and be thankful we chose to have all the courage to fight for our lives back and to make things better for everyone around us. That’s the power of the divine spirit in each of us, that’s the power of our humanity at its best. 

“Be strong.”

Mickles says the inmates who pen the letters “are real excited about having something to make their lives significant. They desperately want to be able to give back to the community in some way.”

She says the young men who receive the letters and complete her curriculum “have been changed – they’re excited about a new life they can have.” All of CIA’s work is about keeping offenders from recidivism and diverting young people from poor choices that result in doing time.

“It’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community,” she says. “Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community is connecting to the fact these are people.”

She says the best deterrent to criminal behavior starts in childhood.

“If we validate our kids at a very early age and they feel they’re special they’re going to make the right choices.”

It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of a correctional facility.

“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” says Mickles. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.

“You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison. No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”

For tickets to the June 28 event call 402-451-4500.

Keep up with CIA at compassioninaction.com.

Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society

June 29, 2012 1 comment

 

Returning citizens.  It’s a term used to describe men and women exiting the prison system to restart their lives on the outside.  America’s propensity to incarcerate large numbers of offenders results in a huge prison population and this means a constant turnover of individuals going into and coming out of confinement.  Many are repeat offenders.  Keeping folks from going back inside is a major focus theses days of national, state, and local programs because the expense of imprisonment is so high and penal facilities are so overcrowded and then there’s the social cost of people who leave prison and are unable to function as productive citizens in the free world.  The fallout of incarceration and the criminalized underclass has far reaching effects.  It impacts families and jobs.  There are emotional, psychological, physical, and economic consequences that can last generations.  The emphasis today is on preparing folks getting ready to leave prision to cope with the real world and providing them programs and services once they’re out to help them find their way in that world.  A place to live.  A job.  Counseling.  A support network.  Some of these efforts are by large organizations and others are by small ones like Compassion in Action in Omaha, whose founder-director Teela Mickles is the subject of this profile.  She’s one dedicated lady fighting the good fight.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I wrote about a larger returning citizen effort, the Transformation Project, and profiles of individuals who’ve come out of prison to lead transformed lives, including Morris Jackson, Servando Perales, and Aisha Okudi.

 

 

Teela Mickles

 

 

Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Teela Mickles is a self-described “goodie two-shoes” who’s never so much as gotten a jaywalking ticket, yet much of her life is devoted to assisting current and former prison inmates. Her work with our throwaway society‘s discarded is done as a certified Assemblies of God minister and as founder/director of her own community nonprofit, Compassion in Action, which offers pre-release and reentry services/programs.

This one-woman band prepares individuals transitioning from prison back into society. CIA operates two transitional homes in northeast Omaha, one for women and one for men. Volunteers interface with clients and their families, some as pen pals, others “adopting” inmates’ kids while mom or dad is away in prison. She works with an array of professionals in carrying out her missionary work.

She also does a program, Sister to Sister, that steers at-risk girls away from bad choices by exposing them to positive life skills and education/career opportunities. Additionally, she hosts a public access television show, Living the Life, and writes a column in Go-Ahead Entertainment Magazine.

Her work with offenders extends from pre-sentencing to sentencing to incarceration to pre-release to reentry to reestablishment. She attends court hearings, writes letters of support and advocates for inmates who “consistently work” her program. She lets the parole board know she has a place for parolees once they’re out. Once an individual is released, she works with parole and probation officers to ensure her program supports their mandates and that participants comply. Along the way, she hooks up participants with clothing, housing, transportation, jobs, et cetera.

Above all, she remembers she’s dealing with human beings, not statistics. It’s why she and others in the field now call clients “returning citizens” rather than ex-cons.

“We became weary of tagging them with the life-long stigma of ex-felons or ex-offenders,” she said. “That just drags out their sentence, which they have completed during their incarceration. ‘Returning citizens’ puts things into perspective with regard to the importance of community support and acceptance.”

Just getting the public to think about people with records and mug shots as parents with kids who need care, she said, is hard to do. So is finding volunteers to get involved in the lives of kids whose parents are locked up or piecing their lives together on the outside. Too often, she said, society is judgmental about people who’ve run afoul of the law, discounting or dehumanizing them.

Teela’s holistic approach is all about “embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.”

Although never in trouble with the law, she knows something about overcoming hard times. Personal trials she endured led to a conversion that brought the healing and insight necessary to do the prison ministry she’s followed ever since.

Spend any time with her and you fall under the spell of her serene demeanor, her colorful turns-of-phrase, her devotion, her deep knowledge and her abundant compassion, which is more than a title but a genuine expression of her heart.

Little in her early years suggested the path she’d follow, except she always exhibited energy and empathy to serve others. She developed a strong sense of self in the 1950s and ’60s amongst her close, proud, large extended African-American family, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual reunion in Omaha is attended by hundreds of relatives from around the nation. A famous “cuz” who comes in for the gathering is actress Gabrielle Union, whom Teela’s had interact with Sister to Sister participants.

Growing up in South Omaha, North Omaha, and the hills outside Council Bluffs, Teela was raised Catholic. She was a good student often showing off her fine singing voice in school and church. As a young woman she sang in nightclubs. She still occasionally sings at special events. She married early and became a mother of five children, all, like her, musically inclined. She was busy in church, school, community — serving as a Girl Scout, Cub Scout, Brownie leader, room mother, liturgical director. She seemed a contented stay-at-home-mom in a stable, happy relationship.

 

 

 

 

Behind closed doors though she suffered in “a turbulent marriage” marked by “a lot of violence and abuse.” Despite the dysfunction, she said, “I was determined to stay, to stick with it, because that’s all I knew how to do.” Co-dependency prevents domestic violence victims from fleeing. She finally summoned the courage to leave when her oldest daughter revealed her father, Teela’s husband, violated her.

“I took my five kids and never went back to that house, and was homeless for almost three months behind that.”

That wrenching break with the safe and familiar came in 1982. Her children then were ages 12 and under. Adrift, with five hungry mouths to support, her marriage over, Teela didn’t know where to turn for help.

“Because of that situation I didn’t trust anyone — mother, father, sister, brother. I trusted no one with my children. I didn’t trust me because I hadn’t a clue what had been going on, so that was on me. I felt empty and pointless. I felt like such a failure. I figured I failed my husband, I failed my children. I became a topic of gossip among my close family, so I felt like I was a bad daughter, bad sister, bad everything. I had these little kids, they’re looking at me going, What are we supposed to do? I had no clue. I was a single parent, I had never worked outside the home except for six months prior to my leaving. This whole thing was brand new.”

Scary, too. Faith became the pathway for rebuilding her tattered self.

“Even though I was a very religious person, I did not have a personal connection with God to where I felt like I could really live a life free of all this pain. I had this burn inside of me to find this God. It was a quest and the Lord did surround me with a lot of different individuals who would become significant in leading me down that path.”

She found solace and direction at Trinity Hope Four Square Gospel Church, where she attended a Pentecostal revival service and felt the call.

“I did become born again after nine months. That changed everything. The experience was a total transformation mentally, spiritually, physically, and God really impressed upon me I did count, my life did matter.”

That epiphany is the core of the empowering, faith-based message and curriculum she delivers to those coming out of prison. Not unlike a 12-step recovery program, she tends to broken people by giving them the tools and principles for rebuilding themselves and their lives in healthy ways,

Her own crucible came in 1983, when her life went from chaos to clarity. “My born again experience gave me such a peace. I had an understanding and an awareness I was not alone.” Doors began opening her to new opportunities. She got a job with a realty company, managing rental properties, including Section 8 housing. When a five-bedroom unit became available she and her kids moved in. Then, as if by providence, she landed a better job at a company seeking a black Christian woman.

The church she belonged to at the time sponsored a small choir that visited prisons to proclaim the Good News. As Teela always did, no matter what congregation her family attended, she enlisted her kids to perform.

“I have very gifted, talented children. My kids sang, they danced, they were the bomb.”

And so she took lead of the choir and of a youth group she formed to bring scripturally-based music to inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women near York, Neb, and the Youth Rehabilitation & Treatment Center in Geneva, Neb. More visits to more venues followed.

“We went to different substance abuse rehabilitation centers, we went to different churches, we just kind of toured and shared the songs, shared the testimony. That’s how that door opened,” she said.

At the invitation of corrections authorities she began conducting monthly chapel services for the captive audiences in York and Geneva. These are hardened characters. She didn’t pretend she knew their life but she was sure she had something to offer because of the hell she’d been through and the healing she’d found.

“I had enough pain and enough gain that they complemented one another. I was raw enough that I didn’t make any assumptions of what I was stepping into. I knew that God was able to heal and that He’s open for everybody, and I knew that most people didn’t know that. I didn’t and I was a goodie-two-shoes, so how could someone that had a rough life know that?

“I’ve never done drugs or alcohol, I don’t even have a traffic citation, I just had a bad marriage but I’m acquainted with pain and the kind of pain you can’t get relief for from a person. I was still in a process of healing myself and it was amazing how the Lord knitted us together. They (clients) think I bless them but they’ll never know what a blessing they are to me. And that’s how ministry works.”

 

Embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.

    

 

 

Teela feels her ability to relate to ex-offenders lies in her “sensitivity to the value of each person and helping them understand they are valuable in spite of what took place to have them go there. Their issues started before they got in prison.”

Nebraska Department of Corrections Deputy Director of Programs and Community Services Larry Wayne was warden at the York facility when he first met Teela. He’s impressed by how she helps inmates improve decision-making, problem-solving, conflict-management skills from a faith-based approach. “What drives her is her faith,” he said. “You can’t really know Teela unless you know that aspect of her and how she’s motivated.”

Though she mainly works with women she also assists men. She’s visited the Douglas County Corrections center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Tecumseh Correctional Institution. She said in all the countless visits she’s made to prisons and jails she’s never been afraid, even when the lone female among a large group of male inmates and guards. Her fearlessness, she said, is a direct result of her faith and of the compassion she has about this population.

“I believe when God calls you He prepares you. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. Once I saw the people they were just people. In fact, my heart just broke because it was almost like, there’s another side to this story. The person that would act the worst, all hateful and mean and I-dare-you-to-touch-me or I-dare-you-to-get-over or I-dare-you-to-make-me-feel-anything, is the one I would hurt the most for because it’s obvious they hurt the most and had built up all these walls. What he or she was attempting to portray was not who they really were.”

The dignity she shows inmates is returned.

‘The men have always offered me the upmost respect. I have felt more respect and more protection walking across the (prison) yard then walking in some churches. When a man looks at me a certain way another man will check them, ‘No, you don’t look at her that way and you don’t think whatever it is you’re thinking.’ There’s just this aura of respect I’ve always received. I’ve never had any fear.” Besides, she said, “I present myself as untouchable in terms of any game playing. I say, ‘I’m here because I care and my care is for real, so don’t play with it,’ they haven’t.”

Invariably, she said, individuals caught up in the penal system carry a hurt they’ve buried deep inside. Behind bars or on the outside survival dictates they show no weakness. Part of her job though is breaking that wall down so clients can feel again.” That healing, she said, has “gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.”

“We’re constantly after validation — validate to motivate to educate. Most people want to educate first — but what’s your motivation to be educated? Well, if you see yourself as a valuable person, your goals and behavior and objectives might be totally different. That’s always the goal we’re going after.

“I don’t tell anybody what they have to do, I just present options and I turn a light on, and if they’re open to explore that light they will. If they’re scared and it’s just way too much truth for them to digest they’ll back off, but always with respect.”

She said “once a person begins grasping the root causes” of why they act out in harmful ways, “they can create their own options.”

 

A discussion on violence prevention was held Saturday at Creighton University.

 

She used to spend more time in prisons before she inadvertently crossed the line.

“Aa woman I visited in prison gave me a mother’s prayer card for her son, who was in another prison, and I mailed it to him. I didn’t know it was wrong. You would have thought I busted the system. They shut me down, I couldn’t go in any correctional facility. My heart was so hurt because the last thing I would do is break any rules.”

This happened before Teela formed CIA. The inspiration for it came after her banishment, when she received a flood of cards and letters from inmates saying how much they missed her. “All of a sudden I’d been taken away from them,” she said. The correspondence had a similar refrain — individuals got out of prison only to reoffend and wind up back inside. The recidivism alarmed and saddened her.

One woman’s letter particularly touched Teela. “I had already walked her out of prison and helped her get some clothes and connect with her kids, I thought she was doing OK, only to find out she’s back in prison for the fourth time. She wrote, ‘I’m sick of this and this and this, I believe I’m institutionalized.’ That’s when I broke at my job and started crying. I thought, I can’t help these ladies, I’m not doing enough.”

It was obvious something more was needed to sustain people on the outside. Right then in her cubicle the concept and name for Compassion in Action came to her. On a yellow legal pad she outlined CIA’s mission based on the woman’s laments.

“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”

Her new ministry got its start via a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s family support program to provide parent education to women in prison. She conducted six to eight-week classes that met twice a week, with some 20-30 women per class.

“We had some really good results,” said Teela, who designed the curriculum.

Around this time she got downsized at her job and she used her severance pay and an education grant to continue working in prisons and to better inform herself about the population she served. “I had to learn and understand more than I did,” she said. “I got a chemical dependency counseling associate’s degree from Metro (Community College). I was 47 and it was my first time in college. I had a fun time and I graduated with honors. It’s easy to do when you know what you want to be when you grow up.”

Practicums at the Santa Monica and New Creations transitional living programs gave her “a glimpse” of what CIA would evolve to.

 

 

 

File:House Silhouette (black).png

 

 

When the parent education grant funding ended she continued teaching classes with support from churches. But shorter inmate stays and tighter prison security meant less access, rendering the program impractical. Her curtailed prison privileges didn’t help.

But “a bigger vision” awaited. It began to be realized in 2000 when she obtained a former Uta Halee residence on Florence Blvd. to serve as CIA’s All the Way Transitional Home for Women. She recruited volunteers and matched them with clients according to volunteers’ interests and the women’s needs.

Last year she obtained a house for CIA’s first men’s transitional living program. In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

She insists CIA homes are not half-way houses but “places for transition for residents to get themselves prepared for independent living.” That includes making residents employable. “I network with ENCAP (Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership). They have a program for former felons to prepare them for employment,” said Teela.

She said CIA’s sterling reputation has traditionally gotten clients “right in the door” for jobs “but in this horrible economy,” when folks with degrees compete for the same entry level jobs as people with records, “it’s not working now.” She said the ladies currently in residence at All the Way “are frustrated they can’t find work. They’re way behind on their resident fees. It’s a financial strain on us as well.”

Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever get out of prison.

“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release,” said Teela. “We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”

She said renewing family ties can be a sensitive thing because of abuse that occurred. That’s why reconciliation can take time and the focus must first be on recovery.

Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she said.

It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of prison.

“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” said Teela. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.”

That changed expectation, she said, “has helped.” It’s more realistic because in the end people do what they want to do. “You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison,” she said. “No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”

She does have her success stories and she said they all share something in common.

“Everyone that’s succeeded has a real, genuine, personal relationship with God,” noted Teela. “Their gifts and their plans had to be spiritually connected, because they tried everything else and it didn’t work. Once they recognize this is the part that makes it happen and they stick with it, they succeed.”

That was the case with All the Way’s first resident, Andrea. “We worked with her prior to her sentence, during her sentence, then when her sentence was complete she was here,” said Teela. “She had a plan, she stuck with her plan. She got a job at Creighton Medical Center. Now she’s living and working in Kansas City, and having a house built.” In another case, Teela recruited and trained a family to adopt Tracie and her three sons. While Tracie was incarcerated the family took her boys to visit her and the family did various activities with the youths. The family remained engaged with her and the boys until she was free and reunited with her sons. “In that match,” said Teela, “we crossed everything — racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic barriers.” As Teela likes to say the adoptive family got to see the other side of the story — that “Tracie’s a great mom, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Tracie’s earned a college degree while working as CIA’s program manager. She’s now pursuing a master’s in health and human services.

Lataunya is another shining example. “She had such little belief in herself and she accomplished so much. She got a great job, she got her own car and a three-bedroom apartment, then her own home. She was pardoned by the mayor, and now she’s trying to work as a professional in the field. An amazing woman,” said Teela.

Two men recently helped by CIA are doing well on their own. Allen manages a store at the Westroads Mall and Pierre is working and raising his three sons, who stayed with him at the men’s transitional home. It’s not often residents have their children with them in transitional homes but exceptions are made if circumstances warrant it.

 

 

Nebraska State Penitentiary

Nebraska State Penitentiary

 

 

The impact her work makes isn’t always readily apparent. Like the revelation a female physician made to her.

“Twenty years ago this woman was a 14-year-old troubled youth in Geneva who had been in and out of foster care. She remembered me coming there and the ministry I shared. She stated her ‘relationship with God and sports’ turned her life around. So here she was 20 years later, my doctor! You can’t imagine how I felt at that moment.”

For a long time Teela felt she was doing her work in isolation but recent developments have encouraged her she’s not alone. “One of the exciting things happening now is the community finally is becoming more involved in the reentry piece,” she said. A driving force, as she sees it, is the federal reentry initiative. “It opened the door to invite the community in so that law enforcement and corrections were introduced to the other side of the story.”

In line with her own work, she said the new emphasis is on “trying to keep people out of prison by trying to accommodate their reentry needs.” It only makes sense, she said, because “it’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community. Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community’s connecting to the fact these are people. Prior to that it was cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em. Now they’re being asked to hug-a-thug.”

The shift took some doing. “It went from one dynamic to the other and it was an education for everyone. Now everybody’s on the same page. There’s better communication between the state, county and city agencies, plus the different community groups.” Now, entities and organizations that had little to do with each other before are working together and CIA is playing its part.

She and others are working on putting more “faces in places” — having more community members visit prisons to educate inmates on things they can do to better prepare themselves for life on the outside, whether getting a GED or working a recovery program. She said in lieu of specific options many inmates cop the attitude, “I don’t see the point, I’m just going to do my time and get out of here.”

Teela trains others to serve this population. “I avail myself as a resource person or consultant in the area of pre-release, reentry and transition. We’re on the front lines with the background we have. We’ve been doing this for so long.” Society’s focus on these issues, she said, can’t come soon enough given “the prison population is growing and getting younger and the situations are becoming more difficult.”

Metro College community liaison Tommy Wilson is leading community Table Talks on reentry services and she said Mickles is one of the first persons she called to participate. “I’m very impressed with what Teela does and she does so much with so little. Teela knows where the gaps are, she’s been there, she knows what needs to be done with this reentry piece. She brings a lot of valuable resources to the community,” said Wilson, who’s accompanied Teela behind bars, where she said her reputation precedes her. “Everybody knows Miss Teela does this or Miss Teela does that — she can tell them how to get some housing or some transportation.”

Larry Wayne said Teela’s “integrity” earns her credibility inside the walls and on the street, because she’s earned the trust of people who’ve been let down before. “She’s walked a mile in their shoes, not in prison necessarily, but she’s faced up to challenges that look a lot like what they’re struggling with.” He said ex-offenders respond to her “unconditional love” and her “being there for them. They know she will follow through with them. She has a proven track record and that carries a lot.”

Networking is vital to what she does and that means attending many meetings. She also makes several presentations a year. Then there’s this Church Lady’s weekly bible study, worshiping at Sunday services — she’s an equal opportunity church-goer who explores different places and styles of worship — and monthly Christian Business Women’s Association luncheons. She estimates she works 60 hours a week. No two days are alike. Her son Mark helps her run CIA’s behind-the-scenes operations. Her other children have helped, too. But beyond a part-time office staffer and a small corps of volunteers it’s Teela’s baby. Volunteers and funds are harder to come by these days, she said. The needs are many. But Teela just keeps on trucking along.

“Somehow we make it,” she said.

She looks forward to a day when there’s more community awareness of the population she serves and their needs. She’s sure if basic values of self-worth and respect for others were more widely taught at an early age her caseload would be cut to a fraction because fewer would end up imprisoned. That’d be just fine with Miss Teela.

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