A Thanksgiving Reflection: How Advocacy Can Make a Difference

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Early this week, I was having Thanksgiving dinner with my fiancée. She is onJohn Lash her way home for the holiday, and I am staying in Georgia to work on my final paper for school and take care of a few other tasks, so we shared the meal a few days early. Before we began to eat, we took a few moments to talk about what we have been grateful for this past year. It was a pretty long list for both of us, and touched on our relationships, our work, good health, and many other things.

It seems that gratitude has been coming up a lot in my life lately, in discussions with friends and online. People on Facebook have been posting each day about what they are appreciating in their lives. I have been enjoying reading their reflections. It is easy to overlook the many blessings that we have, and to focus on what is missing or what could be just a little better. Intentionally bringing our awareness to what is going well in our lives is a great remedy for a lot of our imagined problems. 

My own life is remarkably different than it was just a few years ago. Thanksgiving of 2009 saw me still in prison, unsure of whether the parole board would give me another chance at life on the outside. For many years I had lived with the assurance that I would never be released, and then in 2006 a tiny bit of hope appeared to me, literally. It was the Refuge of Hope, a Christian home (not a half-way house they will adamantly insist) for men being released from prison. I went there in December of 2009, got my feet under me, and then in 2011 enrolled in the Masters in Conflict Management Program at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. 

Today I work at the Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga. I share communications skills and conflict management strategies with a diverse group of clients, including school kids and volunteers from impoverished neighborhoods in the city. We are working to develop a restorative justice program for juveniles that will meet the needs of crime victims as well as the kids who harm them. Wednesday night I facilitated a three-hour mediation involving a dispute between couples and friends. 

I am grateful to be able to do this work, and especially to be able to write for JJIE and Youth Today. When I was in prison, very few people were concerned with my opinion, but on these pages what I have to offer is valued by many readers precisely because of my experiences with the criminal justice system.

I am not an indifferent observer of facts. My views, shared here for more than a year, are born of my own life. I was a deeply disturbed and harmful person as a teenager. I was a prisoner, and I learned not only to survive, but to grow and change. Now I am a man doing the work I am called to do, hopefully making a small impact on this world, and, I pray, on the lives of the young people I am coming into contact with. From someone who lived violently, I have become an advocate for peace.

It is strange to reflect that 25 years ago the state contemplated killing me as punishment for my crime. Later, when I had a life sentence, the state contemplated letting me die in prison. Neither of those things happened, because a few people decided to take a chance on me.

I don’t need a scientific survey or brain scan to know that young people can change, because I have lived that change. I advocate for young people now because I have an unshakeable faith that they too can change and become productive members of this world on the outside of prison. I believe in mercy because it was extended to me when I most needed it. For that I am thankful, and I hope and pray to see the same mercy extended to as many children as possible. Happy Thanksgiving.