We are so proud of our founder, Waleisah! Out of hundreds of applicants from across the country, she was 1 of 36 formerly incarcerated leaders accepted into the 2017 "Leading with Conviction" Cohort, an intensive national leadership & advocacy training program sponsored by JustLeadershipUSA in New York. She has proven that she is NOT her criminal record and that having one doesn't stop you from being an effective leader! It has only enhanced her ability to become an amazing criminal justice reform advocate! We are glad that she is using her conviction to LEAD!
Check our her JustLeadership USA highlight bio by clicking the link below (hers is the second highlight at the bottom)
Meet the Founder: How I used my Test as a TESTimony!
I was born and raised in Columbus. Despite growing up in the projects and not having what other kids had, I felt loved and fulfilled as my mom was in nursing school and did whatever she could to take care of me and my two younger siblings. However, things changed. She became addicted to crack and from that point, a stable home and foundation were a thing of the past. As a child, we experienced eviction, homlessness, going to different schools and foster care. I was even molested on more than one occassion by more than one of my mom's men friends. However, I didn't let any of this deter me from becoming the person I knew I could become because if there was one thing I had in my favor, it was a love for knowledge and education. As long as I could remember, I have been an honor roll student who had always excelled in academics and it was these grades that got me several offers of full academic scholarships from over 10 colleges and universities. After graduating college, I immediately returned back to Columbus and got a job at the very same girls home that I called home for a year in high school. Since graduating college, I have gone on to get graduate degrees and I have worked in a many areas including the food industry, restaurant management, vocational instruction, mental health, social services and non-profit management. However, things drastically changed due to one felony conviction.
When a prisoner is released to his or her community, they want nothing more than to move on with their lives and become better people. However, having a criminal record creates discriminatory and unfair barriers that prohibit individuals with criminal records from being successful upon their return to their communities and restricts their access to job opportunities, housing and community resources which causes them to be unemployed, homeless, a burden on society and more than often leads to them re-offending and committing more crime in order to support themselves and their families. In Georgia, if convicted of a drug felony, one is often subjected to having their driver’s license suspended and a lifetime ban on food stamps. Therefore, how can society expect ANYONE to be self-sufficient in supporting themselves and their families, be good stewards, be productive, feel like a true citizen of their communities AND stay out of trouble by refraining from crime if they can’t get jobs, drive to the job, get into housing, vote, be on a jury or have access to community resources? How can anyone expect people to not commit crime to take care of themselves when so many doors are slammed in their faces upon returning home?
Wanting to find solutions on how to reduce my city's crime and recidivism rates, combined with my own experiences with these same barriers upon my release from prison in 2011, motivated me to be a part of the change that I wanted to see in my community. Despite having a Master’s degree in Human Services, working towards a Doctorate's degree and a vast professional experience, I was not given employment and housing opportunities because of a felony from a one-time arrest. Having these doors slammed in my face frustrated me and gave me a more in-depth look at one of the major reasons as to why the crime continues to go up......the lack of job opportunities for individuals with criminal records. Therefore, I stopped waiting for "opportunity" to knock at my door and instead of just complaining about the crime and recidivism rates and the lack of opportunities for ex-offenders to get on the right path, I created the "door or opportunity" and established an organization as a solution, a solution that would better EQUIP them with the skills needed to better prepare them in their job searches, EMPOWER them to be confident enough to know that they can be successful and to assist them on their journey to be fully RESTORED and productive within the communities in which they live.
I used my education, my professional expertise, my passion, drive and determination to help give second chances to others when none would be given to me. By assisting those who were most vulnerable at re-offending with the job readiness and life skills workshops and connecting them with employers who are willing to hire them and give them second chances despite their criminal past, is the most rewarding feeling! By empowering, encouraging and assisting these individuals with gaining employment, they have become more confident in themselves, more productive in their communities, self-sufficient and able to permanently refrain from criminal behavior. It is my personal vision that Columbus become a safer and more open-minded community that is known for its growth and tolerance as opposed to one embedded in social stigma and discriminatory treatment of individuals with criminal backgrounds who are often treated as third class citizens, especially those who are truly making attempts to make or have made positive changes in their lives. I hope that those who are truly wanting to change and have made changes are encouraged to continue to do so and that instead of being turned away and beaten down that they will be given another chance to prove that they are worthy of a place in society and that who they are today is no longer reflective of the person (and past) that they used to be. It is my goal to educate those in my community on the importance of giving second chances and to be living proof that WE ARE NOT OUR PASTS!