Category Archives: Guest blogger

Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame.  His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog.  There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know.  In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable.  In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man.  Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars.  Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy.  As he confessed in a post earlier this year:

“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”

In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:

Expectations vs. Reality

By James E. Walker Jr.

Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man.  A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.

During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison.  I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside.  Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously.  I did.  I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.

Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days.  It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience.  For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.

Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book.  Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me?  The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior.  Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.

And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success.  I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me.  All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison.  Why shouldn’t it?  Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?

What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different.  Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced.  I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses.  Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do.  In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing.  You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that.  Ain’t nothing happenin’!

In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position.  The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me.  The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job.  An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me.  A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction.  When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation.  The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison.  When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.

The list goes on and on…

Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself.  I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me.  Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls.  I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications.  I’ve stopped blasting my resume.  I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.

I still selectively submit applications online.  I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter.  I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible.  I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior.  I do so clearly and genuinely.  I don’t wallow or grovel.  I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.

Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm.  The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization.  My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me.  They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past.  They genuinely like me, the person.  I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment.  My gratitude extends beyond all measure.

At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me.  Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society.  Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.

So does my determination to bridge it.

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, education ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, Guest blogger, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, starting over, Uncategorized

Guest Post: Jackie Dishner talks about how to inspire a strong recovery in your life

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Guest Poster Jackie Dishner to Out and Employed.   As I noted yesterday, Jackie is a writer, author, bike enthusiast and motivational speaker, who has lots of good advice from personal experience on turning your life around.  Jackie believes each of us can transform obstacles and setbacks into opportunity by finding our Best Self, developing Inner strength, learning to trust our Killer Instinct and using our Expressive Voice.  She believes it so much, in fact, that she’s in the process of writing a book on her BIKE principles.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy what she has to say….

HOW TO INSPIRE A STRONG RECOVERY

By Jackie Dishner of BIKE WITH JACKIE

Although I have never specifically worked with ex-offenders, some of the women I’ve worked with in my volunteer service to Homeward Bound have been ex-offenders. I’ve heard the challenges and hardships that follow time served. I’ve heard the concerns of not being able to find better employment, about being judged, about feeling dead-ended.

That’s a tough place to be mentally. I get that. I’ve felt dead-ended before. I’ve felt hopelessly lost and unsure.

I didn’t like it.

That’s a good place to start if you want to move forward. Don’t like it. Don’t. Use that distaste to propel you to a better place—even if that better place, for right now, is only in your mind. That’s how you begin to inspire a stronger and long-lasting recovery.

I learned this in my own Recovery. I’m a Recovering Codependent. I discovered my affliction while going through a divorce from a man who claimed to be a sex addict. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. He denies it now. But what he said made sense to me. It explained a lot about his behavior. And it sure was a frightening way to feel forced into a divorce. I didn’t like that. So I got on a bicycle to figure things out. On the seat of my bike, I learned a lot about myself. I reconnected with the me I wanted to be. And I learned how to take back charge of my own life. He could be whatever he was. But I wanted the same for me. And that meant a life without him in it—I wanted the life I deserved.

So now that you realize something similar for yourself,, are you wondering what’s next? From the seat of my bike, I learned a lot of personal growth lessons that helped inspire my own recovery. If you want a stronger recovery for yourself, you’ll have to take action. Here are eight steps you can take now:

1) EMPOWER YOURSELF BY LETTING GO

Because recovery is a lifelong process, it means you continually get the chance to make a fresh start. We’ll never stop making mistakes, missing the mark on something, doing something we wish we wouldn’t. We’re human. We won’t be perfect. Ever. So start by letting go of that expectation. When you let go, you’ve gained an immediate sense of liberty. You’re making room for fresh starts and do-overs. If you need to let go of something else—and only you know what that is—do it. Give yourself the opportunity to start over.

2) ACCEPT THAT YOU HAVE A CHOICE

Every day that you wake up, you are faced with a choice of how you will approach your day. Well, then, why not make it simple? Decide to be your best. And I mean, literally, say out loud so you can hear the words, “Today, I live my best life.” And then go about the day becoming aware of your behavior. Periodically ask yourself: Am I responding in the best way I know how? Could I do better?

3) OWN RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS

It’s time to set aside blame, guilt or anger and begin to realize only you are in charge of you. If you’re supposed to meet your probation officer, then you go. No questions. No complaints. If you owe people money, you figure out a way to pay—even if it means partial payments over time. If you have a job, you show up—on time. You don’t run away. Not when you’re in Recovery. You stand up and take charge. Embrace any uncomfortable feelings you might have and realize you’re practicing living the authentic life; you’ll improve in time.

4) DEVELOP YOUR COPING SKILLS

Coping skills are the tools we have within and without that help hold us up when we feel weak. Like a tall building has an iron frame and the body has a skeleton of bones, the mind also needs something to shore it up, something to help it adapt to change. That’s where coping skills come in. They calm our nerves when we feel anxious, protect us from harm, and help hold us accountable. They include such things as journaling to get out our crazy-making thoughts, exercising to relieve stress, or setting a personal boundary when we need to say no. Coping skills have a lot to do with our individual personalities. Do you know what yours are? Do you need to use them more often?

5) DECIDE WHAT YOUR BEST LIFE LOOKS LIKE

If you haven’t drawn out a picture of what your best life looks like, try doing it now. What do you look like? Draw a picture. Where do you live? Illustrate that on paper as well. What is your job? Can you picture yourself in that position? Who are your friends and what do they do? Once you have an illustration (If you don’t draw well, use stick figures or pictures from a magazine), then you have the beginnings of a plan that will help you do two things: 1) decide what you want out of life; 2) decide the steps you need to get there. This is not a static plan; revisit it often and make changes where necessary.

6) FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE CHANGES YOU’VE MADE

When you have a plan ready to go, each time you do something that moves you closer to your goal, that’s a success. No matter how tiny. If you made a phone call, or sent an e-mail to a potential employer, that’s a positive. Take time first thing every morning to acknowledge how far you’ve come. If you focus on what you’ve accomplished, you’ll feel good about yourself. You won’t spend wasteful moments beating yourself up for what you haven’t yet done. Consider any resistance you might be feeling. That resistance might be trying to tell you something. Pay attention.

7) MOVE PAST THE SETBACKS

If there’s one thing you can count on in Recovery, it’s a setback. You may experience several. Accept them for what they are—temporary—and then decide what you need to do to move them aside. Do you need to journal? Will that help you figure it out? Do you need to apologize to someone? Do you need to correct a mistake? Think of your setback as a life challenge to face and then set aside when done with it. It’s not your friend. It’s not your enemy. It’s just another challenge. Like a jigsaw puzzle. once you figure it out, you’ll be able to figure it out sooner if you do it again.

8) USE REMINDERS TO MOVE YOU FORWARD

Other people’s success stories, your own, famous quotes that inspire you. Find people, places and things that remind you where you going and why. Use what you learn to teach others. Find ways to remind yourself that your Recovery is worth the work. You are worth the work that it will take to find your personal and professional success. No one else can define this for you. No one else can fully understand your internal struggle. But you can. Look for the things that speak to you and write them down on Post-it Notes or start a file of clippings and kudos that you can refer to for inspiration.

Now it’s your turn. Can you think of other inspirational tips you’ve learned so far? Recovery is a lot easier if we’re in it together, so please feel free to share.

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Filed under addiction and recovery, education ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, Guest blogger, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, Jackie Dishner, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, skills, starting over, taking responsibility, talents

Coming tomorrow: Inspiration and strategies to help you change your life

Tomorrow you’ll be hearing from the very talented and inspirational Jackie Dishner as part of the WordCount Blogathon’s Guest Blogger Day.  Jackie is a Phoenix-based speaker,  freelance writer, author of Back Roads and Byways of Arizona, and founder of the BIKE WITH JACKIE blog, where her aim is to help readers turn obstacles into opportunity with her special brand of motivation.  In addition to being something she likes to ride, BIKE is an acronym for finding your:

BEST SELF
INNER STRENGTH
KILLER INSTINCT
EXPRESSIVE VOICE

It’s a message Jackie has taken to numerous audiences, including homeless women who are in transition.   That’s one reason I thought she’d be a perfect fit here at Out and Employed.   To introduce herself, Jackie agreed to answer a few questions before  she shares her thoughts tomorrow:

Can you tell my readers a bit about your background and how you came up with the principals of BIKE that you now speak and write about so eloquently?  I understand initially there was a real bike involved.

Yes, it was a turning point in my life.  At the end of 2002, my husband came home to tell me he’d been living a secret life. It involved other women. He literally told me he thought he was a sex addict. Scared the living daylights out of me. I didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t talked about back then. He told me a little bit about what he’d done, but before we had opportunity to work this out, he moved out. I think of it as running scared, because I think he left so he didn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions. So I had to. I sought therapy, eventually got a lawyer. But most importantly, the thing that helped me deal with the anxiety and fear of the unknown was my bike.

It had been sitting in my garage for eight years, collecting dust. But at the precise moment when I needed it most, it was there. It’s like it called out to me. I called it my life saver, because every day for three years, while we went through what became a very difficult divorce process, emotionally, I rode. I just automatically got up every morning, rain or shine and rode my bike.  I worked out a lot of my challenges on the seat of that bike. I wore the thing down and had to buy a new one mid-way. But it did its job, and led me to a speaking career. I do motivational speaking now and teach classes I call my BIKE LESSONS that help audience members see how they can take a traumatic event and turn it into a triumph.

When we spoke,  you told me how you do a regular BIKE seminar with women in transition in a local shelter. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to that work?  What are some of the issues these women are facing?  How have you seen them apply the principals of finding their best self, inner strength, killer instinct and expressive voice?

I was referring to my BIKE LESSONS. I generally teach them one letter at a time, so it’s a four-week program (or a half-day, if that’s all the time available). I’ve partnered with a homeless shelter in Phoenix. I teach it once a year, though I’d like to do it more often. They don’t want me to get burned out. It can be a tough crowd, not because the women are tough (though some are, for self-protection), but because they have really dark and sad stories to tell, probably like many of the women you’ve worked with.

It was a coincidence that brought me to them. I’m involved in a weekly women’s breakfast network group in Phoenix, and one of the members I first met was on the board of this homeless shelter at the time. After volunteering with her on a program that took us to Kenya to learn about women’s issues there, I suggested to her that I’d like to work with women here in the U.S., that I thought I had something that could be helpful to women in transition. So she introduced me to the director of the shelter. I got the grand tour, liked what I saw, and we discussed my idea for the empowerment class. They made it really easy to work with them, and the next thing I knew, the first class was scheduled.

So there I was, in the shelter’s library with 10 women, strangers, who wanted my help, and I related all too well to their stories. Abusive homes. Abusive husbands. Addiction. Drugs. Poverty. I’d known this in my own past. They were telling me stories that came from my own past, not always mine directly. But it was very close to home. So I was able to adapt my lessons to fit their needs. And we had fun while we shared. I didn’t want it to be heavy hitting or a big downer. I wanted them to take what they had known–the painful past–and be able to see beyond that. That’s what my BIKE LESSONS are all about. To find the way back your Best self, to reconnect with your Inner strength, to become aware of that Killer instinct, and to use your Expressive voice to seek help as needed. By coming to me for those four weeks, they were doing that.

Later, I learned one of the women took her past and now uses it to help girls get off the streets. She was a prostitute, and now she’s helping turn other girls lives around. I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that she used my lessons to find the strength to do that. She mentioned at the end of our time together that she wanted to do what I was doing, and now she is. She’s become a role model for the women who come in after her. The next class I taught told me she told them they’d have fun taking my class. So I think I leave a positive impression, and that’s my intent, to leave them with hope that there’s more out there for them if they reach for it.

How about you?   How do the BIKE principles work in your life?   How long did it take before you really felt you were putting them into action? Is it a series of steps to complete or an ongoing process?

My BIKE principles are part of my everyday life. It’s an on-going process that grows with me, provided I work on it. It’s not something you just learn once and then that’s it. It’s about constant awareness and living life consciously. But that’s the reason it works so well. It’s a tool that acts as a reminder. It’s about determining who you really are inside. Once you have those four letters, your BIKE–it’s a mental thing, not a metal thing–in place, you have your foundation. I sometimes call it a 12-step program reduced to 4, because a lot of the work is about taking personal inventory of who you are, where you’re at, and what do you need to work on (spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially, sexually) to be whole again.

This “mental” BIKE is another way to think of that process. It’s a more active approach, I think, because a good reason why it worked so well for me, especially in the beginning, is because I gave myself the time to assess the things that really mattered to me that had gotten cast aside for a while. I’d been in a relationship I didn’t know wasn’t good for me. But once my ex confessed to his truth, that opened the door for my truth to appear. I could take responsibility for myself again, because I was informed. I knew what I was dealing with. I’m grateful for that. I might still be stuck if he hadn’t done that for me.

So once you have your BIKE in place, once you know who you really are deep inside, your core self, that knowledge is always going to be there to help you, to remind you, to hold you accountable. You eliminate blame and guilt from your life. You just have to deal with you. So that, during times of doubt, you’ll remember what you’ve achieved in the past to carry you beyond the next challenge. You’ll use your successes to create more successes.

You’ll know how deep you can dig to find the strength to ride up those symbolic hills, and you’ll know your limits, too. You’ll not only know that your gut is speaking to you when you feel hesitant about doing or saying something, you’ll begin to pay attention and take action based on that hesitancy.
That’s why I refer to instincts as Killer. We all have instincts. The problem is we don’t all pay attention to them. We sometimes ignore them or push them aside. We don’t trust our own judgement. With your Killer instincts intact, you do. You’re honed in on what’s really important.

And the voice?  It’s only Expressive when you use it–to seek help, to get advice, to speak up for yourself.

This all boils down to self-esteem. If you really don’t know who you are inside, what you’re really made of, what really matters to you, you’re going to move about in life without direction, without goals–and you’re not going to get anywhere. The purpose of my special brand of BIKE is to keep you moving forward, despite the setbacks. Whatever setbacks you experience, they won’t hold you back for long. You won’t let them. You’ll know yourself better than that.

Can you tell my readers a bit about your blog and what you hope your readers take away from it?


My blog was set up to be an extension of my lessons. I use the things that occur in my everyday life, the challenges that we all face on a normal basis, to show readers how the BIKE works in real life. It’s a reminder. So when I’m experiencing a challenge, I tell a story of how I overcame that challenge, or maybe how I screwed up and what I did about it then. It’s a continuation of the lessons I learned from the seat of my metal bike that became the mental BIKE. And it’s the raw beginnings of the book I’m now writing called LESSONS FROM THE SEAT OF MY BIKE. I’ve been at this since 2004. That’s the year I first discovered what the bicycle had done for me and gave my first presentation about it. It has since evolved into the BIKE concept or philosophy, and the blog is all about how its practicalities–how to make it work for you. It’s not always a direct lesson. You sometimes have to read into the inspirational moments. But that’s what it is. I hope it’s inspiring and interesting and entertaining.

Can you give us a little sneak preview about what you’ll have to say to my readers?


In my guest post for your readers, I’ll be sharing specific tips on how to live strong in recovery. In other words, I’ll share tips on how you can live that conscious life I mentioned earlier. That’s what you need to stay focused on positive forward movement. So I’ll share practical ways you can make sure that happens.

Thanks, Jackie. I look forward to sharing your thoughts tomorrow and I’ve no doubt my readers will gain a great deal  from your insights.

See you then.

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Filed under addiction and recovery, ex-offenders education, Guest blogger, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility, talents