Category Archives: personal responsibility

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author

freefall2

Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, personal responsibility, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Will Tim Riggins be able to find a job after he’s released?

I usually try to keep my facts and fiction fairly separate on this blog.  But watching this season’s final  episode of “Friday Night Lights,” I was struck by how well the show captured the character of so many who end up serving time:  good people who’ve just made very bad decisions. 

With Tim Riggins, the troubled, but talented football heartbreaker from Dillon, Texas, you always got the sense that here was a guy who could go either way.  Abandoned by his parents, he was essentially raised by his nere-do-well brother Billy, who’s forever  coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that skirt the edge of legality.  In the first couple of seasons, Riggins weaknesses for alcohol and women, as well as his tendency to take the path of least resistance  were a great source of drama, but more often than not his downfall.  

Tim Riggins in happier times

This year, he’s graduated from football stardom and headed off to college to finally make something of himself. Only college isn’t for him and soon he’s back in Dillon, living in a trailer owned by a cocktail waitress he hooked up with and working in a repair shop with his brother. When he finds out Billy is trafficking in stolen cars on the side, he knows it’s illegal, but can’t resist one last chance to make a quick buck. 

Same old Tim, right? Were any of us surprised when the police showed up?

But here’s where the writers did something interesting.  Yes, Tim is caught, but he’s also already changed more than even he has realized.  For one, he’s spent the year resisting the high schooler who’s been throwing herself at him.  He also refused to take advantage of her mother.  And in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he takes the fall for both himself and his brother, so Billy can stay with his wife and his newborn.  In other words, as he throws off his old “football star” persona to begin serving his time in jail, he’s already on the path to redemption.  

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What will Riggins do after he gets out?  Will he be able to find a job?  I know that actor  Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins,  has gone on to feature films might not be back next year, which is too bad.  It would be interesting to see the writers explore his reentry.   Perhaps they could shed a similarly realistic light on the challenge of starting over. 

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode, you can catch it here for a few more weeks. 

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As an additional note:  this will probably be my last posting for the summer.  It’s time to take some time off for fun and family.  In the interim, I hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer.   See you back here in September.

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Filed under breaking the law, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

Lindsay Lohan’s jail break

Jail is an awful, dehumanizing place, and I don’t envy Lindsay Lohan for having to spend time there.

In case you’ve fallen behind in your tabloid reading: Lohan, the talented, but increasingly troubled actress, began serving a 90-day sentence today at the women’s jail in Lynwood, California.  She got it for failing to show up to court and violating the terms of her probation on earlier misdemeanor drug and driving charges.  

 In the run-up to her surrender, there was a predictable face-off between those who felt Lohan was getting what she deserved and those who thought she’d be better off in a rehab program.

While I agree that jail isn’t going to cure  a serious substance abuse problem, I have to say I’m glad she’s there.   And no, not just because this proves a famous actress isn’t above the law and has to pay for what she’s done like everyone else.   Initially, I thought that might be why as I’ve often expressed how I feel about rich or celebrated lawbreakers getting special treatment.

But ultimately, I realized it was more because of Lohan’s similarities to others who are doing time  behind bars.   If you take out the spoiled actress part and all the money, she’s actually a  pretty typical inmate.  Consider:

Lohan, who first charmed me playing twin sisters in “The Parent Trap,” has some incredible gifts.  My hope  is that she’s able to see this as a wake-up call and use her time away from society — which is expected in the end to be around 23 days — to face her problems.  Going to rehab is almost fashionable among the Hollywood set.  But sometimes people need a bigger dose of reality to get them to truly want to change.   Just as with Roberty Downey Jr.,  whose drug use ultimately earned him a prison term, this could be a turning point for Lohan. 

Readers, what do you think?  Have any of you ever been prompted to change your life or deal with major shortcomings because of  a jail or prison term?  How did you do it?

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, life in prison, personal responsibility, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, women ex-offenders

Recognizing those on the front lines of reentry

If one of these folks  has helped you rebuild your life, this is the week to let them know.   And feel free to share your stories here.

Over the years, I’ve volunteered in probation offices in both Indiana and Virginia,  doing interviews and presentence reports, counseling and helping manage caseloads.  In both places,  I’ve been struck by the dedication these always overworked and typically underpaid professionals bring to their jobs.  I know probation and parole officers are often viewed as one more legal  hurdle by those convicted of crimes.   Some of my students have talked about how they feel their P.O. is out to get them and eager to send them back to jail.  But the P.O.’s I’ve worked with work hard to help their clients succeed, and see rearrest, or imprisonment as a last resort.    

For more information,  you can check out the American Probation and Parole Association website.  There’s a lot of great info there on the history of probation, as well as the latest on what’s working in community supervision.     

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Filed under education ex-offenders, personal responsibility, probation and parole, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, Uncategorized

What you have the power to do

“The most common way  people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”        

             Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”

I love this quote.  It reminds me of something I’ve struggled with on occasion.  Like say, last week when I was having a career-related ” poor me”  party, and forgot that I wasn’t completely at the mercy of events;  that there were some steps I could take to on my own behalf.

Yes, I was guilty of giving my power away.

If you’re starting over with a criminal record, you might also feel you have little power.  That’s okay.   It’s perfectly  understandable to worry about taking charge of your life again, particularly if you’ve served time and had most of your daily movements proscribed. 

But you do have more power than you realize, and even if you don’t feel it now, you can reclaim it.  Here are some of the most common areas where people with criminal records (and even those without them)  tend to give up power and strategies on how to get it back.            

 Job Search

  • Signs and Symptoms:    Thinking no one will hire you because you have a criminal record, thinking you’re turned down for jobs because of your past or because there’s something wrong with you.  Giving up prematurely on an employment search, getting overly nervous in interviews because you’re afraid you won’t get the job. 
  • Remedies: Assessing your strengths and weaknesses so you know what you have to offer an employer and how to sell yourself.  Being upfront about  your background and how you’ve changed and moved beyond it.  Acknowledging you understand why an employer might have concerns, but emphasizing how you will work to the best of your ability to prove yourself.  Realizing that everyone gets turned down for jobs, particularly in this market, and persisting in your search for as long as it takes. 

Relationships

  • Signs and Symptoms: Staying in a relationship where you are unable to be your best self, or one that is abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Can include romantic relationships or friendships where you are encouraged to engage in behavior that is not in your best interest. Becoming involved in a relationship where you feel you must sacrifice your dreams or desires in order to make someone else happy.   Carrying grudges or anger from slights or hurts in the past.
  • Remedies:  Learning to value your own wants and needs as much as other people’s.   Making sure you do not have to sacrifice who you are to maintain a friendship or relationship.  Seeking out alliances with individuals you admire who are living the kind of life that you aspire to. Leaving relationships that are abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Dedicating yourself to developing your own strengths and reaching your own goals.  Letting go of blame for past hurts and moving on with your own life.

Addiction

  • Signs and Symptoms:  Usually obvious and unhealthy attachment to substances or practices that are destructive and ultimately take over your life; drugs, alcohol, gambling, thrill-seeking, sex, etc.
  • Remedies:  Acceptance, treatment and support.

Dealings with Law Enforcement:  

  • Signs and Symptoms:   Unnatural or exaggerated fear that even though you have served your time, police or local law enforcement (sometimes even probation officers are included here) are out to get you.
  • Remedies:  Realization that you have control over your actions.   As long as you choose to abide by the conditions of your release and become a law-abiding citizen, you should not be in trouble again.  Realizing the people, places and things that can get you in trouble and avoiding those can go a long way towards helping you stay on the right path. 

Readers, how about you?   Have you ever struggled to hold onto your power?   Have you ever given it away and regretted it?   And if so, how have you gotten it back?

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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