"I know people may be judgemental... but my story, it's beautiful to me now."
When I was growing up, we sometimes lived in places where there was no heat, no lights, even no water. One time we had a house that the electric company put a meter on, like a parking meter. We had to put change in it to keep our lights on because there was no money to pay the electric bill and we kept getting cut off. My brother, sister and I would go to friend's houses searching for change to try buy a little more time.
I grew up primarily in Madison, and in the 1990’s my neighborhood became an epicenter for the crack epidemic. It was a time of pure survival, and it was hard to know who to trust. In my personal experience, a lot of the time the people that were supposed to hurt me were the ones who protected me, and the people that were supposed to protect me hurt me. My mom, she loved me, I know, but she had struggles with PTSD, depression and a disability. She couldn’t always provide for us or keep us safe. I was molested by a family member at a young age. I got into trouble early; I was arrested when I was 9 for stealing food from a grocery store.
I was always in survival mode as a kid, and I made a lot of bad choices based on that. When I was 14 years old I was sentenced in Juvenile Court and sent to Southern Oaks Girls School, a facility for juvenile girl offenders. I served time there and in a group home in Steven’s Point.
When I finally returned home, it was the same situation. Mom is still poor. Kids are still here needing to eat. I felt as if I didn’t have a road map for what to do next. I realized that I had been given a "don't do" list, but there was never a "do" list. I was like, ‘How do I take a first step? How do I strategize? How do I make it work? How do I survive?’
As a young adult, I wanted to start on a different path, but I didn’t know how. I kept falling back into what I knew, then I would get caught and end up back in jail. And I didn’t receive a lot of empathy from within the system, or help setting my life on a better path. Life was hard inside and it was hard outside.
One day I was still in jail but on work release, working the third shift as a waitress. My sister called me at work and she’s in an argument with her boyfriend. He could be violent and so I told her to leave the house. They're arguing. Nothing new to their relationship. But I’m on the phone trying to tell her to leave the house and he shoots her. I am on the phone with her and she is murdered.
What do you do at that point? I was devastated. That same week I was released from prison. I was not emotionally ready. I had been saving some money for when I got out, but I ended up putting it all in to help pay for the funeral. My sister had a son, and after she was killed my mom and I ended up taking care of him.
Later on I got married, and had my own daughter. My [then] husband did not help with paying the bills. I was the sole provider in the household. For me it was all about making money, providing for my family, and I justified going back to my old ways. I was involved with non-violent crimes, the 'party scene', including selling ecstasy and marijuana. But there was a moment when, right before leaving the house to pick up a run, I went into my daughter's room to say goodbye. I looked at her and I just broke down crying. I thought, ‘Oh - I can’t go. I can’t go.’ Finally I realized, I don't care how much money is gonna come back on the trip, how much easier that will make things for us for awhile. This has to change.
Over time I realized a few things. I realized I can’t raise my daughter - or my sister’s son - to be on the right path if I am not willing to do the work myself.
I've always wanted to get a job that would get me away from doing what I felt I had to. But for me that took a long time. When I was in prison tried to prepare. I did an office software application certificate and a building services certificate. I did a road construction course through the YMCA. But when I went to apply for a job, because of my background, I had to fill out at least 50 applications to get one call back.
Moving forward, I had to learn a crazy work ethic to begin to finally pull myself out of this cycle.
I was always looking for a way out, so when I found out about the UW Odyssey Project, which helps people in poverty get access to higher education, I thought, ‘Maybe this is it!’ Maybe this is how can I fill the dirt back into this hole that I dug for myself.’I thought, ‘Maybe this is it!’ Maybe this is how can I fill the dirt back into this hole that I dug for myself.’
In the UW Odyssey program they teach the classics and we learned Socrates and Plato.
You know the story of Plato’s cave? People are chained to the wall of the cave, they only see shadows of things, that’s their only reality. Suddenly I had this understanding that we're all looking at that wall. We all think that our reality is the only reality, but it’s not. I had this budding awareness that if I wanted to stop the cycle I was in and change things, I needed to stop providing bullets for the guns that have been aimed at me since birth. I had to prove to God and my community that I could change.
The message to me was: stop settling for what you're told is all you can amount to. I realized I didn’t have to be ‘stuck’.
So I was in the Odyssey program, and I was feeling it. I was invested, involved in all the conversations… and so I enrolled into Madison college. Odyssey started in September, and I was in Madison college by January. I am now seven credits away from finishing my Liberal Arts program at Madison college and will be transferring to UW-Madison next fall for Education. Actually, I’m an honor student. I have a 4.0 at UW and a 3.67 at Madison college. I just competed in the honors competition last semester and placed 4th out of 16.
Right now I’m working on a second semester research project on institutionalized empathy and U.S. correctional institutions. I believe that if I would have encountered understanding in the jail it could have changed things for me. The way we do corrections now, meeting anger with anger, it isn’t working. I found empathy amongst my peers, not from the staff. So my hypothesis is basically that if we nurture the development of empathic programming in our institutions it would have a positive effect on re-integration and a negative effect on recidivism. One of my professors is encouraging me to go on and get my PhD. I never, ever thought about doing that, or that it would be even possible for me. But now I’m actually considering it.
My goal now is to impact people like me, help them make better choices and changes. Essentially, I want to be what wasn't there for kids like me. There wasn’t a road map for us. I’m early on my journey but I want to work with youth from disadvantaged and at-risk situations. Those that have life circumstances similar to mine growing up. I don't want them to just get swept up in what everybody's doing and keep doing it. The only way anything's ever going to change is with the kids. I’m also interested in re-integration work, helping people that want to come home out of the system… who are committed and need help staying out.
We're always told that in order to be successful we have to leave our station. I think that's not right - I think we need to stay with the people, places, and things that have impacted us and show others that we're not stuck. Show them how we can do something different."
-Jessiann, Madison WI