Learning Fellows are returning citizens engaged in a fellowship program sponsored by Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) and PNAP. Each of the Learning Fellows receives a monetary award, as well as academic support from PNAP; they are current students at NEIU who will help to create events on campus, around the city of Chicago, and at Stateville during the fellowship period. These events will highlight the importance of education as a human right for all, while providing multiple constituencies the opportunity for dialogue around education in prison, prison abolition, alternatives to prison, and related topics.


I served 28 years, 7 months, and 25 days straight within the Illinois Department of Corrections. I’ve been free about eleven months now (i.e., released from prison April 12, 2023); and it still doesn’t feel real. Despite such a harmful life experience, I’m not the type of man to let my past negatively impact the trajectory of my future.

With that said, I am a published author several times over. My second book is titled Progressive Traumatic Prison Stress Syndrome (PTPSS). PTPSS academically explains why a recently released Incarcerated Citizen has a 76.6% chance of recidivating within the first five years of release.

Inside this carceral masterpiece, I labeled the problem(s), defined the problem(s), and used my life experience to expound upon the problem(s). Furthermore, I showed how PTPSS intersects with PTSD at times, yet stands independently alone in regard to prison-trauma.

Finally, I close this carceral-trauma legislative piece with doable solutions to the unceasing harm of incarceration.

I chose to further my education and earn a bachelor’s degree from NEIU to strengthen my writing voice; so I can better serve all my Incarcerated Comrades that I left boxed-in (i.e., incarcerated).

I am currently employed at WN Recovery. I am the Resource Coordinator. WIN is an acronym for Women In Need. We provide safe homes for justice involved women and LGBTQ2S+ individuals in recovery.

In America, there are 2.8 million people incarcerated inside state and federal prisons and local jails. 1.8 million of those incarcerated in America are men and the remainder are women. A large percentage of the monies and services geared towards reentry, are allotted to male returning citizens; leaving female returning citizens “without a pot to piss in or a window to throw that same piss out.” Plainly put, my organization services those women.

In five years, I see myself with a master’s degree in psychology from NEIU. Moreover, in five years, I visualize myself, making good money, traveling the world and bringing mainstream awareness to the adverse effects of prison-trauma.

A hobby or pastime of mine is to get a big bag full of my favorite snacks, lay in bed all day, and rewatch old school movies like: The Warriors, Aliens, and Harlem Knights.


In the 1970s, when Max Cerda was a teenager, he was involved with gangs. One night he and a close friend were ambushed, and his friend, who was like a brother to him, died in his arms. This led a traumatized Cerda to make the terrible decision to avenge his friend’s death, and by 1979 he landed in the prison system. Max was incarcerated from the age of 16 until he was 35 years old.

It was in prison that Max began to educate himself, to redefine himself, to value his life and the lives of others. Ironically, prison was the place he found the freedom for inner peace and development, a place where his remorse became his healing. Through reading and his studies, Max was empowered to devote himself to higher causes, such as the Latino Cultural Exchange Coalition (LCEC), an inmate organization that began at Stateville prison in F house. In promoting education, cultural awareness, Latino identity, and Latino unity, the LCEC increased peace behind the walls. Inmates flourished in education and culture.

With a new perspective, Cerda knew what he was meant to do upon his release: help long-term offenders prepare for a meaningful life outside

of prison, and mentor gang-involved youth to take a different path in life—to avoid the mistakes he made. In 2007, he and other members continued the work of the LCEC by incorporating it as a 501(c)(3) outside of prison, partnering with parole officers in Humboldt Park to support ex-offenders with job training, free CDL classes, and anger management classes. The LCEC also participated in Reentry Summit Programs at various IDOC institutions to provide information on resources to offenders who were about to be released, as well as facilitate conversations on life after prison.

In 2008, Max was awarded a four-year grant to facilitate workshops on anti-gang violence and positive work development for the Department of State and US Embassy of Mexico. He also presented his work to criminal justice classes at DePaul University. In 2013, Max’s story was featured in a book called How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence by Miles Harvey; an initiative hosted by DePaul University and Steppenwolf Theater. Steppenwolf also made a play from a portion of Max’s story. 

After dissolving the LCEC in 2013, Max became a violence interrupter with CeaseFire. He supported the families of lost victims and connected them to resources and community-based support. He later joined Aspira of IL, promoting safe spaces for students to obtain their education by implementing restorative justice practices of mentorship, peace circles, conflict mediation, court advocacy, and gang detachment. 

Max joined BUILD, Inc. in 2014 as a street intervention specialist. He continued to learn, developing skills in trauma-informed care and mental health first aid to further support the youth that he mentored. At BUILD, Max utilized all of his experiences to continue supporting youth in life outside of gangs, providing advocacy and connecting youth to resources to reach their goals. He ended his career at BUILD as the lead intervention specialist for Humboldt Park, increasing collaboration among organizations and high schools in Humboldt Park, culminating in a Peace March in 2019.

In March of 2021, Max was appointed to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. This appointment let Max know that his life’s journey had come full circle in a most prestigious way. He is humbly grateful to Governor J.B. Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton for acknowledging his life’s work and commitment to community engagement and youth empowerment. He is equally grateful to the Governor and Lt. Governor for having the political courage and humanity to believe in who he is today and what it took for him to get here.

In October of 2021, Max brought grassroots organizations from the southwest and northwest sides of Chicago together to form a collaborative called the Illinois Latino Reintegration Community Collaborative (ILRCC). The ILRCC’s purpose is to encourage the Latino Caucus to invest in “Reentry” initiatives in the Latino communities, and to service returning citizens through a community collaborative. In May of 2022 the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) awarded the ILRCC funding for capacity building.

As a life coach, author, speaker, and minister of the gospel, Onye M. Davenport is taking faith-based life coaching to another level. The Chicago native is no stranger to transformation, never having given up on his faith, gift, and calling. Through his favorite phrase “I can’t let go,” he encourages others to live life through faith and wisdom. His faith-based coaching style stems from over twenty years of training, development, and education in addiction and lifestyle redirection. 

Since 1998, his service and dedication to his community has been extensive. Working with organizations such as Soul Food Ministries, as a newsletter columnist, and facilitating for Inner Circle/Winner’s Circle, he has influenced many lives in positive ways. Beyond the education, accomplishments, and rewards, there is an even greater story to be told. Onye’s history of transformation through deliverance, commitment, dedication to self-preservation, and the growth and development of others has placed him in a position to lead others out of the wilderness into the abundance of God’s restoration. His coaching on the ability to think, create, plan, dream big, and execute wisely are necessary tools in all our lives. He has just begun to scratch the surface of success and is here to give his all through passion and love for others. 

As a life coach, author, speaker, and minister of the gospel, Onye M. Davenport is taking faith-based life coaching to another level. The Chicago native is no stranger to transformation, never having given up on his faith, gift, and calling. Through his favorite phrase “I can’t let go,” he encourages others to live life through faith and wisdom. His faith-based coaching style stems from over twenty years of training, development, and education in addiction and lifestyle redirection. 

Since 1998, his service and dedication to his community has been extensive. Working with organizations such as Soul Food Ministries, as a newsletter columnist, and facilitating for Inner Circle/Winner’s Circle, he has influenced many lives in positive ways. Beyond the education, accomplishments, and rewards, there is an even greater story to be told. Onye’s history of transformation through deliverance, commitment, dedication to self-preservation, and the growth and development of others has placed him in a position to lead others out of the wilderness into the abundance of God’s restoration. His coaching on the ability to think, create, plan, dream big, and execute wisely are necessary tools in all our lives. He has just begun to scratch the surface of success and is here to give his all through passion and love for others. 

Now that Onye is more informed about the word and meaning of “urban” from his studies in NEIU’s Interdisciplinary Studies/Urban Studies Major, and with him being a returning citizen, he would like to research and see if all the Chicago residents incarcerated in downstate Illinois rural prisons are consider urbanites or ruralites. Onye would also like to know why we do not consider those individual prisons as urban cities within themselves. After all, more than 60% of incarcerated people in the State of Illinois will parole back to the urban environment of Chicago by way of Englewood, Roseland, Lawndale, or Washington Park. Onye hopes his research will help demonstrate that there is a desperate need for critical pedagogy and urban life-skills classes in Illinois prisons.

As a motivational life coach and personal trainer, Onye often hears, “It takes 28 days to kill a habit.” If that is true, what does one year, five years, or twenty years kill? It kills everyday life skills. Those years of isolation kill precious relationship skills and parenting skills. Onye worked as a re-entry coach at a halfway house for returning citizens. The owner could not understand why residents have serious problems paying rent. Onye shared with him, these individuals have not paid rent for 10 or 20 years, or maybe ever. After so many years of isolation from society, even basic life skills need to be learned all over again. 

Since a vast majority of the Illinois Department of Corrections population will return to particular neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, Onye’s post-graduation plans are to re-enter the Illinois Department of Correction, where he says he was forced to become a man. He plans to teach critical pedagogy and urban life-skills classes that will give future returning citizens a head start or heads-up on how to re-enter urban society. These classes will greatly benefit both populations: returning citizens and the neighborhoods they go back to as residents.

If there was a title for Angel Pantoja’s educational journey it would be Procrastination and Potential. In high school Angel was often told that he was “too smart for his own good” and that he was “squandering potential.” He wouldn’t disagree with those points and today one of his greatest regrets is not having applied himself in school more. Unfortunately, he couldn’t turn it around because he was expelled and arrested for possession of marijuana. That expulsion from school led to more time on the streets, which ultimately resulted in Angel committing a crime that landed him in prison with a 23-year sentence. It wasn’t long after he was incarcerated that he realized other people were controlling the narrative of his life. Although there were many aspects of his life that brought him shame, he realized that those things were now in his past and that he could control who he became in the future. The first step was to earn a high school diploma through the school system in the Cook County Jail, which he did.

When he was sent into the Illinois prison system, he continued to educate himself by obtaining books from others around him, book catalogs, and organizations that gave free books to prisoners. For his first few years in prison there weren’t any college programs for him to enroll in, especially in the maximum-security prisons. Finally, in 2008, nine years after he was incarcerated, he was able to attend the college courses that were offered at Lawrence Correctional Center. Angel spent the subsequent fourteen years enrolled in college classes in different institutions; he also wanted to give back to his peers, so he became a teacher and mentor. 

Upon release, Angel knew that he needed to continue his education. The harsh realization that an associate’s degree is not enough for the positions he is striving for spurred him to enroll at NEIU, where he hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree next year. 

Angel currently serves as the project coordinator for the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP) and the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice (IPSSJ). His work with IL-CHEP focuses on recruiting colleges and universities to teach classes to the men and women in prison. As of right now 21 out of 28 IDOC institutions do not have a Higher Education in Prison (HEP) program, and only 3% of the prison population has access to college. This is a challenge that Angel—along with the rest of the ILCHEP membership—is trying to tackle. His work with IPSSJ centers around the expansion of trauma-informed classes and restorative justice practices both in prison and on the outside. 

Angel was officially released from the Department of Corrections in November of 2022. During this confusing and challenging transitional period of reentry, he has not had the opportunity to reflect much on the possibilities of the future. He enrolled in school with the ultimate intention of earning a master’s degree in social work. He knew this would be necessary if he was going to continue the work of helping system impacted men and women as they return to their communities and families. Angel’s life revolves around work; however, there is nothing that brings him joy as much as spending time with his children. His daughter is older and usually at school or work, but he cherishes every second he gets to spend with her. When he picks up his son, the toddler demands that the phone be turned off, and he willingly complies so that nothing can interrupt their time together.

Thomas Ross believes that for a person to be productive in their chosen profession it is important to understand the core problems and values of their target group. This is why he has chosen to be a street outreach worker. At an early age Thomas experienced abandonment after his father left the family, and his mother struggled with five mouths to feed, which eventually left them homeless and living in shelters. By the time he was nine, he had been in at least ten different schools, that was also the year his mom had a nervous breakdown and he found himself living with extended family members until the age of twelve, when his mother was healthy enough to get the children back. So, once again, he was uprooted and moved to a new area of the city. 

Eventually Thomas found himself hanging with the wrong crowd and ended up joining a street gang. Not long after that he found himself entangled in the juvenile justice system. After being an active gang member for most of his life, he was convicted at the age of 33 of drug and gang conspiracy. 

While incarcerated he knew that in order to become a better person he had to change his thinking. Education was his only option, so he enrolled in every class he could and accumulated more than 50 college credits. Thomas was released from federal prison after serving 22 years of a life sentence. Once released he enrolled in the UWW program, offered by NEIU, to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Violence Prevention and Gangology. He also plans to obtain a master’s degree. 

Thomas currently works for the nonprofit Alliance of Local Services Organization (ALSO). As a lead outreach worker his responsibilities are to mentor participants and serve as a violence interrupter. He also provides connections to resources to help participants navigate the pitfalls of their environment. Thomas takes part in peace circles at both Roosevelt H.S. and Avondale Restorative Justice Community Court held at St. Hyacinth Church. Thomas received the 2023 Perseverance Award from UIC Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research.

Thomas’s career and academic trajectories will help him fulfill his life goals. He plans to run his own non-profit organization serving young men, helping them understand that they are not their circumstances, offering moral support while trying to instill prosocial options to many of the dilemmas that young men of color encounter while living in Chicago. Thomas would like to go back into the community where he was once the problem to become part of the solution, showing individuals how they have been tricked into believing they have no way out. 


Billy Deal oversees the outreach activities of more than thirty Outreach Workers under Metropolitan Family Services’ Metropolitan Peace Initiatives program, Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P). He provides supervision over the planning, implementation, and delivery of community service activities provided by partner organizations serving three of Chicago’s most underserved communities.

In his current role, Billy also assists in the planning and implementation of CP4P’s citywide summer festivities called Light in the Night. The purpose of Light in the Night is to recreate safe spaces for children and families to enjoy. In addition, Deal gives public presentations and trainings on the Practice of Nonviolence in communities most effected by gun violence. Last summer, he was invited out to the University of Memphis to speak at its Men’s Barber Shop Talk event to educate direct service workers about ways to reduce and combat violence via methods implemented in Chicago through Communities Partnering 4 Peace.

The success of Billy’s privately-owned music management company has led him to being contracted as a consultant in creating CP4P’s 2020 Vision Social Media Campaign. He was key in coordinating musicians relevant in today’s pop culture to create a message of “Peace” in Chicago’s streets.

Prior to joining Metropolitan Family Services, Billy served as a Community Outreach Worker at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (INVC) in the Austin community, where he mediated street conflicts. Billy is also a graduate of Metropolitan Peace Academy (MPA) Cohort I. MPA professionalizes street outreach work by teaching the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of impact on marginalized communities and individuals living in the communities. It includes an understanding of family dynamics and member roles, the cultural or social environment in which an individual works, plays, and functions, and how laws that impact a group of people are created and passed by government.

Deal is an undergraduate in Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls degree program. He was inspired to continue his education after realizing that the only thing keeping the ones who are doing the work from the decision making is the degrees. So, he made a promise to himself that he would push forward and not stop until he achieve that goal.

Eroica Del Real is a Trauma Response Specialist, Certified Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist, and Violence Prevention Activist. She has always had a passion for education, skipped a grade, and graduated early from high school. In the midst of adversity, she took correspondence courses while in a federal penitentiary. Upon release she went on to obtain her associate’s degree.

Eroica is currently a field manager for several communities in Chicago with Metropolitan Family Services (MFS). Eroica uses her lived experience in the streets and in prison to demonstrate to others that transformation is possible and to help others achieve their dreams. She is now enrolled in the University Without Walls program at NEIU.

Eroica is a member of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI) and is driven to help others avoid recidivism. She is an advocate for victims of human trafficking and in her spare time gives public talks in her Humboldt Park neighborhood. She also stands in the gap for kids experiencing hunger in other countries.

Cedric Frison works in social services with a number of community agencies, organizations, and community stakeholders. He has worked with the Institute for Non-Violence Chicago, as an Outreach Specialist for the READI Chicago anti-violence initiative, Haymarket Center, and Housing, among other groups. Cedric’s role as an outreach professional involves recruiting members of street gangs and community members plagued by violence, in efforts to help save lives via his “NO-VIOLENCE” initiative. Cedric is passionate about his work as a community activist, male mentor, and non-violence advocate. 

Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and raised in Austin on Chicago’s West Side, Cedric had a traumatic past, including family dysfunction, gang violence, drug abuse, and prison stints. He has transformed his life to promote peace throughout the city; he speaks out about the dangers of drugs and is certified in Restorative Justice and Nonviolence Training. Cedric also works as a Substance Misuse Recovery Coach and Opioid Overdose Prevention Advocate. 

Cedric is developing a career path in nonprofit organizational leadership. He has started his own consulting company, Urban Community Unity Solutions (UCUS) and is affiliated with the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI). As a returning citizen, Cedric is also an Above and Beyond alumnus and speaks to young men and women about the importance of obtaining an education. He is leading by example as an undergraduate student in Northeastern Illinois University’s Department of Urban Community Studies.

Rodney Phillips graduated from the inaugural class of Chicago’s Metropolitan Peace Academy and leads trauma training for that organization. He has also worked for Ceasefire and is frequently cited by journalists and others for his work on the streets of Chicago. Rodney is a violence interrupter and an expert in the ways social media contributes to street violence in urban neighborhoods. As a teenager, Rodney’s cousin died in his arms after being shot, and he has dedicated much of his life to making sure others don’t go through that kind of trauma. His mission is to change the narrative in Chicago and other urban communities.

Rodney returned to school at Northeastern Illinois University to brush up on skills and learn new ones to advance his career in the violence prevention field. He wants to lead by example and help set expectations for people entering the profession. In the next five years, he would like to have his own organization, to broaden the fight against violence and to offer people meaningful, community-based work.

Two of Rodney’s favorite hobbies are reading and spending time with his grandson. He loves showing his grandson a better way of life.


Yael Lorenzi


Richard Rowe is a Senior Program Manager with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), where he co-leads CSH’s National Justice work. He has over 20 years of professional and lived experience in this areaIn his role as Senior Program Manager, he provides TA support, training, and input for reducing barriers to housing. Richard began his work with CSH in 2017 as the lead Collaboration Manager for Housing Supports for Families in Transition Program in partnership with the Department of Family and Support Services, Chicago Public Schools, the Office of the Mayor, and the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs. He helped to implement Chicago’s Coordinated Entry System for families with children. 

Prior to joining CSH, he was the Manager of Clinical Operations with Heartland Health Outreach (HHO), where he oversaw day-to-day operations of programs serving people with lived experience of homelessness. He led a diverse team of professionals to new levels of success in services designed to meet short and long-term needs. This included producing measurable outcomes and tangible results through the delivery of housing, healthcare, addiction treatment, behavioral health sciences, and health care management. 

Subsequent to Heartland, he was a Supervisor of Community Specialty Services, with six direct reports on access to healthcare and social services among homeless families

with children and individuals with complex medical and mental conditions, substance use disorders, and justice involvement. In addition, he provided operations and consulting support to A Safe Haven Foundation, where his primary responsibilities centered on Addiction Treatment and Affordable Housing.  

Richard has extensive experience at both the program and senior leadership levels. As a result, he has been nominated or appointed to serve on a number of key boards and committee seats. He’s an active participant in Chicago’s Continuum of Care (CoC), having held several leadership positions in Chicago’s CoC, including three terms as Board Chair. He has dedicated many hours to volunteer work with the following organizations:

  • Next Steps, NFP Board President: 2018-present
  • All Chicago Lived Experience Commission, Leadership Team: 2010-present
  • The Illinois Reentry Council, Housing Workgroup, Co-Chair: 2021-present
  • Chicago Continuum of Care, Board Chair: 2013, 2016, and 2021
  • Chicago CoC, Executive Board Member, and former Treasurer, Secretary: 2013-14
  • Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund Board Member, Mayoral Appointment: 2018-19
  • Chicago Torture Justice Center, Board Member: 2017-19
  • Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation Board Member, Vice President: 2014-16

Richard’s honors include the University of Chicago Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research Community Achievement Award (2014) and the All Chicago Partner of the Year Award (2012). He holds an associate’s degree in Liberal Studies from Lakeland Community College and is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University. 

Samantha Dunn was born in Lincoln, Rhode Island, on January 24, 1976. She was raised within two dysfunctional families. Throughout her childhood, she questioned who she was and what she wanted to be. These questions stemmed from the many traumatizing events she survived growing up. Samantha always wanted to do something to help other people, especially the less fortunate. Unfortunately, college was never in her sights due to family dynamics and financial status. Therefore, in the spring of 1994, she chose to enlist in the US Army in hopes of getting an education, so she could fulfill her goal of helping others.

While Samantha was at basic training, her grandmother passed away. She was the glue for that side of the family, and it showed when family members went their separate ways, and Samantha was told that she wasn’t welcome in that part of the family anymore. Her family would consist only of her mom, her mom’s husband, and her sister for quite some time. Though she continued to make it in the Army, she realized it wasn’t for her, and she was honorably discharged in 1998. After that Samantha began working in the service industry—cooking, factories, construction, etc. She worked at least two jobs while still doing weekend drills in the Army National Guard until November 1999, when she decided to move to Alabama. 

After moving to Alabama, Samantha tried to find some form of acceptance. She was still questioning who she was and what she wanted to do. She worked herself up into management positions at multiple jobs over the years, but was also involved in many unhealthy relationships, and rather than getting out of these relationships, they destroyed her career. After three marriages and multiple jobs, Samantha finally began to live for herself. She had a job she loved and a partner that accepted her for who she was. The problem was that she had an addiction, and in October 2011 was sentenced to 97 months in prison. In February 2012, Samantha surrendered to the prison system.

While in prison, she had the opportunity to reflect on her life, the poor choices she had made, and the harm she had caused others. She also realized who she truly is on the inside and took steps to begin the transition process. Samantha signed up for many self-development courses (anger management, stress management, etc.), as well as a residential Cognitive Behavioral Therapy course, so she had the chance to learn how to manage her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. She also began fighting for the rights of trans individuals, as well as other LGBT and oppressed people within the prison system. 

Samantha was released from prison in May 2019 and relocated to Chicago with the help of family and friends. Since moving to Chicago, she has worked as a chef at a local restaurant in Rogers Park called Smack Dab. She has been there for 2 ½ years now and is loving every minute of it. She uses this opportunity to educate individuals about self-growth—motivating people to be the best versions of themselves, showing them that they can be anything they want to be. Samantha has also been working with a national non-profit organization to build bridges between the larger society and incarcerated people. She has spoken at events about the oppression of the incarcerated, as well as LGBT people in general. 

Samantha’s goal is to get a degree in Social Justice Advocacy, and she also wants to study Psychology, in order to give hope to those who have felt that nobody would ever listen to, help, or fight for them. She wants to teach society that, though our skin tones may be different and our sexuality and identity may not be same, inside we are all people, and we should all have the same rights. Samantha reflects: “I know I made many poor choices over the years. I regret the fact that I have hurt and embarrassed my family, as well as many other people throughout my life. I also know that, if society were more balanced, my life’s outcomes would have been different.


Willette Benford’s initial relationship with education was peppered with love and hatred. Growing up, she came to believe the lie that she could not learn. She began to hate attending class and ultimately dropped out of school in the ninth grade. During a period of incarceration, she was tested for school placement because it was a requirement. When she received her scores, she found that she had tested higher than anyone in the class. 30 days after the test she had her GED. This was only the beginning. Willette’s appetite had been whet. She finally realized that learning was something she possessed the intelligence to do and was quite capable of. From that point, she began to take every class available within the system. She attended classes for every available certificate, from cosmetology to business management and building maintenance. She ultimately acquired her associate’s degree. As time went on, school was taken out of the equation because the classes she needed to acquire her bachelor’s degree were no longer available.

While practicing her faith as a Christian, Willette began to teach Bible study. She did this for 13 years, becoming an ordained minister in 2007. In 2019, she started to work downtown at City Hall as a legislative assistant; she did that for about a year, switching jobs during the pandemic. In July 2020, Willette was offered the position as Decarceration Organizer for Live Free Illinois. Live Free is a faith-based organization, and she is responsible for organizing faith leaders, formerly incarcerated individuals, and community leaders around the issues that affect their communities. Last year her supervisor asked if she thought about going back to school. Needless to say she had not, yet at that moment the seed was planted.

As Willette began to think about completing her bachelor’s degree, she reached out to NEIU to inquire about classes and was connected with an amazing advisor who has supported her every step of the way. The support continued even when she did not enroll during the summer semester because of uncertainty. This fall she decided that she would no longer postpone enrollment and took the leap and enrolled. Willette was accepted as a senior, with 91 transferable credits. That was one of the most exciting pieces of news, since it meant that all of the inside work had eventually paid off. Past life experiences have made Willette think about studying theology, however, her path into the criminal justice reform space has her contemplating justice studies, too. (Mercy and justice, the two areas we can all benefit from.) In five years Willette would like to be a homeowner, have a master’s degree, while consulting and advising on reentry issues as an expert in the field, alongside a team of justice-impacted women that have been educated, activated, and politicized to do the same and are leading in these spaces.

Kevin Blumenberg is a citizen returning home after spending approximately 30 years in prison. If our environment educates us, it can also mis-educate us, and we can become a product of that environment. After going through his own personal transitions, Kevin didn’t want his experiences to become a disease to himself or others. In order to help others change in positive ways and to learn from his experiences, he realized he needed to build on his education so he could come back to his community and others like his to help others avoid the mistakes he once made.

Currently, Kevin works as a community navigator for a company called Acclivus, helping others get their criminal records expunged, find jobs, and get back in school. He also works for The People’s Lobby, with its Mass Liberation squad, fighting for the people’s rights and winning the Pretrial Fairness Act. And Kevin is helping Parole Illinois to bring back parole for people who have natural life sentences and have served 20 years. He works to convince state senators and representatives to aid in this fight. He’s also talking to commissioners to try to get American Rescue Fund money into the communities that need it most.

Kevin has credits toward his associate’s degree and eventually would like to obtain a master’s degree in Public Policy. He wants to create programs to help communities thrive in positive ways towards betterment, etc. In five years, he would like to have his own 501( c)(3) established and be in a position to help communities throughout the state.

Kevin Gardner (also known as Orion Meadows) is a Slam Performance Artist, activist, and author. He is currently a student at Northeastern Illinois University, participating in the University Without Walls program. He chose NEIU because he wanted the opportunity to trace his own path, pursuing something that interests him as an individual, but that also would provide a service to his demographic: the urban/hip-hop community. He has declared Urban/Hip-hop Aesthetics and Culture as his major, because as a youth he was molded by these cultural aesthetics, which continue to have a profound impact on his life. They have become ubiquitous among urban youth, and he feels the need to tap into them as a resource for

educating, raising awareness, and sparking creativity in the communities where such aesthetics and culture are prevalent. Besides being a UWW student, Kevin works as a residential aid at The Pioneer House, which is a residence for homeless veterans and returning citizens. It is the vision of Eddie Beard, who devoted himself to providing shelter and better living conditions for the less fortunate people in the community.

As a creative artist and member of the hip-hop community, he has always been driven to go beyond the boundaries others have attempted to set for him. This was something he was compelled to do while incarcerated, when he tried to finance his own higher education but was denied by the prison administration. Instead of becoming discouraged, he was motivated to pursue education informally. He was infuriated, and out of sheet defiance, he aspired to acquire as much knowledge and education as he could to show the system that the fire burning in his soul was zealous and no authority was powerful enough to stifle his development. This was his enrollment in a “University Without Walls,” long before he’d been informed about and admitted into Northeastern’s program. To Kevin, the universe was his university, and he sought to allow his mind to venture far out into the boundlessness of the macrocosm, as he endeavored to harness the creativity of his imagination and develop his skill as a writer. He found liberation through education, honing his craft, and using it to assist others in attaining liberation for themselves. As time progressed, he began publishing his work.

Kevin’s goal is to elevate the aesthetics of the culture he was reared in, which have had such an impact on him, his contemporaries, and innumerable urban youth today. He hopes to contribute to the understanding and appreciation of cultural aesthetics of hip-hop, as an ambassador and practitioner of the urban literary arts, building an establishment where the people in the community will be immersed in the wondrous glory emanating from the creative expressions of their beautiful minds. This will be a beauty they can look upon and be proud of for generations, passing it along to posterity to preserve with dignity.

Pablo Mendoza is currently a Research Fellow for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project. He creates evaluation tools to answer the burning question: Is a community space that bridges the divide between incarcerated folks and their communities on the outside something that is needed/necessary? He has devised and implemented several evaluation tools to get at this question. Pablo is also using his lived experience to inform the development of the community space, particularly in terms of the traumas suffered by systems-impacted folks. He researches other organizations in order to be in community with and informed on best practices in the field of trauma-informed care.

The educational pathway that led Pablo to this moment involves the Education Justice Project. This in-prison higher education program introduced him to critical pedagogy, which changed his life forever. Because of this concept he was motivated to exercise his agency and advocate for the voiceless.

Pablo’s five-year goal is to finish his bachelor’s degree so that he can open a halfway house for returning citizens. He hopes to have a facility where folks can get on their feet and obtain the skills necessary to succeed in life. He will focus on immediate needs, like housing, to assuage their anxieties, also allowing for programming to deal with the trauma that contributes to recidivism–in short, taking a holistic approach to reentry.

Pablo’s interests are not tied to monetary gains. He aspires to create as much change as his efforts will allow and hopefully a bit more. His desires are tied to the youth of our communities because they will be the ones who will keep the ball rolling forward. Pablo strives to remove the stigma of poverty. He knows that is a lofty goal, but what is a dream if not something big? He would like to know that he contributed something to this world besides pain and sorrow. His dream is to bring about healing. Healing is something that is necessary but too rarely sought after or thought of. He hopes to change that.

As a young African American male, Kilroy Watkins was targeted by the late Lt. Commander Jon Burge and his officers, who tortured him into signing a false confession back in 1992. Said false confession eventually resulted in a guilty finding by the court and a sentence of nearly 60 yrs. Kilroy knew early on that in order to prove his innocence he must learn the law and how the criminal justice system works. This was the start of his journey back to school to acquire his GED and then to enroll in college, to obtain his paralegal certification. Kilroy’s paralegal certificate allowed him to obtain employment in the prison law library, to work on his case, and to continue his college education towards a degree. In his nearly 30 yrs of incarceration, he worked in five institutional law libraries and assisted thousands of his peers with appeals, grievances, civil lawsuits, and exonerations.

Kilroy now works as a Community Fellow with the Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago. The Human Rights Lab is actively engaging communities, students, and scholars on the crises of mass incarceration and racialized policing. He has also worked as a member of the Advisory Council of the University of Illinois Education Justice Project Reentry Guide Initiative. Kilroy now aims to acquire

his undergraduate degree, which will help him with his professional goal to open Freedom Schools, which would be led by torture survivors, formerly incarcerated people, and their family members. The Freedom Schools would serve the needs of the community and address social issues that have had an enormous impact on communities of color, who are often underrepresented and over-policed. The five-year plan would be to expand the Freedom Schools throughout the City of Chicago and pave the way to Freedom Houses for formerly incarcerated men and women, to help with their reentry skills and relationship building with family and friends.


Eric Blackmon is a paralegal with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. In this role, he works alongside attorneys representing clients through complex civil litigation. Eric also works with the University of Chicago’s Pozen Center Human Rights Lab, where he takes part in shaping the minds of the next generation of activists, and assists with organizing and supporting many social justice events. He sits on the boards of several organizations, including the Chicago Torture Justice Center and the Justice Renewal Initiative.

Eric was wrongfully convicted and served sixteen years in prison, during which he began his paralegal studies. While he has received the necessary credentials to serve as a paralegal, much of Eric’s legal education was obtained independently. His quest to help not only himself, but others imprisoned with him, led him deeper into the law. Eric was released from prison in 2018, was exonerated in 2019, and earned his certificate of innocence in 2020. He has continued his educational path, is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University, and plans to attend law school in the near future.

Eric is regularly invited to speak about his work and life experience. He has presented at the College of DuPage’s Constitution Day alongside his attorney, the late Karen Daniel. He has also spoken with local high school students at their Martin Luther King, Jr. event, in addition to addressing groups at Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, the University of Chicago, and various detention centers throughout the city.

Raphel Pierre Jackson was incarcerated at the age of 16 and served over 26 years in prison before he was released in 2020. For nearly three decades, he experienced a range of challenges and epiphanies; and, in that least likely of places, he discovered an appreciation for knowledge. At that time of his life the gang he belonged to had written laws, codes of conduct, and life philosophies all wrapped up in the term “literature”; that’s when he became interested in deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge.

He started to attend Adult Basic Education (ABE), and eventually would attain the Adult Basic Education Certificate, as well as a G.E.D., an Associate’s in Arts and Science, a Substance Abuse Counselor Training Certificate, Horticulture Certificate, as well as a Construction Certificate. He also facilitated trauma circles, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, as well as public health groups addressing STI prevention. And he participated in many graduate-level courses through the Educational Justice Project.

Raphel now serves as the Hospitality Manager and Navigator at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. His responsibilities include developing trauma and peace circle programming and life skills lessons like financial literacy.

He is also responsible for managing the re-entry house, which consists of case management, facilitating house meetings, making sure that tenants have things like updated resumes, social security cards, birth certificates, job training, mental health resources, and employment resources. His long-term professional goal is to practice program development and evaluation, specifically focusing on inner-city programs that address trauma and violence, and eventually opening an evaluation firm. After acquiring a bachelor’s degree, he intends to pursue a doctorate in Community Psychology or Social Work.

Joseph Mapp is a Restorative Justice Practitioner who is passionate about ending mass incarceration and turning the “school to prison pipeline” on its head by engaging in “prison to school” work. As a returning citizen who was incarcerated for nearly 27 years, Joseph has experienced firsthand the transformative power of education.

While incarcerated, he received two associate degrees, three vocational certificates, a Substance Abuse Counselor Certificate, and volunteered for over ten years as a peer educator, facilitating adult literacy classes and several cognitive behavioral programs. Joseph wrote a proposal for a program that is now known as Community Anti-Violence Education (CAVE), a trauma-informed peer-facilitated program still utilized today in adult and youth facilities throughout the state. He also co-founded Language Partners, a nationally award-winning peer-led English as a second language program.

Following his release from prison, he continues this work as a Re-entry Case Manager for Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a faith-based restorative justice organization. Joseph’s responsibilities include supporting returned, formerly

incarcerated citizens, community engagement, and policy advocacy. He collaborates with other organizations, including New Life Centers, to offer mentorship and trauma-informed education to incarcerated young men and juvenile detention facilities. In addition to this work, he volunteers for several organizations that are fighting to improve the conditions of those who are incarcerated, such as the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Communities in Dialogue, and People’s Liberty Project. Joseph is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree at NEIU, where he also plans to obtain a master’s degree in Business Administration.

Chris Patterson is the Chief Program Officer for Friends of the Children-Chicago, a program designed to support children and families in the Austin and North Lawndale communities. He also works with Chicago’s largest violence intervention efforts, READI Chicago and Community Partnering 4 Peace. Chris was a co-founder and Senior Director of Programs and Policy for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. He previously worked as a Community Organizer/CeaseFire Illinois Program Manager with ONE Northside, then as the Associate Director of Organizing for The Community Renewal Society.

With community leaders and organizing partners from around Chicago, Chris has worked tirelessly on several key bills to allow formerly incarcerated people employment access previously denied to them. These bills include: HB5701, the bill known as “Ban the Box”; SB42, the bill which allows people with records to work in the healthcare industry; and HB5973, which allows people with records the opportunity to work in fields not directly related to the past crime committed (e.g. Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Park Districts).

Chris is the author of 21: The Epitome of Perseverance, a memoir in which he details the steps he took to reverse a lifetime of bad decisions. He uses his experience and talents to address root causes of violence, and he mentors men and women who are at risk of incarceration, who are at risk of being harmed or harming others. Chris is pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University in the University Without Walls program so he can continue work in non-profit spaces, making Chicago safer for those who live here.

Colette Payne is a Policy Associate at Cabrini Green Legal Aid. She started out as a coordinator for the Visible Voices program, which provides women with the tools to say ‘no’ to recidivism and ‘yes’ to life. Participants meet bi-weekly to share personal challenges, ideas, strengths, and hope with one another. Colette is also an organizer and much sought-after public speaker, and she shares her story with others to create change. She is also a consultant for the Women’s Justice Institute, whose mission is to reduce the number of women in prisons in the state by 50 percent. (She was the first formerly-incarcerated woman to serve in this role in the United States.) Colette helped create a report from the findings and The Women’s Correctional Services Act was passed.

Colette’s educational pathway started as a young child. Her parents stressed the importance of education and sent Colette and her siblings to Catholic school, despite living in poverty. However, after being incarcerated at the age of fourteen,

she felt discouraged about going back because she was too far behind. After spending time in jails and prison, she went to Grace House, a halfway house with an adult high school program. She received her high school diploma there at the age of 34. After another period of incarceration, she was released and then started school at Harold Washington Community College, eventually transferring to the University Without Walls program at NEIU, where she is working towards her bachelor’s degree. Once she receives her bachelor’s degree, she plans to either attend law school or pursue a doctoral degree.