"When I walk into Rubicon, I get a genuine hug and a high-five. And that’s for everyone who enters these doors. It’s like being inducted into a second family. But a family that does everything with you… if you’re willing to do the work.”
Can your zip codedetermine your destiny?
For William – a product of Oakland – the answer most certainly is yes. But that doesn’t mean change can’t happen.
In the early 1980s, William’s family left Greenville, NC to earn a better living and escape the racial tensions of the South. He, along with his mother and father, settled in Oakland, following his great aunt and uncle’s footsteps. His college-educated father was able to get a job earning a decent living.
Unfortunately, the new neighborhood introduced a host of unforeseen problems. At the time, race wasn’t one of them.
A New Normal
“Growing up, I didn’t know what racism was. In Oakland's inner city, kids of all races spoke the same, whether they were Black, White, Mexican or Asian. We all were relatively poor and we all accepted each other,” says William. Eventually, his opinion evolved as he grew older and realized that racism was all around him, especially in law enforcement and the built environment.
“My dad was a country boy trying to raise a kid in one of the most notorious cities in the country,” says William. While his father tried his best, he couldn’t help his son navigate a community reeling from the introduction of crack cocaine, the emergence of HIV/AIDS and institutions that preyed upon people struggling in low-income communities.
These were conditions that opened the doors for opportunistic companies to prey on the desperation and isolation of people in neighborhoods like his. Instead of banks, they had check cashing and payday loan shops that charged 450% APR. Instead of grocery stores, convenience stores offered junk food, malt liquor and flavored tobacco.
Ultimately, adopting a life of crime was viewed to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to this bleak existence.
According to William, “it’s hard telling a kid to do the right thing when they can go outside and see kids barely even seventeen with rolls of cash, gold chains and a Mercedes-Benz with a steering wheel on the wrong side. You knew girls thought those guys were successful, so you felt you needed to follow their example.”
At the age of 13, William was discovered by the owner of the local football team who noticed him playing with his friends. He was offered a spot on the team, on sight. This could have been his path out of the neighborhood – he loved sports – but he couldn’t help but fall back into the trap set for him by his zip code.
“I started getting in trouble around that time,” he says. “I was first brought to juvenile hall at 14. I was in custody every year since. Nothing changed. No one like me helped get me back on track.”
Things only went downhill from there. Once a legal adult, he was arrested and sentenced to state prison – twice by the age of 21.
“One night while I was in San Quentin, back in 1999, a man was executed, “says William. “I looked out the window and watched it rain from my cell that day. Three years later, I was fighting my own capital punishment case. That’s when I knew I had to make my own change.”
Over the next four years, William fought for his life, and at last reached a deal: nine more years in prison.
William used the next nine years to take advantage of every available resource that could transform his life. He got his GED and took college courses. He studied law textbooks and enrolled in computer classes. Soon enough, he was tutoring his fellow inmates and teaching his own GED classes. He even earned a paralegal certificate.
“I had a friend on the outside. I kept telling him, ‘when I get home, I want my own apartment, I want to do my own thing. I am not going to go back to a life of crime. I have to have a purpose other than this.’ So, I made a conscious decision to seek out anyone or anything that could help me out.”
His friend had an idea: connect him with a man named Reggie Boyer, an Impact Coach at Rubicon Programs in Richmond. They clicked. From that day on, William called Reggie all the time.
“Reggie didn’t think I was helpless. He laughed with me, connected with me and understood what I was going through. He wasn’t in the judgement business, he was in the assistance business.”
Thanks to his faith, good works and Reggie’s encouragement, William gained early release. “I was blessed to get out 13 years, 2 months and 2 days into a 15-year sentence.”
Crossing the Rubicon
Once released from prison, William enrolled in Rubicon Programs’ Foundations Workshop.
“I walked through Rubicon’s front door and sat down with these two balding black men – Reggie and a guy named Ron Thomas. They spoke my language. They could’ve been me in 20 years; they both were incarcerated and turned their lives around.”
For weeks, he sat in class from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., drove to work in Sacramento, labored from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then turned around to get to bed back in Richmond by 1 a.m. All the while, he wore an ankle monitor that tracked his every move.
Thanks to the curriculum and ongoing coaching by Rubicon’s dedicated career, finance and wellness coaches, he was able to forge lifelong friendships, find an affordable apartment, start to build his credit and discover that he could build a real career – not just get a job.
Soon, he met with one of Rubicon’s Staff Attorneys, Sarah Williams. He noticed a copy of “Practices and Procedures” on her desk – the lawyer’s bible. This got them talking about his interest in a legal career.
“Sarah suggested that I go work for the Public Defender’s Office. I never thought that was on the table, but sure enough it was. I got an email from her a few weeks later. A position opened up.”
He then met with Rubicon’s employment coaches. They walked him through his resume, helped him write a cover letter and taught him all the essentials he didn’t even know existed.
On Sarah’s referral, he applied for a position working for the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Proposition 47 Reentry Coordinator, Ellen McDonnell, and supervisor Jonathan Laba. A few days later, he got a call back. He got the job – one with a real career pathway as a legal clerk, paralegal – or something even greater.
“One of the attorneys there, Ali Saidi – a great friend – has got me thinking about maybe running for city council. I don’t know if that’ll happen, but I do know I want to give back to my community.”
The Bigger Picture
According to William, poverty is the end result of many disparate factors. An impoverished community with few resources. A lack of social support. The influence of drugs. And macroeconomic changes out of any one person’s control.
“They took away Oakland’s biggest employer, the military base. That was the beginning of the end of Black advancement,” he says. “You still had good people despite the crack epidemic – but they had jobs with the base. When it left, they lost everything, and everyone who supplied their groceries or worked in nearby businesses lost everything. It rippled throughout the community.”
William asks, “Why did this particular base close?” Poverty doesn’t happen by coincidence. Many times, it is by design.
“There’s not just one system put in place to keep minorities, and specifically black people, in poverty,” he says. “Unaffordable housing pushes us out of our homes. Police brutality kills hundreds of young black men, and we see no repercussions. Officials pick winners and losers. And society puts over 44,000 barriers on a formerly incarcerated person.”
He says that these societal pressures take away hope. “And without hope, you lose everything.”
Bringing Hope Back
With Rubicon, William now has more hope and resources, and not just hope for himself, but for his community. He hopes that we can repeal mandatory minimum laws, end three strikes, reform the criminal justice system and build more affordable housing.
He thinks these changes will require new leaders “who actually go into our community, who actually talk to the homeless, and the hopeless, and honestly ask us ‘how can I help?’.”
Will William be one of these new leaders? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Rubicon Programs will continue to support him and thousands of others just like him.
“When I walk into Rubicon, I get a genuine hug and a high-five. And that’s for everyone who enters these doors,” he says.
“It’s like being inducted into a second family. But a family that does everything with you… if you’re willing to do the work.”
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