Burned by a Zip Code: Part 1

By Jonathan Bash July 25, 2017

Can your zip code determine 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.” 

Opportunity Lost

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.

Phoenix Rising

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.”

STORY CONTINUED IN PART 2 OF “BURNED BY A ZIP CODE.”