Burned by a Zip Code: Part 2

By Jonathan Bash July 25, 2017

This is part 2 of a 2 part series profiling William, a Rubicon Programs client who rose from a life of crime in Oakland to a new life, escaping the trappings of his zip code. Click here to read part 1.


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.”

"If you take away jobs and schools, and you replace them with guns and drugs, it’s a recipe for disaster."