The average American takes his or her freedom for granted. After surviving thirteen years in prison, I have come to appreciate the small things this world has to offer. One such pleasure is Freedom. The irony is that I use the word freedom very loosely as I am still very much under correctional supervision. The reason I celebrate the day I was released is because for years I truly believed I would spend the rest of my life locked inside of a human cage.
On October 5th, I once again celebrated freedom, but this time by acknowledging the work of two people who have works hard to provide opportunities for other people and have worked to shift the narrative of what it means to be justice involved. The night was filled with hugs, spoken word, and a sense solidarity as advocates from all over New York City gathered to celebrate freedom. I will be forever grateful for the people who attended!
Throughout my journey I have learned that is important acknowledge the work of people not only when they reach greatness, but also on their way to greatness. Especially if they are making a difference which goes ignored by others. For this reason i decided to highlight Julia Steele Allen and Roy Waterman. Both are so deserving of recognition and are people who not only care, but are examples of the change we wish to see in the world. Congratulations to them both.
Sometimes people believe in us more than we believe in ourselves. That outside conviction and belief, in turn, infects us with renewed self-belief and we find ourselves doing what we once believed to be impossible. And so the people who filled the rooftop at one point or another, throughout my reentry journey, not only believed in me and my potential to do great work, but saw past the man I was to the man I had become. I will forever be grateful for having people so dedicated to criminal justice, but also for empowering me in ways I never imagined.
Society thinks people with criminal records are incorrigible, unable, and unwilling change. This could not be further from the truth. During my prison travels, most of the people I have met committed crimes because of two reasons: Financial necessity and/or ignorance. When one, or both, are eliminated people change, and usually for the better. The reason I decided to change my life was because I came to understand my actions within he context of my environment. It’s not a coincidence there is a 24 hour pawn shop in my neighborhood, when no one in my neighborhood can afford gold. Many of friends with criminal records have come to the same conclusions. Today, they are talented poets, comics, business owners, founders of nonprofits, professors, and high-level executives at multi-million dollar companies, and some of the most honest & loyal people you will ever meet. However, some people would never know, because they cannot see past their criminal records, the way the dress, or the socialization of societal institutions like the media or their class privilege. I say, get to know us by the entirety of our lives, and not by the ignorance of our past decisions. I, Johnny Perez, am only one of millions!
In prison, one learns to numb oneself. You have to teach yourself not to feel; to go against the very thing which makes us human: The ability to feel a range of emotions. Your inability to numb yourself can be the difference between surviving or succumbing to your environment. If you’re not careful, it becomes difficult to feel again. For years I did not allow myself to cry, to feel, to love, not because I did not know how, but because my surroundings did not allow me to. Today, I feel comfortable feeling a range of emotions and it’s at times like that Wednesday when I feel the most free because I allowed myself to be overwhelmed with emotion. …..and you know what? If felt good!
To a stranger it was just another fundraiser. People who were getting together to raise money for a social justice cause or be in a space hoping to engage in a conversation which will move their career forward. To me, it was more than that. It was a room filled with people driven by immeasurable passion and conviction. A room filled with survivors and those who have helped them overcome the challenges of an unforgiving society. Including me.
If I am successful, then it is because of the people who I keep around me. The people who support me, trust me, and believe in me to do what others believe to be impossible. Sometime I ask God, “How did I get so lucky? Why God, have you smiled on me with your greatness when I have caused people harm in the past?” I don’t know why exactly, but I do know I have a responsibility to all of you to continue following my passion by being the example of what can happen when we believe people can change. I will do this by launching the Reentry Advocacy Project (ReAP) to continue the work I have done in the last two and a half years. Additionally, to expand that work by giving justice involved people the tools to not only reenter society successfully, but also help them uncover the advocate within before release. Imagine that!
I value and appreciate all who attended and who made it possible for others to attend. With your continued help, guidance, and support I will do for others, as you all have done for me. Special Thanks to April Hinkle for her unwavering support. Because of her this event was a huge success.
Also a special thanks to Edward Fernandez for providing the music, Devon Lloyd for making sure everyone had a drink in hand, and Kaila Pulinario for such delicious food; so sorry the photographer missed all of you. Also to Ju Ju Chang for sharing her journalism experiences and lending her voice to such a magical evening. Thank you all!
See you all next year… At the launch of ReAP! 😉