People sometimes ask me where I get my inspiration to pull off a seemingly impossible task—you know, founding a free college for adults 21 and over who are not a good fit for the current model of higher education. When they ask I usually talk about the film Man on Wire. In this film, Philippe Petit decided that he was going to do a tightrope walk between the nearly completed World Trade Towers. This film has long been one of my primary sources of inspiration.
But this recently changed a bit. I took a friend of mine to visit his PO (probation officer). I was in the waiting room for quite some time while they were meeting. At first I was annoyed that I was being forced to watch a video that was playing, and that I wouldn’t be able to block it out of my mind. But the video showed people training job seekers who had been previously incarcerated how to find open positions, fill out their applications—including the question: have you ever been convicted of a crime (hint: the answer is yes), fill out the “If you answered yes” line, conduct themselves and answer questions during interviews, and generally the attitude with which they should approach the job market. They said things like “You’re going to have to fill out 50 applications before you even get an interview. So what are you going to do? Fill out the applications.” It made me think deeply about people going into a job explaining the circumstances around an incident that landed them a 10-year jail sentence, and trying to build the trust required to be hired for a position. Could I overcome the obstacles myself if I were in that situation? They seem almost insurmountable.
So now I look at the throngs of people who, in the current economy, undertake the seemingly impossible task of overcoming prejudice against ex-convicts, going from business to business asking to fill out applications, doing the hard work of filling out the applications honestly, waiting for the phone to ring, and doing their absolute best when they go for an interview in front of someone who is going to ask them about why they went to jail, all in hopes of landing a job and becoming a more highly functioning human being. Raising the funds for a new college in a difficult economy, or tightrope walking between the World Trade Towers seem almost easy in comparison.
I find these job seekers inspirational. I want to do what I can to help.