Things I’ve learned this summer

I’ve always thought I was pretty quick on the uptake, but I’m gradually realizing I am a slow learner.

That’s pretty much the gist of what I’ve gleaned from a year in graduate school, studying social work. I thought I was going through the motions of getting the degree that would help me land employment doing the things I was doing for free in a volunteer capacity.

But like a good scrubbing with Windex lets the light shine through a clean window, I appreciate now that I was barely seeing the trees, let alone the forest.

This summer I’m spending two afternoons a week at a non-profit family services center in the inner city. It’s a place I’ve visited often during my years as a court-appointed special advocate. The center has an awesome daycare and preschool that can serve 600 needy kids, with a waiting list at least as large.

I don’t know what I expected to learn at Operation Breakthrough; I just knew it was where the rubber meets the road, to be trite. I knew I needed some real-world experience after a year of grad school and before my first practicum. I don’t have an undergraduate degree in the social services. I barely have any relevant undergrad coursework: A rural sociology course on the Old Order Amish doesn’t translate too well to 31st and Troost Avenue in Kansas City.

So what have I learned that’s so earth-shattering? Lots. I’m pretty liberal, but I admit I have biases. Lord knows, I’ve had to examine them aplenty during my recent coursework. And one that I discovered is that I really did sort of pass judgment on folks who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Where does this come from? I don’t know. No deep-seated childhood fear or up-close-and-personal contact with someone like Max Cady from Cape Fear . My daddy wasn’t no jailhouse lawyer, my grandpa never spent time in the pokey.  I just had this bias.

Until this summer. This summer, I’ve been working with moms who need to find jobs. They all want to work. They need to work. Some are not on public assistance. Others are, but it’s a finite thing – it does eventually run out. Some have high school diplomas, some even have college degrees. Others dropped out and don’t even have GEDs. Some are all these things and have one other stigma – they’re convicted felons.

They’re the toughest. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a Harvard Ph.D. if you’re a convicted felon. You will be hard-pressed to find a job.

I can sincerely say I never truly understood this fact until this summer. I figured if you did your time, paid your debt to society, you got a do-over, except for voting.

Except that’s not the case. Politicians rant and rave about “welfare moms” and people taking advantage of the system, implying that people without jobs don’t want to work. And then they pass laws or allow companies to discriminate against people who’ve committed crimes.

Felons have a hard time even receiving public assistance – food vouchers, public housing, what have you.

This isn’t fair. How long does someone have to pay for a mistake?

And here’s something else I’ve changed my mind about: Many of these people that I work with have felonies related to drug charges. Where once I would have pursed my lips and passed judgment, now I see human beings who made bad choices and who are being punished with no end in sight.

Like yesterday. I spent several hours with a woman looking for work. She once directed a transitional housing program for drug offenders, until she made a mistake. Thirteen years ago she was convicted of marijuana possession. It was a Class C felony. She served her time.

Yet now, after losing her job in March, she can’t find work. Her voice broke as she talked about her felony. She’s embarrassed. Every time she applies for a job, it comes up. She has a great employment history and good references, but the background check trips her up every time.

Meanwhile, she’s unable to pay her bills. She got a speeding ticket, which made her appeal for clemency to the state get delayed by two years. She’s on the verge of bankruptcy. I could see the desperation in her eyes.

It’s no wonder that recidivism is a problem.

What kind of parent would I be if every time one of my children made a mistake, I held it against him or her for infinity? I believe in doling out consequences and moving on.

Social work is based on the belief that humans have the capacity to change, and that’s long been my mantra. People make mistakes, but people can change.  But they can’t as long as society holds them back, excludes them, treats them as untouchables.

I don’t know what to do about this, but something needs to change. With drug laws and “three-strikes-and-you’re-out,” the untouchables class will continue to grow.