by Dr. Boyce Watkins
When I worked with Russell Simmons in our campaign to get celebrities to help us persuade the White House to challenge Mass Incarceration, I attacked the issue from a very personal perspective. My uncle, Donald Couch, was like an older brother to me. From the time I was an infant, I followed him around, and there may have been a time that I wanted to be like him.
But around the age of 10, I knew that imitating the behavior of my then 18-year old role model would get me into a lot of trouble. It was then that he was sent to prison on an assault charge, which would change his life forever.
I remember tears streaming from my eyes after hearing that he was arrested. Most of us forget that nearly every time someone is sent to prison, they are leaving behind a child who was under their influence. In some cases, the child continues the cycle by also engaging in criminal behavior because their primary role model has been taken away. This is why the prison problem (which focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation) has made our communities worse off than they were before. I believe it is also the root of the spike in single parent households in the African American community.
When Donald went to prison, it was only for about two years. But it changed his life for the next 30 years. For the remainder of his days, until he died last year in his wheelchair, he was unable to find steady employment. He also battled mental illness and substance abuse, which I believe was a by-product of enduring the atrocities of prison at such an early age. He became the younger brother and I became the older one, loaning him money in one situation after another, constantly worried that this might be the day that I get the phone call telling me that he was dead. When the call arrived, I was only surprised that I had not received it years earlier.
When it came to finding a job, one of the things I constantly told Donald before he died is that he needed to create his own business. Ex-convicts, who are disproportionately black and male, are put into a system of lifelong servitude in which they are abused and underpaid by the market place. When Donald would get jobs, they were usually temporary and many of them paid below minimum wage. Much of the discrimination and abuse was due to the fact that Donald had to check the box stating that he’d been convicted of a felony, which made his employers feel that it was OK to mistreat him.
Ryan Mack, a brilliant financial expert out of New York City, recently spoke to a group of graduates from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Houston, Texas. I respect Ryan as if he were also my brother, and he is my hero for having the courage to take his expertise where people need it the most. I visited Detroit and New Orleans with Ryan on a Financial Empowerment Tour and found myself amazed by the degree to which he is committed to helping our people learn the importance of entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
Watch this video and I’ll follow up with more training. Entrepreneurship is critical for allowing our black men to become strong husbands and fathers again, which is deeply connected with the ability to provide for a family. Most of us must escape the job market to find true economic success, since racism is real in many of the companies where we are seeking to find employment. We must find a better way to become self-sufficient.