“This is Way Bigger than Me”: Connections to Success’ Damion Alexander Reflects on His Visit to Capitol Hill

By Caitlin Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow, NTJN

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At the end of February, staff and program participants from Connections to Success joined the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) in Washington, D.C., to support our B.MORE Initiative in opening doors to employment and economic advancement for low-income black men.  Together, we made the rounds on Capitol Hill, speaking to delegates from Missouri and Kansas about how Connections to Success helps individuals with barriers to employment, including many African American men returning home from incarceration, transform their lives and achieve economic self-sufficiency. 

Damion Alexander, a Life Transformation Coach and Trainer at Connections to Success, played a central role in showing members of Congress how important it is for them to champion policies and programs that advance economic opportunity and strengthen families by helping low-income black men succeed in employment.

In this interview, Damion—who was on his first trip to D.C.—discusses the impact of his time on Capitol Hill; makes a policy pitch for reducing state-owed child support debts; and shares why he made a special stop at the Lincoln Memorial while exploring the city.

NTJN: What impact has Connections to Success had in your life?

Damion Alexander: I started out at Connections to Success in 2008 as a program participant, after having been incarcerated for almost nine years.  What was most important to me was being able to come to Connections and actually speak to someone about my adjustment to life outside of prison—it was important to have an ear!  At Connections, the staff didn’t treat me like a number; they treated me like a person.  That was critical, because not everyone can completely understand what it’s like to come back into this world from prison and try to make it.  I was able to stay engaged with Connections, and it helped me transition back to my community.

In 2012, I became a Life Transformation Coach at Connections.  Being an employee has just been a wonderful opportunity.  In prison, I prayed that after I came home, I would have the opportunity to give other guys hope and act as an example that success is possible, even for individuals with a felony conviction. God has blessed me to do that, and it just gives me joy to see Connections’ program participants make constructive progress in their lives.

NTJN: Why do you feel Connections to Success and other similar programs are important for improving the life outcomes of African American men and boys?

Damion Alexander: Connections to Success plays an important role in reducing recidivism and getting fathers involved in their children’s lives—two issues that are especially relevant to the African American community.

In terms of recidivism, we know that a disproportionate number of black men are incarcerated.  When they exit incarceration, Connections is there to help these men make the transition back home.  We serve as a mediator and a mentor for men (and women!) who are coming out of prison, and we give them the opportunity to have hope and believe that their life doesn’t always have to be the way it was.  One way we do this is by helping our program participants prepare for and find employment.  Some black men coming out of incarceration may struggle with not fully understanding professional norms.  We teach men the skills they need to succeed in the workplace so that they can break the cycle of poverty and incarceration and work toward economic independence.

Finally, the fatherhood portion of our work is equally important.  At Connections, we help men understand that what’s most important is to be in a child’s life, not just provide financial support.  Our fatherhood work is about reuniting families and bringing them together, and it’s part of Connections’ holistic approach to providing support to our participants.

NTJN: How do you feel the message you and Connections to Success brought to Washington was received by the delegates and their staffers?

Damion Alexander: First off, I want to say that I really enjoyed engaging the senators and representatives.  I realize now that they are people, not just some superstars out there! They are elected officials who are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. Citizens need to participate. We do have a voice, and members of Congress have a sincere concern and they are willing to listen—and take the time to listen—to us.  That was important.

In terms of our message getting across, at this point it is difficult to gauge because we’re still in the initial phases of engaging with our delegates and showing them the important work we do at Connections.  While we were in D.C., I noticed that the legislative issues that impact minority citizens across our country weren’t necessarily the top items on the congressional agenda.  For example, it seems like the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act—which will help reduce recidivism by creating opportunities for people returning home from prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities—is not a high priority at this time with some of our members of Congress.

I think that by going to D.C., we really moved some hearts and put these important legislative issues on our delegates’ radars.  In particular, Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer was really engaged by the work Connections is doing.  It’s the same with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver – we were featured in his newsletter the very next day!  So I do think that we had an impact, and hopefully we can gain even more momentum moving forward.

NTJN: How would you like to see elected officials support the efforts of Connections to Success and other programs like it?

Damion Alexander: I would love to see our elected officials create and support legislation that will lead to positive outcomes for Connections’ program participants and their families.  One policy issue that is especially important to us, and that’s already in effect in Kansas, is the reduction of child support debts that an individual owes to the state.  

At Connections, we’re striving to help people living in poverty succeed in employment and achieve economic self-sufficiency.  It’s important to recognize that punitive child support policies can exacerbate barriers to employment.  For example, a father who owes but is unable to pay child support because he simply doesn’t earn enough money can be prosecuted and incarcerated for a felony.  While incarcerated, that father can’t make payments, continues to accrue child support debt, and is going to have a very difficult time finding a job upon release.  What’s more, we know that fathers with huge child support debt and who are unemployed are less active in their children’s lives—it’s a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, the State of Kansas has recognized that punitive child support policies just don’t make sense.  In Kansas, Connections to Success participants who meet certain criteria can receive a one-time child support arrears credit of up to $2,000.  This is for child support debt owed to the state, not directly to mothers and children—a non-custodial father might have this type of debt if his child’s mother has received benefits from a safety net program. I’ve seen firsthand that Kansas’ policy encourages men to engage with our program, creating the opportunity for them to focus on becoming successful in employment so that they can pay child support and be the fathers they want to be to their kids.  Last year, Kansas discharged $177,278 in child support debt that our participants owed to the state—and our participants turned around and earned over $1 million from gainful employment and paid more than $256,000 in child support.  Kansas’ policy helps get men to work, strengthens families, and may reduce rates of incarceration and recidivism—and that’s why I’d like to see elected officials support replicating Kansas’ innovative approach to reducing child support debt. 

Finally, in the long-term, I would eventually like to see legislation passed that restores the full rights of citizenship to individuals who have been convicted of a felony, have served their time, and have returned home to their communities.  Everyone deserves a second chance with a clean slate, no strings attached.

NTJN: This was your first trip to Washington, D.C.  Were you able to squeeze in any sightseeing while you were in the city?

Damion Alexander: I was!  One of my favorite sites was the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Growing up, Dr. King’s speech was significant to me.  He was the voice for a lot of people, mainly African Americans, who didn’t have a voice at that time. When I was young, I had the opportunity to deliver Dr. King’s speech in front of my school assembly and then in front of a new federal building in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was living.  When I was at the Lincoln Memorial, I was thinking, “Here I am, in D.C., getting to be a voice for people who don’t always have a voice”—including people coming home from incarceration who are most often African American or other minorities.  I feel blessed to be part of making members of Congress aware that there need to be changes in how we treat these men and women.  King spoke of God creating all men equal.  Sadly, today that same message must still be communicated to people. Someone has to be the voice. The work is not finished. Coming to D.C. to represent so many people who need greater access to opportunity made me realize that this isn’t just about me—it’s way bigger than me, and it’s amazing to consider the impact that we could have on the future.

 

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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