Graduates (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)
Plagued by a pandemic and confronted by a national outcry against racial injustice, our final semester in college was challenging at best. As nontraditional students and Black women directly impacted by a deeply-flawed criminal legal system, we are no strangers to adversity. We consistently prove, time and again, that we can succeed despite our backgrounds.
That success is predicated on an unmovable foundation that reframes our relationship with the world and the issues we face today – a college degree. A college degree is transformative. A college degree is a means to a better life that reverberates hope and opportunity across generations and throughout communities.
Even in the current economic climate, our degrees provide a critical buffer against unemployment and financial volatility. Not only does this stabilizing effect demonstrate the importance of higher education to our families but it also increases the chances relatives and others we know will seek out a college degree, breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty.
However, while the motivation to earn our degrees was always present, the systemic barriers limiting our ability to successfully achieve that outcome were pervasive. How would we pay for college? What colleges and universities will even accept us?
These questions, while not uncommon for most Americans, become even more damning when you have a criminal conviction. Just ask the millions of Americans currently struggling to surmount the lifetime of collateral consequences that come with their conviction status. Most will never find the crucial social supports required to access opportunities that extend beyond their present circumstances.
Our pathway to and through college would not have been possible without community-based organizations that delivered the necessary resources and tools to help guarantee our success. These spaces offered structure and community that empower women of color to recognize our worth and, ultimately, to achieve our goals.
They provided one-on-one academic counseling that guided us through institutional bureaucracies, community meetings that gave us safe spaces to ask difficult questions, and advocacy training that taught us how to build a movement. All of the programming was tailor-made for justice-involved women like us.
We became part of a sisterhood of women supporting women and our voices, which often go unheard, were not only heard but valued. This enabled us to break out of the box society had put us in and define ourselves for who we truly are – women who can create change.
That change includes empowering other marginalized people to embrace their intimate understanding of oppression, mass criminalization, and intergenerational poverty. In doing so, they too can recognize that they are best positioned to find the most effective solutions to the problems facing their families and communities.
Coupled with our lived experience and the full power of our degrees, we are committed to creating similar spaces that teach other justice-involved people that their criminal conviction status is not a terminal diagnosis. A space where people with criminal histories can achieve the same confidence and credentials to realize their full potential and pay it forward.
Robert Merton, considered to be the founding father of modern sociology and a contributor to the subfield of criminology, created the Strain Theory — a theory that puts society in five classes: conformity, ritualism, retreat, rebellion, and deviance. A deviant was once considered a criminal, people whose behavior fell out of society's norms. Now, when you look up Merton’s theory, deviant is replaced with innovator: people who have created promise, opportunities outside of society's norms.
As we’ve replaced our caps and gowns with masks and cardboard signs, we’ve begun our new, fully realized futures, invoking our role as innovators. With our degrees in hand, we’ve set out on a mission to build a better path for those that come after us by disrupting and dismantling a system where only few can succeed. We do not forget our past, but now, because of our education, we demand access to a promised future that provides opportunity for all.
Chermaine Black graduated this year from Columbia University with her Master of Social Work and is an alumna and 2020 Valedictorian of College & Community Fellowship – an organization working to help justice-involved women earn their college degrees. Shannon McCarroll graduated this year from Lehman College with her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and is an alumna and 2020 Salutatorian of College & Community Fellowship.