Guest Contributer: Johnny Perez
The question of how higher education has changed my life is a question of not only cause and effect, but one of light versus darkness. I see ignorance as a state of darkness and education the illuminating light that so often eliminates it. My relationship with higher education has been an example of this battle; however, to truly appreciate the cure one must first understand the disease.
The worse part of living in a state of ignorance is not knowing about it. That was the situation I found myself in for many years, oblivious of the fact that I did not know that I did not know! As a result, I applied criminal solutions to my problems, reacted aggressively when confronted by others, and often gave up on myself when challenged beyond my comfort zone. Eventually, at the tender age of twenty-one, my self-defeating behaviors restricted me to a concrete cell for the following fifteen years.
I would like to say that receiving such an unbearable sentence served as a catalyst for change in my life, but I cannot. Like any pattern of behavior that takes shape over the course of many years, I continued to break the law despite the contradictory evidence against it around me. It’s important to understand that at the time I did not see my behavior in a negative light. This was mainly because I always shifted responsibility of my actions to others. As a result, I felt justified in my actions and that only served to perpetuate my behavior.
It wasn’t until I tried to do the right thing for the wrong reason that I received the right results. I signed up for the prison’s college program with the idea of spinning a positive light on all the negative behavior I was involved in. Instantly, I knew that I was in a different arena, but instead of quitting like my past indicated, the thought of leaving prison early motivated me enough to continue in the program. Before going to college I was not interested in education. School was were the squares and smart white people went to become lawyers and doctors. I never completed the tenth grade and my General Equivalency Diploma was the result of paying someone ten packs of unfiltered Marlboro Reds to pass the exam for me.
In prison, having reading material is the armor that protects you from the second-by-second attack on your soul that constant repetition can sometimes be. College gave me more protection from monotony that I could have ever hoped for. Within the first semester I traveled the world from inside my cell. I travelled alongside Martin Luther King Jr.; cried with Holocaust survivors; argued the philosophy of laissez-faire with Adam Smith, and even visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also learned the meaning of new words and terms like multi-generational poverty, culture of violence, and synapse. Before college, I thought serendipity was a dancer at a gentlemen’s club, and a dichotomy was a type of surgery.
After some time, the funniest thing happened…I began to pull my pants up! I started to see opportunities where before I only saw challenges; stepping stones where before only obstacles were in sight; and college where before I only saw prison. I guess you can say that my paradigm shifted. The more I learned, the more I realized that I needed to learn more. The more I began to know, the more I came to the conclusion that I did not know anything at all. More importantly I began to see my behavior through the lens of responsible people, and slowly I became uncomfortable with some of the irresponsible behavior that I once felt so at home with. I could no longer use the N-word because I was conscious of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I refused to continue smoking marijuana because I now knew the effects on the brain, and above all else, I felt compelled to break the cycle of ignorance and poverty within my family by being the first to complete a college education!
It has been elleven months now since the sound of steel gates slamming shut has filled my ears every night before I fell asleep. Today, I am a non-attorney mental health advocate at a well-known law firm. I’m responsible for connecting clients, who are reentering society from prison or hospitals, with services like medical treatment, housing, and yes, education. Sometimes, when I visit them prior to their release, they stare down at the handcuffs restricting the movement of their wrists and say, “You have no idea what it is to be in this hell hole.” I usually don’t self-disclose my past to clients, but the hopelessness in their eyes, the frustration painted on their faces, and the smell of their fear motivates me to tell them my story. As I share my past experiences with them I can see their eyes begin to widen with hope, their shoulders raise in confidence, and their smiles shine with joy as they come to realize that I am a living example of the past not dictating the future. An example that nothing is impossible.
So when I’m asked by anyone, how has higher education helped change my life? I can sincerely say that it has changed my life by changing who I am. I could not be a better father, employee, son, volunteer, advocate, or student, if I had not become a better person first. And as a result of higher education changing my life, it has also changed the life of the people who I come I contact with.
Johnny Perez is a non-attorney mental health advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, a law firm providing pro-bono legal representation to underserved populations affected by social justice issues.
When he is not advocating on behalf of New York’s most vulnerable populations, Mr. Perez works to change the status quo of unjust policies and practices as a member of pro-social groups including the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.