You serve in several roles: community health worker capacity builder with the United Way of Rutherford County, Voices of Affrilachia Reentry Team lead, and INSPIRE coordinator with the Appalachian Regional Commission. What does your work involve, and how did you create this career pathway for yourself?

Voices of Affrilachia is a state-funded initiative focused on ending the mental health stigma in the Black communities of Western North Carolina. The state offers a certified peer support specialist credential, while various community colleges and state universities offer a community health worker credential, and we’ve found that people who have these credentials often have the skill sets we need among our staff. We recruit and mentor Black peer support specialists coming into the field, which advances two of our goals beyond supporting reentry generally. First, we aim to diversify the mental health workforce, leveraging the existing credentialing systems to advance a more inclusive group. Second, we want to end the stigma around mental health in the Black communities in Western North Carolina. In my role with the Voices of Affrilachia, I oversee the work of two community health workers who are also peer support specialists who provide reentry support to people leaving North Carolina state prisons.

The Investments Supporting Partnerships in Recovery Ecosystems (INSPIRE) initiative is funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and is focused heavily on supporting the recovery of people with substance use disorders. When people who have substance use disorders are going back into the workforce following treatment, we connect them with certified peer support specialists who can help them navigate different workforce development resources and challenges, as well as access employment opportunities through our network of employers.

I also provide consulting to rural leaders that want to do more for the returning citizens of their counties, including but not limited to faith leaders, probation officers, and behavioral health agencies. Broadly speaking, my career path has been my life path. For years, I have leveraged my lived experience as a service recipient as well as a service provider to address the gaps in services for people who are returning to society, whether that means returning from treatment or returning from prison.

You lead a team providing reentry support for people leaving state prisons in North Carolina. What are the critical elements of reentry support that your team provides to men and women as they walk out of the prison doors?

First, I must make space to say the prisons are understaffed right now. The staffing issues inside prisons put a burden on the prison-based case managers, which puts a burden on the reentry plans. The case managers’ goal is to decrease recidivism and help people, so when my team comes into the picture, we communicate with the case managers, collaborate with them on the reentry plan, and figure out how we can provide assistance to the individual leaving prison.

A critical element of getting reentry right is collaborating with individuals before release. Reentry services should start while they are still on the inside. The second critical element is the lived experience piece. For a person leaving prison, working with somebody who has served prison time and reentered society changes the relationship dynamic; rapport is established immediately. Whenever we connect with folks that are coming home and they are connecting with us, they see that we are the hope that change can happen. So, the critical elements of reentry are using that lived experience, primarily, and remembering that reentry services should start before people get out.

Just living in a rural area can cause unique reentry challenges. What are two major reentry barriers you see in the Appalachian region and what are some strategies you use to overcome them?

Some barriers can be overcome, and some can’t. The reality is, some communities aren’t recovery-friendly, and people in early recovery should not be there. That is just the reality. Sometimes this barrier is structural, because the local community holds prejudices against recovery supports; sometimes, it’s personal relationships that make the location incompatible with an individual’s recovery. But in either case, relocation may be the best thing that can happen for those individuals, if that’s what it takes to get them in an environment that supports their recovery. With support, they can come to understand and accept that relocation is possible, that they may not need to go back to the small town that they come from, where all their friends are still partying.

The other piece of the reentry process is knowing the resources. We have a “boots on the ground model” to maintain working relationships with the other area service providers. This allows us to determine in a personalized way if an area is appropriate for an individual to come back to, so we can avoid major barriers before they pop up. For instance, if we know the person needs continuity of care for mental and substance use disorders, but an area doesn’t offer any of those services, relocation only makes sense if they have transportation to where the services are available. You must consider those social drivers that impact health, like transportation.

Again, starting this process before release is so important. It comes down to having realistic expectations for clients living in rural areas and assessing those resources that are available and setting realistic goals depending on what that person needs. All of this should be decided before they are released.

You have adopted the phrase “change agent” to describe yourself and others doing meaningful work to bring about change in recovery and within the justice system. How have you leveraged the concept of “change agents” to advance the work around reentry and workforce development in the Appalachian region?

There is power in words, and in this moment, as people are talking about equity and the criminal legal system and racial disparities, more people increasingly want to get involved. And there are tangible ways they can contribute to system improvements. These people, who choose to contribute, are change agents. People with all kinds of expertise can find ways to change things for the better, whether they’re in education and training, behavioral health, or medical care, or whether it is that dentist who will help fix a person’s teeth because we know that the smile matters in an interview. It is even people in law enforcement and probation officers who understand that second chances are real. It’s the legislators and elected officials that know that recidivism rates can get better. Anybody willing to contribute to the improvements and decrease recidivism is a change agent.

I like to use the word “tangible.” I do not like to cuss a lot because I am Evangelist and I love Jesus, but this quote would not be as powerful without the cuss word—Fred Hampton said, “Theory is cool but theory with no practice ain’t sh-t.” So, I like to use the word “tangible” to focus on things that people can put into practice. For example, if there is an HR professional who wants to take part in second chance hiring, they talk with folks who work with the population I serve and discuss their hiring matrix. Those people that are willing to do something different are change agents—the folks that go above and beyond to help address inequities.

You have said that recovery is not a destination but a journey. As someone with lived experience of substance use disorder and incarceration, was there a specific moment when you knew that you wanted to help others with their recovery journey?

Absolutely—while I was in prison, I went through a treatment program called “A New Direction,” which is a 90-day program that could potentially knock 30 days off your sentence. Before I started the program, I was getting high while I was in prison, and as a result of getting caught I had to go to the hole (segregation) a couple of times. While in the hole I thought to myself, “Come on man, this isn’t living.” After that, I started going to the recovery meetings and started to take a role as a leader within the group, so much so that I was recruited to be a peer counselor within the prison—that was how I started as a peer counselor, with A New Direction. I specialized in working with the younger adults and providing support to them while they were in the dorm. I tried spreading my knowledge and support to those that would give me their time. That is when I learned that some people want to change, and they will give an inkling of their willingness to you and see if you will respond to it. It was a natural role for me, and it felt like it was my calling. I knew then that I was going to be a bridge for people. I am that X-factor: I am a young Black man with a criminal history, but I am smart enough to maneuver around different rooms by just being myself.

When George Floyd was murdered, people’s eyes started opening and people were like, “We need to get more feedback from folks,” and they started to reach out to people like me. I am just going to continue to share my truths because they can end up saving someone else—not just people in recovery but also the people leaving incarceration and looking for meaningful employment. People like me need to be plugged into their network and stay open-minded. Never let the accolades or accomplishments make you forget where you came from. It is all God. God put these people in my life to hold me accountable and charge my battery. Don’t ever shortchange recovery, be consistent with your message, and be around people that celebrate you. This is challenging work, and there are times when my presence is not celebrated, so it is important and healthy to offset that by being around people that do celebrate you.

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