Founder's Take: Seeing Each Other More Clearly

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

Yesterday I learned something. One of our team members, a brother who has been with us for nearly a year now, served time in prison. I never knew. I thought of him in the same way that I’ve thought of Claire in the past, or Allie now, or Gabby. I thought of Mike in the same way I’ve thought of Tyler or David or any of the dozens of people we work with, which is to say, I thought of him as one of the bedrocks of the organization. See, Mike is one of the folks that touches nearly every Freedom Library that we build, working with his hands to transform remnants of trees into hope and possibility. And yesterday, as we celebrated a significant grant given to us by the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority (CHEFA), he talked about the time he’d served in prison and what it meant to come home to this work.

In a way, I was happy I hadn’t known that he was a juvenile offender like me, that I was casually surprised to learn that he’d done 17 years inside. The brother is calm and soft spoken. Dedicated. He acts before he speaks. These are the things that I knew about him.

It’s like when I emailed David at 4am and then apologized, telling him that I often wake up for count. When he told me that he does too, I realized then he’d known the burden of a state number.

I think of the young woman who came up to me after my show in Chicago, delighted that I’d returned and she was home to see me perform, instead of still in prison. I think of how entering Logan Correctional Center, the women’s facility in Illinois, broke my heart. I think of this because I know that all of us desire to be seen as something other than the crimes we’ve committed and the burdens we carry.

I’ve been fortunate. I have a DOC number and a number given to me by the Connecticut Bar Association. I am an Ivy League trained lawyer and a felon. My life is juxtaposed in such a way that I can find some value in my existence even when I’m at my lowest, and I’ve been at my lowest. But maybe I’m most fortunate when I realize that I’ve cultivated, amongst all the things, the ability to not see men and women who’ve labored under words meant to define us, whether it’s 'formerly incarcerated' or 'felon.' I’ve developed the ability to see folks independent of that. I’m not sure how. Or maybe I am. Maybe it’s all wrapped up into what it means to know that freedom begins with a book.

I've had a lot of moments at Freedom Reads that have brought me to tears, but this one brought sheer joy to me. We are, in all of the ways, who we are. And as we do this work, I believe that it guarantees that we will see each other more clearly, at least that is the freedom I seek.