Connections to Success employee profiled by CBS News: Builds on his incarceration experience to create opportunity for others as the new mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas
After serving a three-year sentence for a felony conviction in 2007, Jermaine Wilson knew he wanted to transform his life and bring unity to his community in Leavenworth, Kansas. He did not anticipate where that goal would eventually lead him: the mayor’s office.
In early January 2019, Wilson was sworn into office as mayor of Leavenworth after years of community advocacy and service. “I never had any aspirations for politics,” said Wilson, “but there was so much support, so many individuals who needed someone who represented them and could be a voice for the community.”
During his time in prison, Wilson started making plans for where he wanted to go in life. “The idea of being a community activist was in my heart,” said Wilson. Upon release, Wilson began mentoring youth, started a nonprofit and brought organizations together to address community needs. People began seeing the positive outcomes, said Wilson, and encouraged him to run for office.
Wilson’s story of struggle and transformation resonates with many of his fellow citizens. “They see someone who has been through it and walked in their shoes. It encourages them,” said Wilson.
However, Wilson’s story stands as somewhat of an outlier within the larger narrative of re-entry. According to a recent Prison Policy Initiative Report, nearly 5 million individuals in the US have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. The unemployment rate for this group is 27%, nearly five times higher than the general population rate at the time of analysis. The report also indicates that individuals involved with the criminal justice system desire to work but face significant barriers to employment, as Wilson can attest.
“I know what it’s like to struggle,” said Wilson. “I know what it’s like to start from ground zero.” According to Wilson, finding employment and housing are the two biggest challenges for individuals re-entering the community from incarceration.
In his new role as mayor, Wilson has already moved forward with an initiative designed to reduce barriers to employment for people with criminal records, knowing that most individuals now incarcerated will return home. The Missouri Department of Corrections reports that nearly 20,000 individuals are released from incarceration in the state each year. This figure highlights the importance of innovative leadership and collaborative approaches to re-entry services.
On his second day in office, Wilson and Leavenworth’s county attorney announced an initiative that enables qualified individuals to have their criminal records expunged. Having charges removed can open up new opportunities for employment, education and housing.
A bi-vocational mayor, Wilson also cultivates positive community change through his second job. Wilson serves as the Community Outreach Coordinator for Connections to Success, a regional nonprofit headquartered in St. Charles, Missouri that helps individuals and families realize their dreams and achieve economic success. The organization combines workforce development training and cognitive behavioral intervention strategies to create a unique, experiential program that promotes success for participants in all aspects of their lives. Many of Connections to Success’ participants have been involved in the criminal justice system and encountered barriers to employment.
As Community Outreach Coordinator, Wilson is out in the community most days, building connections with employers and inviting individuals to participate in Connections to Success’ program. “I walk the streets, I stop in businesses, drop off flyers,” said Wilson. Wilson said many people he meets are surprised to learn about his history, but these interactions help break down the stigma often associated with having a criminal record. “It’s great to see how people are opening up more and more,” said Wilson.
Connections to Success is one of many organizations and agencies seeking innovative ways to help individuals transition successfully into the community after incarceration. In 2018 Connections to Success participated in a collaborative pilot program to offer its training to men incarcerated at the Algoa Correctional Center in Missouri. This pre-release approach minimizes distractions for participants, leads to improved employment opportunities upon release, and equips participants with a support network as they re-enter the community.
“If you really want to reach and teach an individual, you need to meet them where they are,” said Wilson. Wilson said he benefited from participating in a mentorship program while incarcerated and now returns to prison to mentor other men. Understanding the importance of continual growth, Wilson has found a mentor at Connections to Success in his coworker, Stephen Barbee, who also works alongside participants involved in the criminal justice system. “You’ll always need someone to guide and teach you, because we don’t have all the answers,” said Wilson.
Wilson applies this growth-oriented perspective to his role as mayor and looks forward to being a voice for the community by supporting tenant rights and improving access to transportation and healthy food. He hopes his story will encourage others and help open doors for people who have had similar experiences. “We all have the great opportunity to stand on the platform that is our story.”
About Connections to Success:
Connections to Success inspires families to realize their dreams and achieve economic independence by providing hope, resources and a plan. With offices in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions, Connections to Success meets people where they are and helps them move toward a place of personal, economic and social strength. Their model integrates training opportunities, life transformation coaching, support services and job development to equip participants for long-term success. They provide professional clothing for participants through their men’s boutique and Dress for Success Midwest women’s boutique. Since its inception, Connections to Success has served over 30,000 people and continues to pioneer programs, including a pre-release Personal and Professional Development class for individuals at Algoa Correctional Center. Learn more at www.connectionstosuccess.org.