Every month we will share a new success spotlight .
LA County Inmate to Community Leader
Bi-line Steve Rogers and Heather Erwin
What motivated you to prepare for re-entry?
Honestly, I could tell the problem was a lot bigger than me. One day I was getting my tray at chow time, and I took it to the back of the pod and I just watched the others take get their tray and take it to their table to eat. I remember looking all over the room and seeing a deep sense of hopelessness in their eyes. I didn’t see the violent monsters society portrays, just a group of regular people trying to survive, crushed by the acceptance that this was all they were worth. I saw people’s sons, people’s fathers, people’s husbands, and I believe they deserve better. In that moment, I felt God was calling me to serve this population, and to lead the way out of a life of captivity and a mindset of defeat.
I knew I would need to prepare for this calling, as my past had been focused on me, and I had no experience leading people I cared about. I felt that it was my responsibility to do more than just get released and move on. I felt an undeniable sense that I needed to make sure everyone else inside had the same opportunity to thrive that I was given.
What did you do to prepare yourself for re-entry while you were still incarcerated?
The LA county jail offered a school program that I found my way into during my term. It was a fantastic opportunity, they offered life skills and job training to help with the transition back into society. This program undoubtedly changed my life. I was quickly offered a leadership position as a teacher’s aid due to my expertise with numbers. Then thanks to budget cut, I quickly found myself as the full time GED instructor for the Education Based Incarceration program (no pay).
Once they hired an accredited GED teacher, I was asked to lead a life skills program expansion in the mental health department which I would lead until the day of my release. My team and I would be escorted by deputies five days a week to the mental health wing to facilitate basic life skills discussions. During this assignment I found the majority of my training.
Our team was offered several voluntary classes covering everything from leadership and accountability to facilitation and social media. I was the only inmate teacher that signed up for every possible off time class. I would teach in the day and take classes at night and gave every class my all. While some of the other facilitators watched movies and played cards, I met and connected with several men and women who chose to spend their time working with a population the majority of society wanted nothing to do with. These people modeled what leadership was all about, and really prepared me for the tough road ahead. These instructors believed in me and became my mentors, and to this day, I still keep in touch with almost every one of them.
What organizations or who helped you when you were finally released?
First off, I have been amazingly fortunate with the role models I’ve had since I started this road. I was pretty scared as I was packing up to leave. I knew I was walking out with the shirt on my back, no home, no clothes, no family, so I had a short list of shelters I was planning to try out upon release. I was lucky enough to be in a life changing program called “The Last Mile” at the end of my term led by venture capitalist, Chris Redlitz. They found out a couple days before my release that I had nowhere to go, and they negotiated a sober living program that would let me move in and pay later. That sober living program (Jubilee Homes) has been instrumental in the work I have done, even though it’s been a bit unusual. I’ve often chosen unpaid volunteer opportunities over paying jobs and they have been patient, and very proud of my decisions.
Also, mentors I met while incarcerated like Alyson Dikes, Ray Thompson, and Dave Bates offered wisdom and encouragement, and got me through times where they may not have realized I was ready to give up.
My first leadership opportunities came from a couple community based organizations that saw the importance of hearing from the directly impacted. The Youth Justice Coalition in Inglewood, CA brought me to Sacramento a few months after my release to lobby for legislation to defend the rights of those incarcerated. MY first major opportunity came when I connected with Dignity and Power Now where the current Executive Director, Patrisse Cullors (who later co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement), made me a public speaker on the Civilian Oversight initiative.
What are you doing currently?
Today, I am a very active organizer, and public safety lobbyist with strong ties on the LA county and California state levels. I work closely with the ACLU, and I’ve been the Civilian Oversight campaign lead for Dignity and Power Now for two years. I’m also nominated by a panel of over 30 community based organizations for a seat on that commission that will review misconduct and use of force complaints against the Los Angeles county Sheriff’s Department. I’m employed by Five Keys Charter Schools as a re-entry Mentor Coordinator personally working with over 50 men and women dealing with the trauma of re-entry.
It took dozens of role models and people offering me support along the way to get me where I am today. With all the work they poured into me, it would be incredibly selfish to keep my success to myself, and truly, it would be a great misunderstanding of what they taught me. Watching them, I learned how to succeed and how to create opportunities for others, and most importantly I learned that true success combines the two.
“These people modeled what leadership was all about, and really prepared me for the tough road ahead.”
— Steve Rogers