By Aviva Tevah
"The Philadelphians we honored yesterday are living proof of what can happen when people have real opportunities, resources and support as they move forward with their lives after incarceration," writes Director Aviva Tevah.
For Reentry Awareness Month this year, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition did something new: On June 21, we held our first-ever Reentry Celebration and Awards Ceremony.
With over a hundred member organizations, the coalition includes reentry service providers, government agencies, advocates, academics and others. This event was an opportunity for us to take a break from our normal meetings — often focused on shared barriers in our efforts to reduce recidivism, and what isn’t working — to celebrate. We wanted to take time together to acknowledge what is working, and how much people who have been incarcerated are accomplishing despite the challenges they so often face when they return to the community.
Fourteen different organizations recognized 34 people for their achievements, ranging from successful completion of a program, to getting college degrees, to commitment to their goals, to job promotions, to advocacy work on behalf of others.
Here are just a few examples of the people and achievements that were recognized at the ceremony:
Ronald Harmon was recognized by Friends Rehabilitation Program for his successful completion of STAR Reentry Court and receipt of their perfect attendance award, for excelling as a plumbing crew leader employed by Mission First, and for recently obtaining housing, obtaining a loan and purchasing a car, and for his dedication to studying for his commercial driver’s license.
Mary Enoch Baxter was recognized by the Reentry Think Tank for doing an incredible job raising her son as a single mother, obtaining an associate’s degree from the Community College of Philadelphia this past spring, and for using her talents in the creative arts to promote gender equality, educational opportunities and social justice.
Tyrone Manuel was recognized by the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (RISE) for being placed by RISE at Goodwill Industries as a warehouse associate and since moving up the ranks to become program manager, where he has paid it forward by hiring returning citizens including several RISE clients.
Manuel Wali Smith was recognized by the South Philadelphia Taskforce of Probation and Parole for successfully completing state parole supervision, for becoming a fixture in South Philadelphia as the cofounder of the task force to create safe travel corridors to and from schools, and being a school athletic coach, an active member of Bethel International Church in Mt. Airy and an active member of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.
David Garvin was recognized by Broad Street Ministry for his tireless commitment to education, empowerment and advocacy for himself and others as they triumph over the effects of mass incarceration.
For those who aren’t familiar with the difficulties of reentry, some of these achievements may not seem particularly dramatic. But especially in light of all of the consequences — often lifelong — of carrying a criminal record, each of these accomplishments is absolutely worth celebrating.
In addition to recognizing diverse and impressive milestones formerly incarcerated people across the city have reached recently, the coalition also presented our first ever Reentry Awards, which we hope to make an annual tradition. This year’s recipients:
John Pace received the Reentry Star of the Year Award for his work establishing a support and advocacy network for the men and women who, like him, were juvenile lifers, and now are returning home. John is the Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) coordinator at the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.
Jeffrey Abramowitz received the Rising Leader of the Year Award, for affecting change in policy and excelling in leadership through his use of experience, skills, and energy to elevate and support returning citizens. Mr. Abramowitz is the president of the National Workforce Opportunity Network, and he is also a 2018 Leading with Conviction Fellow with JustLeadership USA.
Dr. Rev. Michelle A. Simmons received the Outstanding Leadership and Accomplishment Award for her powerful leadership and for using her experience, skills, and energy over the last many years to elevate and support women returning home and promote awareness of reentry and criminal justice system reform. Reverend Michelle is the founder and director of Why Not Prosper, Inc.
Brown’s Super Store received the Ally of the Year Award for exemplifying allyship by using their influence to help create opportunities for returning citizens. With a 15-year practice of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, Brown’s is a role model for for-profit businesses in this space.
The Reentry Think Tank received the Reentry Organization of the Year Award for their work to ensure reentry solutions are designed by people in reentry, and their efforts to transform services in Philadelphia into more trauma-informed, client-centered and empowering experiences.
The Philadelphians we honored yesterday are living proof of what can happen when people have real opportunities, resources and support as they move forward with their lives after incarceration. Their stories are not unique — people are overcoming the barriers associated with being involved in the criminal justice system to support themselves, their families, and their communities every day — but they are not yet common enough.
It is our collective responsibility to welcome people home from incarceration, meet them wherever they are, and figure out how to support them (or get out of their way) so they can thrive just like anybody else.