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Learning to Lead

Wednesday, Jun 14, 2017

By Christina Schweighofer

USC Gould Professor, Heidi Rummel (front center, right), with PCJP clients and JustLeadership participants

When Romarilyn Ralston tells colleagues that she spent time in prison, she notices a shift in their behavior; eyes widen, shoulders stiffen. “In the back of their minds people just don’t trust us,” said Ralston, a former client of USC Gould’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP).

Ralston, who is now the program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, 
shared her story recently at the Emerging Leaders Workshop that she helped organize at USC Gould. 
“I’ve been out of prison for six years, and my goal has been to give back to the community. I want to help people who have been incarcerated live healthy, productive lives.”
More than 45 formerly incarcerated men and women took part in a one-day training and networking opportunity sponsored by USC Gould,  USC’s Office of the  Provost and JustLeadershipUSA, which teaches participants how to be more effective leaders in their various communities.
The event highlighted USC’s commitment to social engagement, said Professor Heidi Rummel, who co-directs the PCJP.  “This event supports PCJP’s mission. In addition to representing individual clients and educating law students, PCJP advocates for reform of our criminal justice system. When our former clients and other returning citizens are successful leaders, the most important voices in the conversation about reform are more powerful.”
The event also fits together nicely with the Provost’s office’s ongoing Wicked Problems initiative, which is taking a close look at homelessness and re-entry for formerly incarcerated men and women.
Many of the attendees at the leadership workshop currently who work or volunteer for private companies, universities, the Los Angeles Mayor’s office and local organizations advocating for criminal justice. 
The director for in-prison programs at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in Los Angeles, Sam Lewis, stressed the importance of leadership training for returning citizens. “We often lack the education, experience and opportunity to become successful leaders,” he said.
Lewis and Ralston both participated in a yearlong training program with JustLeadershipUSA, the organization that led the workshop at USC. Lewis, who spent 24 years in prison before his release in 2012, said: “There’s no training elsewhere for formerly incarcerated people that trains us to be leaders in our communities and in our jobs.”
Ralston said that the JLUSA training taught her to not let other people’s biases define her identity. She learned to frame her own narrative and to see herself not as a formerly incarcerated person being a professional but as a professional with incarceration experience. 
One of the PCJP clients at the training was Donzell Taylor. After more than 24 years in prison, he had only just been released on parole thanks to the representation of Rummel and the PCJP. Taylor, who is a musician and works in the electrical field, said that the seminar inspired him and that he is looking forward to becoming a leader in those communities.
JLUSA Manager of Trainings Khalil Cumberbatch, who spent almost seven years in the New York State prison system, said after the workshop at the law school. “It has to be the people who are directly impacted by the criminal justice system who will lead the effort for change. One person can impact many around them to change the perception of who we are.”



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