“It’s a great responsibility, but I think all of those years that I was in those cells, this is what I was really meant to do. I always wanted to give back to the community.” said Shannon, Free Minds’ Advocacy & Leadership Development Specialist. When he came home, Shannon became an active Poet Ambassador, where he used his talent for storytelling and poetry to educate the community on the root causes of youth violence and incarceration. He was then selected to be the Congressman John Lewis Fellow, a 6-month paid position for Free Minds members to build on their professional and leadership skills.
As a teenager, Shannon was sentenced to life. He served 25 years before his release under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which allows individuals to have their sentences reconsidered if they were convicted as minors and have served at least 20 years. Shannon became familiar with Free Minds during his incarceration, and after his release became an active participant in many of the supportive services we offer, which helped him get back on his feet after such a long time away. Shannon says the reading and writing services Free Minds provides for incarcerated youth is so critical, because when you’re incarcerated, it can feel dehumanizing and the prison environment can be very negative for someone’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
As the Advocacy & Leadership Development Specialist, Shannon goes into schools, jails and other venues to speak with kids and young adults about his experiences, and models leadership and accountability for kids who may not have had many positive male role models in their lives. He shares that part of the responsibility he feels to better the community is due to the mistakes he made as a kid. At the time, Shannon said, he did not fully understand the impact his decisions would have on himself and his community. Now, he gets a chance to help a new generation and aims to be the type of leader that he needed when he was a kid.
“In a lot of ways, coming up poor, not having a lot of the things you’d like to have, played a pivotal part in me making a lot of those decisions,” Shannon said. “I wanted to come home and do the right thing. To show kids through my leadership, my history and my experiences, that if they’re leading the life I led decades ago, to try to change their mindset and change their thought process; to get them to think about the bigger picture.”
Shannon furthered his commitment to reaching out to youth by becoming a book club facilitator and mentor with Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a non-profit that connects African American boys to creative outlets as tools to become leaders and transform their lives and communities. As a “reader leader,” Shannon promotes the message that reading is cool, and shares his personal lived experiences to inspire the boys to believe in and pursue their own dreams. One of the most important things Shannon tells the boys is that education is the key to greater opportunity in life. Shannon has witnessed first-hand the power of using his voice to connect and create a mutual healing space with the boys, many of whom come from the same neighborhoods and community as him.
“That’s what I want to show them. We all make mistakes. Even as a 44-year-old, I still make mistakes, but don’t make a mistake where your life could be taken away,” Shannon said. “I want to teach them that there’s a better way. And that’s what John Lewis preached: nonviolence, good trouble. Get in good trouble.”
“As a kid, you bottle stuff up. You might be hurting, and as a kid, especially as a young boy, you might not want to share certain stuff. I tell them, ‘You have to open up, find somebody to trust and try to talk to them.’” Shannon said. “As kids, they probably don’t understand patience like we do. It takes you going through life to understand that patience is a virtue. You have to be patient and you have to go to school; that’s number one.”
In terms of the future, Shannon has plans for publishing a book and starting a family. While in prison, he made sure to keep all of his old letters and photographs, and he is planning to format them into a book that eventually will be published about his experiences.