An interview with Free Minds member Damon, by Jennifer, Free Minds Reentry Coach. This interview was originally published in Volume 11, Issue 5 of the Free Minds Connect.

I came home in 2019, after being incarcerated for 24 years. I didn’t know how to monetize my skill sets, which were mostly soft skills since I hadn’t been able to take a lot of classes or earn certifications. I felt like I was coming home with nothing and had nobody who would finance me, so I had to get to work. I kept beating myself up about not having the things of other people my age. Eventually, I just had to embrace being at the bottom. The biggest challenge was having to adjust, adapt, and build all at once. I began working with different organizations, taking classes, and leveraging resources. Eventually, my Free Minds coach referred me to the Building Futures Construction Pre-Apprenticeship Training program, where I earned certifications and got a job offer in the trades.

As a Carpenter’s Helper for Dynamic Contracting, Inc., I hang drywall, cut and carry metal, hang doors, read blueprints, caulk, and help mechanics install ceiling tiles. I grew up in Northeast DC and most of my projects have been in this neighborhood—first doing roofing on an apartment building on 50th Street, then renovating Smothers Elementary School on Brooks Street. Now, I’m helping create the new DC Department of Government Services headquarters on Minnesota Avenue. I am grateful for the opportunity to build my community up now after having been a destructive force in the past.

I feel like I’ve chosen a career that literally rebuilds my neighborhood. My family has been in this neighborhood for generations. In fact, my father, uncle, and aunt all attended Smothers Elementary School. They described the school as feeling old and grim like a rundown castle. What kid wants to learn in that kind of environment? Since the previous generation said the building was dark and sad, we recreated the new school to be light and hopeful for future generations. In fact, since I live around the corner, I now workout on the Smothers playground that I helped assemble. It’s a part of my community and I am proud that I contributed to it. I love seeing the neighborhood children enjoying the space!

Now I get up every morning at 4:30 a.m. with a purpose, instead of getting up that early just to get breakfast and go back to the cell. I clock in at 6 a.m. and my objective is to learn every day. The work is physically demanding, dirty, and out in the elements. I started off doing unskilled labor work and slinging trash, but my coworkers and supervisors quickly saw the effort I put into every task, so they gave me more opportunities. I have a reputation for helping everyone. I am never disgruntled. I recognize that construction work is about the job and not the individual. Other foremen have tried to recruit me to their teams, and I’ve also been asked to work overtime and help out with side jobs.

My favorite part of my job is connecting with people. Most employees in my company are native Spanish speakers, so we largely communicate with body language. I have found that a smile is universal. For example, they call out numbers in English and I yell them back out in Spanish. There is a mutual understanding and appreciation for each other’s different cultures as we all work towards a shared goal.

Since I’ve been home, I also worked at the JC Penney stock room and as an attendant at the Gaylord Christmas program. But I prefer the construction career because there are so many opportunities to grow yourself—especially by talking to more experienced coworkers in different trades to find out the skills, pay, benefits, and learning opportunities with them. 

One of the greatest things about this job is that it allows me to show my daughter and my mother (who supported me while I was incarcerated) that after all that time away I came home not bitter, not broken, but able to be this positive, focused, contributing career man for our family.

A flyer with a dark yellow circle over an orange background. A group of 7 men stand in a row, with an 8th man and a woman crouching in front of them in the first row. Text below them reads A New Awakening.
Damon (front row, left) performed in an original theatrical production called “A New Awakening,” through the Life Stories project in partnership with the Theatre Lab.

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