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Featured Voice: An Interview with Desmond Meade

Desmond Meade is President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a collection of organizations and individuals working to end Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law. Florida’s law is the nation’s harshest and farthest reaching. Currently, over 1.3 million Floridians who have completed their sentences cannot vote because of their prior convictions. The FRRC encompasses a broad range of groups that bring diverse approaches and tools to the Coalition’s effort. Desmond is also state director of PICO Florida’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign, an effort that aims to address the root causes of violence in cities.

We spoke with Desmond about his work, his life, and how they have come to influence each other. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.

How did you become involved in rights restoration issues?

In 2006, I joined an organization that was part of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. My first encounter with the FRRC was at an annual convening in Tampa, and at the convening someone nominated me to be the steering committee secretary. I was on the monthly calls and transcribed the minutes of each call—that really enabled me to get a lot of deep knowledge on the issue of felony disenfranchisement in Florida and the different things we were doing to change those policies.

What brought you to the meeting initially?

Almost a year prior to that, I actually contemplated suicide. I was standing on the railroad tracks waiting for a train to come to jump in front of it. I was homeless, recently released from prison, addicted to drugs, and I didn’t see any hope, any light at the end of the tunnel. Being in that position of extremely low to no self esteem—I just wanted to end it all. The train didn’t come, so I got off the tracks and went to a drug treatment center. And then when I graduated from that and went to a homeless shelter, I knew there were things I needed to do to ensure that I would not go back to drugs. One of the things was to enroll in school, which I did, and the other thing was to get into community service. I discovered an organization that specialized in helping homeless people. I joined that organization and that happened to be part of the FRRC.

Did becoming involved in these issues help your own transition as someone leaving incarceration? How so?

One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that one of the best ways to really help yourself or to get through a situation is by giving what you have to other people that are less fortunate than you are. There is an adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that our society is like that as well. We can only be as strong as the weakest among us. By helping the weakest or helping people less fortunate, I am actually empowering myself.

Were certain people important in that transition?

Definitely. What I found was that there were a lot of homeless people that were directly impacted or disenfranchised. I started seeing individuals who were sent to prison because of a crime connected to their drug addiction, and when they get out they try to get their lives straightened out but run into all kinds of obstacles, to the point that they were having to live on the street. That kind of touched me a lot. So much money is being spent on incarcerated individuals, and if that money is growing and growing and growing, it is squeezing the life out the budget for things we need like education and other government services. My heart really went out to those individuals. A person should not have to live like that, a person should be able to be forgiven for whatever wrong they’ve done, at least to they point where they’ve been given a fair chance to live a productive life. I think that our community deserves better than to have its money, its tax dollars, primarily spent on incarcerating people instead of empowering people.

What do you do to convince people returning from incarceration to become involved in this sort of advocacy?

One of the best tools I have to encourage people that are being released is actually myself. I’ve walked a mile in their own shoes. And so I think that when they see where I’ve come from—being incarcerated, being homeless, being a drug addict—and they see how I was able to transform my life through community service and being active in the community, they are inspired to do the same.

What are the most challenging parts of your work?

It’s a two-part answer. On one hand, being able to really align allies, to get potential allies to buy into that vision of the importance of doing really substantial work around rights restoration—I look to that as a challenge. A lot of our potential allies are very involved in other issues. The other challenge is related. We have to be able to connect the dots to really help organizations and individuals understand that whatever issue they’re working on, that somehow it is intimately connected to felon disenfranchisement, or a person’s ability to participate in the democratic process.

How do you get them to make that connection?

One way is to talk about education—being able to highlight how much more money is being spent to incarcerate individuals as opposed to educating a child, and correlating that to the private prison industry, being able to show how recidivism and felon disenfranchisement plays into it. We try to connect the dots between the school to prison pipeline and felon disenfranchisement. Voter suppression has always been a huge part of a lot of organizations, a huge issue to deal with, and that has a direct link to felon disenfranchisement, as well.

What about when you run into someone strongly opposed to restoring voting rights? How do you talk to them about the issue?

Every now and then I’ll run into somebody who is strongly opposed to automatic rights restoration, but by the time I leave they are not anymore. There are different angles that I take. If that person is religious, I appeal to their spiritual side. The dominant theme in any religion—or at least the major religions—has always been forgiveness and restoration and redemption. With Christians, I use the story of when Jesus was on the cross, and a criminal came to him asking to be saved. Jesus did not tell him he had to wait 5-7 years [the waiting period in Florida before someone who has completed their sentence may apply to have their rights restored]. Jesus said that this day you shall enter into heaven. So, just based on that faith principle, a person who is a Christian should also advocate that once a person has served their time, they should be able to be integrate back into the community fully. They should have their right to vote back, they should have their civil rights back. Another angle I take is a more “all-American” theme that has connected with many people, even those in the tea party: is it right to deny an American citizen the right to have his voice heard once he has served his time? People tend to see that making a person wait 11-13 years and then still not giving them a shot at having their rights restored is just totally un-American. The last one that I use is from a family-based perspective as an American citizen. No matter what my child might do, they might piss me off, but they are still my child. As an American citizen, some of us make mistakes, but that should not stop you from being an American. The epitome of citizenship, the epitome of being an American, is being able to cast a vote.

Given that reforms do not come about easily or quickly, how do you keep yourself engaged?

One of the things that helps keep me engaged is that I am directly impacted—that I still do not have my right to vote. Just knowing that there are communities out there that are suffering… [and] don’t have a voice. We have kids that are dying in the streets every day. We have people that are going to prison every day. Minority communities are really just being slowly destroyed. That right there in itself is enough to keep me going, despite the fact that I might get tired sometimes, that I might get frustrated or disappointed. Knowing that people out there are suffering reenergizes me and helps me recommit myself to advocating on their behalf.

What is your favorite part of doing this work?

My favorite part is when I’m able to tell somebody that their rights have been restored. Just to see the transformation right in front of you—how much joy they feel. I’ve had people cry on my shoulder because they were just so overwhelmed—they thought that they would be denied this right forever. That’s my favorite part, when I see those smiles.