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In Good Company

Up for the Challenge: In Good Company with Mike Lucero

It was the first day of my rhetorical writing class. I like to get to class early. I was sitting at one of six tables in the classroom, in the back, with my computer set up, ready to go. Students started to trickle in and find their place. The other tables soon filled up, but mine stayed empty. Some students even took chairs from my table to sit elsewhere. 

I knew going in I was going to feel out of place. It was a freshman writing class, and I am a 45-year-old, heavily tattooed guy who spent the last 15 years of his life in and out of prison. I’ve got a thick skin. But it still hurt.  

Thankfully, the professor encouraged the other students to spread out, and soon a few joined me at my table. Before long, the kids were able to look past the tattoos that run from my neck to my face and give me a chance to show them who I am on the inside. Today we are part of a team.

Young people do things fast. It usually takes longer to change the minds of adults. But I am up for the challenge. For me, breaking through barriers that get in the way of connecting with people isn’t a burden; it’s a blessing, and a responsibility I am grateful for every single day. 

I was released from prison on October 30th, 2021. Sometimes I can’t believe how much my life has changed in just 11 months.

I’ve been in and out of the system ever since I was 10 years old―from foster homes, to group homes, to juvenile hall, to county jails, and finally to a variety of different state prisons. Ending up in prison was actually something I aspired to. 

You see, a lot of my family and friends were also in and out of prison. Some of them used to write me letters while they were incarcerated. Instead of me thinking about whether I wanted to play football in high school, or maybe go to college, I used to think, “How do I get to that prison?” There was notoriety and respect that comes with being there, and I wanted to be part of that. 

Today, my aspirations are focused on self-improvement and helping others, especially young people who come from backgrounds like mine. 

And I am realizing these aspirations because I found Rise Up Industries. Rise Up is a special kind of business called an “employment social enterprise” (ESE) that hires and provides training and wrap-around support for people with tons of heart, talent, and deep wells of resiliency―but who employers, and society, typically exclude and undervalue. 

The people I work with at Rise Up, and others I have known in my life, have endured and overcome things that seem insurmountable. They are survivors. They are strivers. Because they have been so deep into lives they don’t want, they are driven to create lives they do want – better lives, for themselves and their families. They have the tenacity and the smarts to overcome anything that’s thrown in their direction, and if you are an employer, you’d be lucky to have them on your team. 

And while society is finally starting to realize that people returning home from incarceration deserve a “fair chance” – finding a good job, and the support you need to re-enter society after so many years away, isn’t easy. That’s why we need more employment social enterprises like Rise Up in our country. 

The staff at Rise Up see our value – not just as employees – but as human beings, as fathers, husbands, sons, community members, and change makers. They believed in us before we even believed in ourselves – before we fully knew what we were capable of. 

Mentorship is a big part of seeding that belief. Rise Up provides us the opportunity to share our life experiences at youth programs, community events, and schools. Having kids look up to us for the positive things we are doing is so meaningful, and is such an important part of our healing process.

Mike with volunteers from Project Rebound, a program that supports the higher education and successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals wishing to enroll and succeed at California State University.

Bolstered by that support, it’s incredible what you can accomplish. Last year, I applied to five colleges in California, including four UCs, and was accepted at all them. I am currently attending San Diego State University (SDSU) on a full academic scholarship, studying sociology and criminal justice, with a social justice perspective. I want to be part of the work to change the system, and I am getting that chance. 

I was recently selected to participate in SDSU’s juvenile justice mentorship program, which means I get to share my experience with even more young people who are on a path like I was and show them there is a better way. 

To show them, and the rest of society, that we are all part of the same team. 

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