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When a “second chance” is really the first

I’ve been thinking a lot about chances lately.

That one simple word can mean so many things. Luck. Opportunity. Even a gamble.

And that got me to thinking: how lucky would I be if the odds were stacked against me?

As advocates and evangelists for an inclusive economy, we know all too well the zip code lottery – this notion that the zip code in which you are born is often the greatest predictor of your future. Among historically disinvested communities, this means constantly fighting against the odds, where the future doesn’t feel limitless, but instead limited.

“I became what my community showed me,” one inspiring entrepreneur Will Avila, Founder of Clean Decisions, told me.

What he meant by that was that at the age of ten, his mother had abandoned him and his three siblings at a McDonald’s never to be seen from again. His dad lost his way soon thereafter in a battle with addiction and with his own pain and depression; and his brother, uncles, and cousins chose a life on the streets as a way to find community while making ends meet.

Will followed in kind at the tender age of 12 and was in and out of adult prison from 16 to 26.

And the crazy thing about it: that same year he was voted “most likely to succeed” at his school. Just goes to show that what we choose to do (or feel like we have no choice but to do) isn’t the same as who we are.

As he settled into prison, he found himself at a fork in the road – to hang in the yard where people went to get physically fit and where gang structures were still very much alive, or to hang in the library to get “academically fit” and pursue his independence from the gangs as an aspiring entrepreneur.

He chose the books.

And seven years ago, he founded a business whose sole aim is to create jobs, hope, and a sense of community for people coming out of the prison system. This business was born in the same year as his son Dillon, a budding scientist who comes to work with his dad sometimes, especially on pancake Saturdays when the community gets together to celebrate big and small wins – like his buddy Charlie holding the keys of his first home in his hand, after three decades in and out of the prison system.

The thing about the journey that Charlie and Will are on is that often in our society, we call that a “second chance.”

Here’s the rub with that language. If it were me in that McDonald’s booth when I was ten years old, wondering where mom went or why she wasn’t coming back, or if it were me watching my dad slowly lose his way through his depression, then there is no doubt I’d be hanging on for dear life to any shred of family I had left. So if I saw my brothers, uncles, cousins making do on the streets and being there for each other, then I would want in too. After losing so much, I would run towards my community and I would run hard.

With that as context, would my new beginning be my “second” chance, or would it really be my first?

That’s why we mark April not as Second Chance Month, but as Fair Chance Month. It’s a signal to the country to widen our perspective on what talent truly looks like, and to push down the barriers that exclude so many people impacted by the justice system. Let’s face it: our systems and structures are designed to pin people to what they may have done or what’s been done to them, and not to who they are.

When I see Will, I see a poet, a dad, a leader, and a coach who has dedicated his life’s work to knocking down barriers and unlocking opportunity. And I would bet on him, his vision, and his leadership any day of the week.

And while in my heart Will is one in a million, his lived experience is one in three. One in three (or 70M) American adults have a criminal record, and countless more have been impacted by its cascading effects.

Those one in three include infinite poets, parents, leaders, and coaches. Imagine what becomes possible when we as a country see them for the person behind the perception, their possibility instead of their past.

Odds are we lay tracks to a limitless future, and along the way, we build an economy that works. For everyone.

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