“I lived it. I’m qualified.”

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I didn’t read it in a book. I didn’t hear it on the radio. I’ve never seen it on a tv show. I lived it.

I’m qualified.

This was the stirring opening of a story of two parallel lives: one where the main character was predicted to fail and one where his success would know no bounds.

Only it wasn’t a story of fiction, but one of a new friend’s lived experience, and it went something like this:

In his younger years, life served William more than his share of punches and he made a series of missteps along the way. One day, he found himself at a fork in the road – one path was the lure of life underground, and the other an opportunity to go back to school.

He chose road two, took two classes, got two As, and soon after received a full scholarship. With a few dollars in the bank and a few food stamps to help care for himself and his son, that scholarship was more than just money to access education; it was an unlock to a whole new life.

He embraced each door that opened thereafter with even more vigor than the one before it, because he knew the stakes. He treated each opportunity with what he calls “intense intentionality” because he knew what was at risk if he didn’t.

In a word, he was (and remains) qualified.

And he reminded me that what one has gone through, navigated, endured, and overcome – be it poverty, homelessness, or involvement with the justice system – is not just one’s lived experience, it’s their lived expertise.

This notion of lived expertise came alive for me a few weeks ago when visiting the North Lawndale Employment Network, an employment social enterprise on the west side of Chicago. NLEN boasts a beautiful training campus, a bright and inviting café that doubles as a community hub, and a social enterprise called Beelove that employs folks impacted by the justice system to grow, manufacture, and distribute urban honey-infused spa products.

Gracing the coffeehouse wall is a quote from NLEN CEO Brenda Palms, which reads: “Honeybees do not discern between a weed or a flower. They only seek to draw the good out of the plant source and transform it into something sweet and new.”

Honeybees tap into something labels can make us miss.

That’s why REDF helps tenacious entrepreneurs build businesses that see the value in people’s lived expertise. Like Brenda, we believe that instead of seeing folks for the barriers they face, we should see them for the strengths they hold. Strengths like grit, bravery, creativity, and motivation – strengths that would be an asset to any organization craving quality, qualified talent.

So what can you do? Join REDF and the over 150 enterprises in our community that employ people impacted by the justice system, as we work to redefine what talent looks like in our country. Use the power of your purse to buy from these enterprises. Bust some myths in your own mind and the minds of your peers on those impacted by the justice system. And make the case to your employer that the time is now to adopt more inclusive employment practices.

Fair chances help futures – like my new friend William Washington’s, who is today Global CFO at Baker McKenzie, a proud husband, and a father of four – take flight.

Do your part to ensure that millions of people get their fair chance.

Because, believe you me, they’re qualified.

NLEN’s Beelove employment social enterprise offers honey-infused self-care items.