I was arrested in 2004. I was on the streets with my brother. He was selling drugs, and when the cops came up I said, “Here comes 5-0.” So, they charged me with drugs and possession. And that year I also tried to steal an expensive pocketbook at Neiman Marcus.
Two misdemeanors. I did no jail time, and my probation was terminated early. I’ve had no incidents at all since then.
A lot of people think of me simply as an ex-offender, but I refuse to let that define me. Ronald Lewis is a father, a son, a friend, and a very ambitious person who is righting my wrongs. It’s been so long since I made those mistakes and second chances are very important—for me and millions of other Americans.
I have a building engineer license, and I am presently in school so I can start my own company and give second chances by teaching the trade that I went to school for. It was hard for me to get work even after I trained for my trade. So many doors have been shut in my face I know what wood tastes like.
The first time was gut-wrenching. I worked at a job for maybe a month, then they called me to the office—Human Resources. And they said, “You are no longer able to work here because of your criminal background.” I told them I was the same person they fell in love with at the interview—until that paperwork from the background check came back. Once the paperwork came back, it was like—“Security get this guy out of the building fast.”
It’s so embarrassing. It’s hard. You finally start to see you’re turning the corner and you’re getting a sense of purpose. Your life is starting to mount and your family is going to be proud of you. But then you have to tell them, “I failed again,” or you just feel like a failure. It was the worst feeling of my life. The worst.
Since then, there have been numerous times when the background check stopped me from getting a job. The employer says, “You’ll be great. Your skill level is exactly what we are looking for.” But then there’s that question. It’s like the elephant in the room—I hate that question: “Do you have anything on your background?” And when you tell them, they’re gone.
So we need to shed light on this now—the way things are—and the fact that people need second chances. A lot of people that I run across in school now—there are a lot of people who are ex-offenders in my class. So on the first day, everybody walked around with a bravado—nobody is talking to anybody else. It’s almost like the jail house mentality. So, the second day of class I stood up and said, “Listen, jail is not going to define us. Obviously you want a second chance or you wouldn’t have come to school.”
At first they thought I don’t get it. Because I don’t walk around like jail is a badge of honor. It’s shameful. My mother was shamed, my family name was shamed. But then when I talk to the other students, we sit down and we have a conversation, and I let them know some of the things that I’ve been through—then they are like, “Okay, I understand. He made it; I can make it.”
My class now has the highest average in school—a 90 average. And I think my leadership and being able to relate to some of the other students has played a role in that. And it starts with knowing that people really do want second chances, but they come home with no hope. There’s no hope. So then you resort to what you resort to in order to feed your family. You understand? It’s bad. My community is sad. And it’s all about hope.
You want to know Ronald Lewis? Don’t focus on some piece of paper that says I made mistakes ten years ago. Look at all of the positive things I’m putting right in front of you right now.