I love getting credit card offers in the mail. I know most people throw them straight in the trash, but they’re my favorite. I’ll turn them over in my hands, read the promises written on the envelopes and remember that my name is worth something to someone.
I am 54 years old, but this is a new feeling. Going to the laundromat and the grocery store in the same week, living without roommates, and sorting through this pile of junk mail all feel like proof that I’m a whole person now. It’s all evidence that I might finally be allowed to move on from mistakes I made last century.
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I have a criminal record. I was convicted of two nonviolent misdemeanors decades ago, and they have haunted me, and my daughter, ever since. For her entire life, I struggled to make ends meet. That’s not the kind of thing you can explain to a child: she hated skipping school field trips and wearing homemade Halloween costumes. And even though I tried to explain, again and again, why I had to leave during dinner to make the late shift at the bar, I could never find the right words to make her understand why things had to be this hard for us. I didn’t know the answer myself.
I’ve worked jobs wherever I could — minimum wage at the supermarket, part-time at a clothing store, cleaning gigs that only paid under the table. At the same time, I went back to school and got a degree that taught me how to do the clerical work that keeps a doctor’s office running. I always wanted to help people, and even though I graduated on the honor roll, I couldn’t find a person who’d give me the chance. When they looked at me, all they saw was my record.
So I tried to get that record cleared. I went to expungement clinics, and I applied for a pardon. Nothing worked. I didn’t know what to do. All I could do was what I had been doing for years already: piecing together part-time jobs, raising a child on an income meant for a teenager, and searching for a way to change our lives.
Eventually, I found a lawyer. She taught me my rights, and gave me the confidence I needed to apply for jobs and insist that I be given a fair chance. After thirty years of struggling, my life has finally started to get better. Still, this is only a partial solution — it depends on me sticking up for myself.
New legislation in my home state of Pennsylvania, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by the Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, would help people like me rebuild our lives. The Clean Slate law automatically seals certain misdemeanor convictions after the individual is crime-free for 10 years. No jumping through hoops, no trying to work the system, no hoping you get lucky enough to find a good lawyer. It would have reset my life more than a decade ago.
In the past year that I have learned to advocate for myself, I’ve finally been able to put my education to work. I work as a home health aide, cleaning and feeding folks who need support, and caring for them with a gentle touch.
I’m the first to take an extra shift at work, and because I do, I can afford to help my daughter for the first time in her life. I can’t buy her a house, but I can help pay her rent when she needs it. We don’t have to stay on the couch at a friend’s place, or making a temporary home in a basement. I get to be a mother I always wanted to be, and a Nanna to my grandkids.
This is the only version of me that they know. When I open the door to their home, they shout “Nanna, do you have something for me?”
For the first time in my life, I get to say “yes.” I always do. Isn’t that what Nannas are for?
Editor’s Note: The Center for American Progress, where TalkPoverty is housed, is a partner in the Clean Slate campaign. Find out more at CleanSlateCampaign.org.