You can’t change the past…but you don’t have to live in it.
That’s why I never use the term “ex-offender.” That is, of course, unless I am explaining to people why I don’t use the term “ex-offender.”
No one should have to wear a label describing their past as they move to the future. Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative often states, “No one should be defined by the worst mistake of their lives.” That’s exactly what we do when we refer to “ex-offenders, ex-convicts and ex-felons.” The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod (who did 17 years in the New York state system before coming home and becoming a pastor) always said, “How would you like it if every time someone introduced you, they called you an ex-something!”
So I use “Returning Citizen.” So does Jondhi Harrell, founder of Philadelphia’s The Center for Returning Citizens. My colleague Glenn Martin, founding president of JustLeadershipUSA uses “formerly incarcerated persons,” with the accent of persons. We are people, first and foremost, and that never changes, despite public efforts to label and dehumanize us.
I first heard the term “Returning Citizen” in Detroit in 2007. I attended a meeting of community and faith leaders who had collectively rejected the term “ex-offender,” and replaced it with “returning citizen.” We were developing a national strategy for helping churches, masjids, temples and other houses of worship step up as reentry centers, and decided this term we heard in Michigan should stick.
I took it on the road to Sacramento CA, in 2008, to a meeting of the National Association for Prisoner Aftercare, led by my friend, Joseph Williams. After using the term in my presentation, an elderly woman came up to me and asked, “Where’d you get that from?” I told her “I was in Detroit….” And before I could finish, she hollered “Praise the Lord! I knew it! I knew it!”
Turns out she was a retired school teacher who had provided GED instruction in the Michigan correctional system. When she left teaching, she wanted to help the men she knew who were coming home. “I got in my prayer closet and asked the Lord for direction on how to help the ex-offenders. He told me ‘Don’t call them ex-offenders, call them returning citizens.’” The term caught on with reentry agencies in the area, and now, she was hearing it 2,000 miles away! Big things can come from small beginnings.
The District of Columbia passed legislation making “Returning Citizens” the official language of the city. College classrooms use the term. It’s being used in Georgia’s efforts in reforming reentry. President Obama used it in his executive order to “Ban the Box” for federal employment applications. The term isn’t perfect, but it beats “ex-“ labeling.
I refuse to be labeled as an “ex-offender.” I will not be defined by my past. Once you get home, you can’t let other people keep defining you by what you did. You can’t change the past, but you don’t have to live in it.