Readying the world to support reentry
Ex-inmate James Badue-El isn’t looking for second chances — he’s creating his own. After a two-year stint in prison for aggravated robbery, Badue-El has transformed his life into work as a social activist and compliance officer for the NAACP Minneapolis chapter.
Statistically speaking, the North Minneapolis native should not be a young Black man on the rise. He had been on probation or in trouble with the law since he was nine years old. Released in 2014 with a felony on his record, he heard “no” more times than he could count and ended up homeless, sleeping in his car and hitting roadblock after roadblock.
He now carries those life scars as a constant reminder to do and be better. “It was a horrible, horrible experience,” said Badue-El of his incarceration in a recent conversation with the MSR, “but I learned so much out of it [and] it doesn’t have any power over me anymore.” Instead, he said, “It drives me.”
For Badue-El, that drive means charting a clear path to helping prevent recidivism for himself and others and creating authentic connections within the community. Using his passion for speaking, “nos” slowly turned into “yeses” and he began creating a blueprint for himself and the organizations he works with.
In 2016, he joined the prison outreach committee for the NAACP Minneapolis branch as co-chair; six months later, he was named chair for the NAACP Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota State Conference Prison Outreach Committee. This past July, he was elected as Minneapolis’ first-ever compliance officer — a position he pitched himself.
“I was the prison outreach person, but I was a whole lot more than that,” Badue-El said, explaining how he reached out to regional officers to formally expand his role. The newly-created position, he said, not only deals with “making sure our finances are right, but [with] the way that people move inside [the organization] as well.”
Part of his work now is connecting his region to create systems based on the organization’s values and duplicate them across the country.
“How are we going to support this person to make sure they are good and have what they need to feel like they can contribute to something and feel wanted?”
Using the organization’s Child Protection Committee as an example, he said, they will look at a committee’s vision and values, “and then [we] just structure that and take that same exact framework, and I go and reach out to other states and tell them that this is what we’re doing, this what it looks like. And we just keep pushing that forward. We’re creating standards, a blueprint.”
Rather than shying away from his past criminal history, Badue-El uses it as a platform to communicate his messages of empowerment.
“If people look at me and say my story is a story of redemption and it’s great and it’s amazing and I’m inspiring, well, then I should do the same thing for you that happened to me. I had a deconstructive process when I went to prison. It stripped me naked, literally. And so with that, instead of doing that, literally, I want to do that metaphorically.”
Armed with his own past experiences, he said his aim is to “tear down people’s ideas” of what success looks like and influence systems that extend beyond criminal justice.
“I’m only doing what I thought that I feel like I needed [when I was released]. I’m not doing anything other than that, you know.”
That includes creating NAACP chapters inside of prisons to mirror the work being done on the outside. Badue-El said the new chapters will allow inmates who are based in different units to communicate with each other to create programming.
“Just like how [inmates] work for people sending out these balloons and license plates and all that, they can create programs that can come back out here,” explained Badue-El. “Then when they come out, they’d come out not just to a job, but a career of speaking or program development or things that they’ve already been doing.”
He said he’ll need the community’s help for the program to be successful. “It’s not going to go good if only one side is ready and the other side isn’t,” he said. To help, he’s proposed a community pre-release program to coincide with the reentry efforts.
“When you’re incarcerated, when you’re about to get out, you have a 90-day pre-release just to prepare you for the world,” he explained. “Now, we get out and we go to these places that we’ve been talking about for the last 90 days and the contacts of the people we’ve been talking to, and half of this stuff never really works out. Well, 85 to 90 percent doesn’t work out.
“So, we have to keep on going,” he continued, “and eventually we end up back because it wasn’t that we weren’t ready for the world. It was the fact that the world wasn’t ready for us.”
While still in its formative stages, Badue-El envisions the program would be a marquee effort against recidivism. Through it, the community would go through a similar 90-day structure. “Instead of you just getting a red alert that somebody is moving in [your neighborhood],” he said, the community will receive calls to action. “How are we going to support this person to make sure [they are] good and [have] what they need to feel like they can contribute to something and feel wanted?”
This would include training, meetings, and “whatever the community thinks that they need to help nurture this person back to independence,” he said. “Because if you’re in prison, you don’t know any longer how to really be independent because you’ve been dependent for so long. That is a real thing that we have to all accept. I’m still learning myself.”
While his past informs him, Badue-El doesn’t see his work as a silo, but rather an extension of NAACP’s previous efforts.
“I’m only taking everything that’s already pretty much been in place. [Former NAACP chapter president] Jason Sole came in and brought the first prison outreach committee,” he said, noting that Sole also helped start the organization’s Child Protection Committee with Kelis Houston. “All I’m doing is just seeing the rules and the structure of how NAACP is and just moving on [and expanding] it.”
In addition to working with the NAACP, Badue-El co-founded the Clean 4 Change Initiative in 2017. “We’re based on the reverse broken windows theory,” he said. “If it’s true that more incivility leads to more incivility and serious crime — that’s why the police act the way that they do — then the opposite must be true: more civility leads to more civility and opportunities for growth for people and businesses.”
The initiative connects residents and leaders to clean up neighborhoods and create safe environments for the community. “We take people who live in the neighborhood and we clean up trash.
“We also bring out [people] who are not from the neighborhood. We’ll take mayors, police officers, city council members, governors, business people — all of these different people. Whereas before nobody would have connected, now they’re connected [and] they’re building with each other.”
He says those “authentic” connections are necessary to address everything from racism to recidivism via action, not just thought.
“The reason why bias and all of these trainings don’t work is because you can’t teach relationships. You have to build [them]. All of the training, it’s only halfway there — you’re doing the studying of it, but it doesn’t mean anything to the body, so the body [the action] is always going to stay the same.”
Badue-El also encouraged the community to visit prisons. “I get super-overwhelming letters from brothers incarcerated begging for the community just to come in and visit, just take tours. Whoever has a group or whatever you’re doing, just take a visit. You can contact the NAACP, or you could just call straight to the prison. It’s that simple.”
As far as what’s next, Badue-El looks forward to continuing his public speaking. Just last month, he served as keynote speaker for the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference. He also has his eyes set on becoming an NAACP regional director.
“That’s one of the goals, so the [work] just kind of adds on to what I’m trying to build my way to: paying attention to really what matters to our community first — not the system, but the people.”
For more information on the NAACP Minneapolis chapter, visit mplsnaacp.org.
The NAACP meets the first Monday of the month at Richard Green Central Park Elementary School, located at 3416 4th Ave. S. in Minneapolis. The next meeting is scheduled Nov. 5, 6-8 pm.
Stephenetta Harmon is a Black beauty editor, curator, and digital media and communications expert who builds platforms to celebrate the power, impact, and business of Black beauty. She is the former EIC for Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (2018-19) and current host of MSR Forefront, a digital roundtable series. She is the founder of Sadiaa Black Beauty Guide, the premier directory dedicated to Black-owned hair and beauty businesses. Find her at stephenetta.com.