Creating Cycles of Positivity vs. Recidivism: A Reflection on the Whetstone 2023 Cohort Graduation
March 10, 2023 Tucson AZ
From an early age, I wanted to become a catalyst for systemic change. The allure of justice and the intricate dance between right and wrong captivated my thoughts. Yet my passion often earned me reprimands, as I fearlessly advocated for those deemed unworthy by loved ones or society. In my dreams of the future, I envisioned a path paved with advocacy, child welfare, politics, or law. Little did I know that my journey would lead me to a remarkable organization called Persevere but it’s one of the most fitting homes I could have found. If you’ve stumbled upon these words and remain unfamiliar with Persevere, let me enlighten you. We are a non-profit powerhouse committed to providing genuine hope and life-changing opportunities to those impacted by the justice system. Through coding education, comprehensive re-entry support, and the nurturing of a tight-knit community, we empower individuals to transcend their circumstances and thrive.
Over the past two years, I’ve been granted an extraordinary opportunity to work closely with our participants, affectionately referred to as developers, both within and beyond the confines of prison walls. I’ve had a front row seat to the obstacles they’ve faced and determination they have to transform their lives and communities. Let me be unequivocal: I refuse to perceive these developers as individuals burdened by personal shortcomings that led to their incarceration. While we all have areas for growth, I Instead, perceive them as individuals who have grappled with profound choices and, at times, succumbed to the consequences of a society plagued by systemic and cultural failures. It is a testament to their strength that many developers, upon completing our program, express bewilderment at the mere notion of embarking on a career in technology. Among the multitude of testimonials, one developer’s words resonated with me deeply. With heartfelt sincerity, he shared that the Persevere classroom was the first place in his entire existence where he felt believed in, where his capabilities and worthiness were affirmed.
On May 10th, 2023, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the graduation ceremony of the Whetstone Cohort, an event that serves as the culmination of an strenuous journey undertaken by 21 extraordinary men. With family, correctional personnel, and the media as witnesses, these men took bold strides towards their future by obtaining their Full-Stack Coding Certification. During the ceremony, Developer Mateen commenced his speech by proclaiming “The path to today wasn’t an easy one, but we all found our way here.” While their achievement is undeniably remarkable, it serves as a mere prelude to the extensive path that lies ahead beyond the confines of prison walls. In his address, Developer Mateen thoughtfully celebrated the unique talents and specialties of his fellow graduates, lightening the atmosphere by assigning playful nicknames to them such as “Mr. All Caps.” Yet, his words carried deeper significance as he astutely assigned individuals to their destined roles: web developer, game developer, UX/UI Designer, cyber security professional, and by doing so highlighted the areas where they are poised to flourish in their upcoming careers.
Amidst the celebratory atmosphere, the developers shared stories, reminiscing over the past year with laughter and camaraderie. It was a year marked by endurance, where they triumphed as a team—through cracking jokes about flamboyantly bejeweled loafers, playfully mocking one another’s knack for disregarding directions, fierce debate on which state is and is not the “greatest state in the union,” and jesting about the “unorthodox” teaching methods of Instructor Pipes. Yet, amidst the endless barrage of Taylor Swift quotes provided to them from this very writer, they found solace in unity and support. They lifted each other up, quite literally, pushing a friend in a wheelchair, offering strength to a brother who grieved a profound loss, and providing unwavering support during moments of personal and spiritual growth, with several developers supporting one another through Ramadan at a time when they needed it most. Countless hours were spent engrossed in conversations about shared dreams, envisioning the businesses they will one day join or establish, passionate side projects they will pursue, and the families and communities they aspire to nurture. I stood in awe as these students discovered that technology wasn’t just a means to change the circumstances, but an avenue that revealed dreams they never knew they possessed. These students discovered that technology wasn’t just a means to change the circumstances, but an avenue that revealed dreams they never knew they possessed.
During his commencement address, Developer Bruce fondly recalled, “The Journey got tough for a while, along the way for some of us, but we pulled together and encouraged one another, and it resulted in our ability to cross the finish line.” He went on to express gratitude for the program and its many staff but most importantly thanked his fellow graduates “who never allowed the old man to fall too far behind and to never feel like I didn’t belong.” It is my hope that these gifted graduates find joy and fulfillment in their chosen careers, guided by the Persevere community and the dedicated Whetstone staff. May their paths be adorned with rewards and meaning, as they build a life enriched by the warmth of family and friends. It is with immense gratitude that I reflect upon the privilege of being a part of this transformative journey and these memories will stay with me forever.
P.S. Check out the great article from Arizona Public Media on the Whetstone 23 Cohort.