Hi my name is Dominique Harris. Today is February 24, 2023. And this interview is being conducted in Atlanta, Georgia at the Reentry Arts Connection. Do I have your permission to record you and use your likeness?
During the South DeKalb listening session with Canopy Atlanta, a DeKalb County sanitation worker expressed concerns for his coworkers that were formerly convicted felons, and how they were not receiving adequate pay, based on their past convictions. That lead to Canopy Atlanta Senior Fellow Ann Hill Bond starting to explore reentry programs in South DeKalb, and how returning citizens could navigate and resocialize back into society. Helping returning citizens successfully reenter society following their incarceration thereby reduces recidivism and improves public safety. What is your name?
My name is Curtis Alexander King.
Do I have your permission to record you?
Yes, you do.
Do you mind telling me where you was born?
Yes, I was born in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1962.
Okay, what did your community look like? You know, your family.
So as far as Ruleville, that was a short term in terms of us living there after I was born. We moved over to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which is only about 20 minutes away. And that particular town is an all-Black community that was founded by former slaves, and it actually has some history itself. But in terms of my family, I'm the youngest of six. My mother and father, of course, were there. And then I have four brothers and one sister, although I should acknowledge that one brother recently deceased. So it's now five of us when it was six of us as I grew up.
Okay, outside of your family, like did you have any other like best friends or uncles? Like, what did that community look like outside of your family?
So outside of my family, outside of my immediate family, I should say, I mainly had church friends. I had a few schoolmates, that, you know, we were decently close, we would visit each other go to each other's homes, but for the most part, it was church life. And so number of friends around the church.
Tell me about your neighborhood
So my neighborhood, that comes in two parts as well. The, one of the neighborhoods, when I was up to the age of about seven, was full of kids. Just very vibrant with a lot of with a lot of young folks my age and younger and older, lots of games of kickball, hide-and-seek. Captain, May I. Tag, etc, etc. So it was, it was very vibrant. Then another neighborhood where I transitioned just like just after seven, around seven, it was fewer kids more more mature adults. There was some kids across the street. And so it was it was less vibrant, but it still was nice for my childhood.
And kind of okay, like can you tell me about you know, yeah, your home? In the inner part of it, you know, was it? How was it furnished? Was there love there? Was there care? The holidays, you know?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. So I'll be I'll be happy to share that. So it's again, it's kind of split up a little bit in terms of the younger years before my father passed. So he passed actually, when I was about seven. We lived in the house, as I mentioned about the neighborhood, a bunch of kids. I remember one Christmas in particular. That's when I got a Batmobile. And my sister got a doll. And we were riding around on the Batmobile. Lots of lots of love, lots of joy. We ate homemade ice cream that was made from snow and vanilla extract and sugar. My dad you know was real hands on with the kids. In fact, I remember him as as being willing to like play horsey, he let kids ride on his back. So again, a lot a lot of laughter, a lot of joy. And then we moved across the way, that's—as I say, my father passed. There still remained a lot of a lot of joy in the family.
When it comes to holidays, I remember my mom cooking like at least nine sweet potato pies and different variations. So I don't want to mess it up with some with maybe coconut, some with raisins, etc, etc. Just a lot of variations. And then she'd make a punch bowl full of banana pudding. And with all of these boys, that didn't last very long. And kind of one of the family, I don't know if I call it a family joke, but kind of an inside joke is that my mom and my sister would do all this cooking. And then they didn't really feel like eating immediately. But again, with all these boys, if they didn't go ahead and eat at some point, the food will be gone. And about that time, they'd say, just when I got ready to eat, and then they made whatever, it's all gone. So yeah, so a lot of lot of love and joy in my family in both of the houses that we lived in.
Do you remember your first job?
My first job was at Jack in the Box out in Los Angeles, California. I think I think I mostly served in the front of it. I was terrible in the back when it came to fixing orders. I would just get confused, and, and it wasn't a good look. So I think I mostly served in the front and that was a summer job actually.
Okay, yeah. Okay, like, in direct relation to DeKalb County. Can you tell me how your background in DeKalb County and how, you know, kind of get involved in reentry in DeKalb County?
Okay. Okay. So kind of going back to just DeKalb County in general. I moved to the Atlanta area in 1991. And most of the time that I've been in the Atlanta area has been spent in DeKalb County as far as my residence. Some combination of Decatur and Avondale Estates. And so DeKalb County has just been a natural part of, of my centering myself in the Atlanta metropolitan area, again, mainly as a resident.
In terms of reentry, let's see, I let me give just a little background, I guess initially on the organization, the organization itself started in 2021. And so 2021, a lot of lot of groundwork being laid. 2022, we became more active in terms of finding out what was already happening in the area. And we were blessed to find out about the Department of Community Supervision, and being able to plug into their meetings and meet a lot of the people who were active in DeKalb County. And so one of the things, our organization is called the Reentry Arts Connection. And our mission is to connect individuals impacted by the justice system with the arts, or I should say, with the transformative power of the arts and looking at looking at that as a, as a means of enhancing life. And, and, as you mentioned earlier, reintegrating and re-entering the community in a strong, vibrant way. So with that, again, we begin networking with individuals in the area. And we became aware that DeKalb County provides for citizens like half tuition for some of the workshops put on by the, I want to say the Atlanta Film Society. You can correct me there. Is that the correct name? okay. And so what we did was we decided to walk alongside them. And if they paid half and someone was justice-involved within DeKalb County, when we were in a position to do so, we will pay the other half. And so that is that has been kind of the bulk of what we've done is kind of what we is what we call micro scholarships, but also continuing to stay plugged in with the DeKalb County's Department of Community Supervision, and to network with whomever might come onto the call.
How exactly did you get involved in this type of advocacy?
So it's, when talking about this, it's hard to know how far to start back because it can be an epic drama. It can be a long story, or could be a short story. And so I'll err on the side of conciseness today, but basically, myself as an individual. I've been involved in ministry in different forms and fashions all through the years. And one of the things that happened kind of organically was that some of my fellow church members, some of my friends from from the church setting, were actually justice involved, and I had a chance to walk alongside them and see firsthand kind of the, not kind of, but the barriers that might be in place in terms of employment, housing, stigma, etc. And so I paid attention to it. And when I was studying, doing some theological studies as an as an adult, one of the projects that I wrote up was the idea of making information about resources for people reentering from incarceration, more readily available. I believe in the power of information and oftentimes there are resources, and there are people who use the resources, but there is no connection point between them in terms of information, the information flow isn't there. So I wrote up the the class project related to gathering information that we made and in this particular case, specifically to churches and church leaders, who serve people who are returning from incarceration, so that they would have the knowledge and information readily available, they can share it with those individuals who need it the most. So I did the project, and kind of not really focused on it as bringing it to life, but it wouldn't leave me alone. It was like in the back of my mind all this all the time. And so eventually, I started the conversations that started the start of Reentry Coalition. And this is actually in Abilene, Texas. So it's the Big Country Reentry Coalition now, it was the Abilene Reentry Coalition. And basically it brings together individuals from the community who have resources relevant to reentry, and allows for synergy to happen. So the agencies are working together, but also kind of forming a community, a natural community wraparound service for individuals, because if they're talking to one person who has the housing, but that person also knows the people who have the jobs or also knows the people who have access to mental health or substance abuse, etc, or substance abuse assistance, I should say, then they're in a better position to serve that individual. Even if they're not giving the direct service, they have knowledge about who has it, and the best way to go about getting it. And so I'm excited to say that that organization has taken off. And it as of as of this year, has become a 501c3. And so, so I'm actually still connected with them in a in a very strong way, although I'm nearly 1000 miles away. So reentry is still near and dear to my heart.
You may be running out of tape, I don't know, but I'm gonna keep sharing. But basically, my main job here in Atlanta prior to now, has been community relations for live theater. And so I had a chance to work at the Alliance Theatre had a chance to work at Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre Company, and the main thrust was to share information about the arts and engage people and encourage them to put the arts on their menu as an activity or potential activity for themselves and their family. And I saw the power of the arts to transform, I saw the impact that the arts have on people's lives. And so the Reentry Arts Connection is born from a combination of the years in community relations for theater, and the interests of walking alongside those who are reentering. And so I decided to combine the two. And that's how we got the Reentry Arts Connection.
What are some of the biggest challenges reentry returning citizens face that you've seen?
Well, one is, is employment. So I've become aware of individuals who got really close to getting a nice job. But once the person, once the company finds out about, about their engagement with the criminal justice system, that job opportunity goes away. Housing is a challenge. One of the things, and I don't I haven't really researched fully the Georgia market. But I know that in some communities, the halfway houses, the experience between the release from incarceration, and actually being able to find sustainable housing can be quite a challenge, because sometimes the housing organizations are not really set up for for creating the best positive environments. And so there's a there's a housing challenge sometimes. I think those would be the main two: the employment and the housing, that that I've been kind of watching from the sidelines.
Can you share a success story of someone who has successfully reentered society after being incarcerated, and your organization helped?
So now our organization is so new, that we don't really have that that story yet. Now there is a young man out, I'll let him remain nameless for now who has began the process of walking alongside us and he's already having his own success, but we're able to enhance what's going on with him. And that's by providing, again, what I would call micro scholarships for for things that he's interested in, and then being able to engage him in a workshop that we had for filmmakers. And so I would say that's a work in progress. Now, I will step back from that, and say that part of my own personal experience was while I was living in Abilene, Texas, someone that I did not know, initially, I was brought into a network of individuals who were to support him as he reentered. And so when when it all kind of boiled down, I became like the main person working with him. And so in terms of making sure he got to work, making sure that that he got to the grocery store and got a sense of how to shop for himself, we would actually go to the grocery store maybe once a week. And then as far as helping him to prepare for his driving test to get his driving, driving lesson, I mean, driving license, I was there for all of that, all of those and and he progressed very well. And then eventually, he was able to start a career. He was working at a cookie factory at first, but then he was able to get on with an organization that dealt with recovery. And from that he's been building a career. And so so I've seen someone who has reentered society and moved on to progress very well. He started his own, started a family. So he's got a wife and two, two kids. And so again, all of the the various ways that people attempt to progress I've been able to witness him from incarceration to success.
It's good. Okay, what are some of your hopes? Some of my, what are some new hopes for reach advocacy in DeKalb County? And what kind of progress do you hope to see in the future, the coming years.
So part of my hope, and I mine is seated in in the, in the expansion of the creative arts. So So what So kind of the how do I say this, it's like, there is the desire to see housing, finding jobs, access to health care, access to mental health, access to all kinds of services, to see that just continue to progress. But I also hope to see a community of storytellers develop, who will be put in a position to share their narrative and to help shape the narrative that that our society has around incarceration and reentry, in an empowered way, so that their voices are leading that conversation. And that we can play a role and others can play a role in providing the tools and the resources and the support that allows this community of storytellers among those impacted by the justice system to emerge.
How do you think the broader community can be better educated and informed about the challenges that face individuals that are reentering society? How can they be more supportive?
Okay, and that's an excellent follow-up question, because it leans right back into my previous answer. And that is, I think that the more individuals who are impacted by the justice system are able to have public expression of their experiences and of their perspectives and of the reshaping of the narrative, or participating in the reshaping of the narrative, I think the better society will be informed as to what those experiences are, and what those challenges are. I think that there'll be some value in finding more opportunities for people to have a simulated experience of what incarceration/reentry feels like. So that will heighten their empathy for those who are actually facing it. So those those are the two there and remind me what the tail end of the question was some it's, there's like a second part.
How can they, and how they can be more supportive?
Oh. I think the more this is the general society becomes aware, I'm hoping that there would be like a natural support of, of lessening the stigma. I think that employers can be more supportive by really allowing individuals to be individuals rather than a box that they see on their application. So that they, and if even if the person checks the box that they've had experience with the justice system, that if the qualifications are there that the interview is given so that they can meet the person. So I think that that's just one tangible way.