Aurelio Dorris shares his reflections on meeting leaders from different walks of life as one of our Quest hosts – including taking a group of tech VPs to visit one of the prisons where he was incarcerated from the age of 17.
One morning, a very tall man with a heavy South African accent appeared in the old shop of Urban Ashes, a social enterprise in Michigan that trains and hires returning citizens and disadvantaged young people to craft furniture from reclaimed materials.
Cheerfully, he explained what our meeting with a major insurance company was going to look like. His name was Rowan Belchers and this was my first introduction to Leaders’ Quest (although many more would follow).
Less than a year after being released from the 24 consecutive years that I spent inside a cage, I was now being exposed to people from different parts of the world. People whose perceptions had benefited from their chair in life.
Whether it was staff from a Big Four consulting firm or amazing innovative youth from Detroit at the Sustainable Brands Conference (to which Leaders’ Quest invited us)... The circle of chairs showed us sitting at different vantage points in life, but through our conversations we realised that we sat in the same room, and that each chair was important to make the circle complete.
Advancing several months, having successfully completed my two-year parole supervision (working two jobs) – and hours before my final group presentation to determine if I would earn my Associates Degree – the unbelievable happened. On a December morning, I found myself walking into Parnell Correctional Facility with six Senior Vice Presidents from a global tech company, the Founding Partner and a Program Manager from Leaders’ Quest, and two supervisors from my Urban Ashes job.
No handcuffs or shackles this time, no worries if chow was going to be late, no watching the officer skip past me while handing out mail and learning not to be saddened that people had forgotten me. Our mission this morning was to talk directly to my peers who, just as I used to, would lie down in their prison bunks that night. To instill new optimism and inspire different thoughts as they locked down after we’d left.
To fully appreciate the value of that visit – and changes the Michigan prison system have chosen to make – you must imagine a place where something like learning how to code software was considered illegal. Having envisioned that, you are ready to find out that, because of the visit with Leaders' Quest, the tech company and Urban Ashes, coding is no longer forbidden in that place!
My only travels since age 17 (when I went to jail) had been the 17 times I was transferred to different prisons. But a short email threatened to change that. It came from Lindsay Levin and said, in part, “You told us that you’d like to travel. Have you ever been to New York City?”
Certainly, I took the offer. My survival has been predicated on quickly discovering the real person in front of me.
It wasn’t just the Levins allowing me to stay in their home and meeting their family that had such an impact. Nor just doing five things in New York (on the first day) that I’d always wanted to do in life. Nor just the personal acceptance of, and bond with, each member and supporter of Leaders’ Quest that I’ve ever met…
It was the raw experience of everyday life with them that solidified my conclusion: these are bands of great souls, and each one of us has that same chair of greatness in a room within our hearts.
When we ask the right questions, we can each locate this room for ourselves – and the world is a better place for it.