Interview by: Kamrin Baker
Photos by: Kimberly Dovi
February 15, 2019
Jasmine Harris is a program manager with RISE and has spent her career advancing black and brown voices across the city. This is her story of strength, encouragement and inclusivity.
Issue 1 : It is the heart that drives us, beating away to forge and mold each of us as our own magnificent people. This issue is about that.
How did you reach this position at RISE?
My title is program manager. I run the post-release program. I got here by way of personal and work experience. I had touch points with the criminal justice system. I didn’t have a felony but misdemeanors, which landed me with a criminal history. After that, there was a point in time I didn’t have a job for almost two years. I began advocating for people with criminal histories before I knew what advocating was. At that time, I got to a point of discouragement because I didn’t have a felony and I had already had a Bachelor’s, and I was applying for all these jobs. I decided to go back to school and got approved for work study, which was my way of getting a job. I went back and got my Master’s in Public Health, with an emphasis in Community Health Education, but my focus was really on substance use, because those are some touch points I had.
Going through there, the pathway opened up in different ways, and since I focused on underage drinking, the first job I had after graduation was coordinating a state grant for high risk drinking in college-aged students. I moved from there into tobacco prevention for Creighton for five years. During that time, I started getting into how policy affects things and taking those skills in community work and started creating awareness around criminal justice issues. One of the best decisions I made was getting involved with Urban League of Nebraska Young Professionals. I became the chair of their civic engagement committee back in 2015. Basically, I asked them if they knew what ‘Ban the Box’ was and that’s what we were going to do. 2016 was a year of using that position and creating awareness through different events around criminal justice issues. We had a viewing of the movie “Herman’s House,” where we looked at solitary confinement, had a conversation with the young professionals about people having criminal histories and how that affects us. We partnered with ACLU of Nebraska, UNO’s Criminology department, etc. After that, we hired a teaching artist to go into the Douglas County Youth Corrections to discuss what it meant to be confined versus defining yourself as being free. They made artwork that was displayed at the Carver Bank Gallery with the Define vs. Confine theme. We partnered with Inclusive Communities to do a table talk, as well. All of this was creating that awareness.
You have to get people to the level of advocating. So, we created Black and Brown Legislative Day in February of 2017, to get people down to the Unicameral in Lincoln to learn about how our government at the state level works—whether that has to do with sentencing, prison reform, things that hold people back after reentering, etc. It was to get individuals down there to advocate for communities of color, to even get an introduction to how to interact with our elected officials. We’re going into the third year.
In Fall 2016, I found a Facebook post about Defy Ventures coming to Nebraska and needing volunteers. At that time, I filled out a volunteer form and a background check and everything. I also, at that time, put in an application to have one of my convictions pardoned because there was a chance for a Mayoral Pardon. I was approved through Defy Ventures and fell in love with the program and was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is frickin amazing.’ After that event, I got on the website, saw they had a few positions open, but I wasn’t ready to leave Creighton yet. I kept doing what I was doing and realized later there was a post release program manger open through Defy—and I was like ‘that’s my job.’ I applied for it, met with Jeremy, and I said ‘you need me.’ That’s how I got here.
We have a powerful voice, we have a powerful backing. Because we’re doing this work everyday, we know how it affects people. We want to open opportunities for individuals who are affected to advocate for themselves, as well.
What, in your heart, drives you to do what you do? What is your connection to this community?
I was born and raised in Omaha. I tell people I want to put more good in than the bad I’ve put in. If I can prevent one person from going down the path I took, then I consider that a job well done. It’s not even always about the adults we help. It’s about the kids, the teens we don’t even see. It’s just a passion to want to see people do better and be better, and to see this city grow—be more inclusive of everyone that’s here.
What are some stories from RISE you’ve been impacted by?
I tell people all the time, these people are some of the smartest people. The cure for cancer’s got to be sitting in there. One of the guys in one of our classes pitched a business idea that would have drones fly over farmland to survey what part of the land needs fertilization versus farmers needing to fertilize the whole area. He had pictures and everything and it showed exactly what was needed. One of the figures he threw up there would save them $30,000, and I was just so convinced.
Just to see the turnaround in attitudes of people. I do the community corrections side, and the people who are willing to go work and ready to go to prove that they are better than what they were when they went in—they deserve that second chance. They want to take advantage of it. Not everyone is there, but those individuals who are, it’s amazing to see.
One of our ladies in community corrections has been able to reconnect with her daughter. The turnaround that she sees in her own daughter—she’s been through some mental health things— has been inspiring. Her daughter is 14 years old, she was about 2 years old when she was incarcerated, and they’ve been through a lot. It doesn’t have to be that someone started a business, which is what our graduates strive for—the reconnection of family and attitude changes is all heartwarming.
What goals do you have for your future? At RISE and beyond?
Some of the things I want to work on here—since we’ve departed from the national organization—is getting our post-release program and re-entry services lined up with the development of case management processes. This will help people through that phase when they come back into the community.
I want to get us into policy and get us down to Lincoln and actually—if you want to call it lobbying, whatever— advocating on behalf of the people we serve. We have a powerful voice, we have a powerful backing. Because we’re doing this work everyday, we know how it affects people. We want to open opportunities for individuals who are affected to advocate for themselves, as well.
Personal goals, we’ll see. I’m not spilling the beans for you.
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