I'm sorry… But No.

By Kenneth Westberry ’13

I am the “front-door-man,” temporarily, until the new Mission Year volunteer comes in September to relieve me of this position.  Currently, all initial calls and inquiries for help go through me.  Because of this, I am also the “no-man…”

Many people call daily, explaining their regrettable situations of the past; situations that happened 10, 20, even 30 years ago.  Currently in the state of Georgia, if you have been convicted of a crime–regardless if it is a misdemeanor or a felony–it is impossible to get the charge expunged from your record, albeit with some exceptions (i.e. Youthful Offender, First Offender, etc.).  The Georgia Justice Project turns down nearly 95% of all applications and inquiries it receives for a variety of reasons.  This is at no fault to the project, considering our capacity and reach; but, it does show that enormous numbers of ex-offenders legitimately wish to clean their records so they may be able to find stable employment.  This statistic also depicts the necessity of more programs like GJP here in Atlanta, across Georgia and the rest of the nation.

I'm sorry... But No.

On Tuesday morning, I received a call from a man who seemed to be in his mid to late thirties… though voices can be deceiving.  He explained to me that he had been convicted of a felony in his early twenties during one of his summers in college.  Nearly 15 years later, he explained to me that he is still unable to get a job–anywhere.

“I robbed a store man… I was young, I was dumb as hell, man, and my mother and my sisters needed help.”

His purpose for calling was to ask about the new law that has passed.  He explained that he had heard that this law, implemented in July, was geared to expand eligibility for expungement.  He asked if he would be eligible.

By this point, after countless responses by phone and in person I was ready to assume the position.  Despite the fact that this was a phone conversation, I took a deep breath in and deepened my voice to a more serious tone.  I contemplated.  What should I say to him?  I am the ‘NO-MAN’ and regardless of our organization’s heartfelt desire to improve his standard of living, I could punitively say …

”Sorry sir, but according to Georgia Law, regardless of the length of time it has been since you’ve committed your crime, you still will not be able to expunge it from your record.  If you would like, I can suggest that you fill out this pardon application that may or may not (most likely not) be beneficial for future employers to determine whether or not they still wish to hire you in this job market.”

Instead of this harsh response, I wanted to ensure that he understood that we are doing everything we can to fight and fix this injustice.  Yes, I told him no, but we don’t have the power to say yes…yet.  The ‘No-Man’s’ job at the Georgia Justice Project is not only to deny but to inform.  At 95 percent, we are all the “no people” attempting to serve those we can while pressing for change through policy.   It is idealism at its finest.  Even while I knew the truth, I still wanted to motivate him.  I still wanted to let him know that laws are not permanent.


– See more at: http://www.gjp.org/kens-blog/im-sorry-but-no/#sthash.FVPDrUJK.dpuf

Back 2 School with GJP

By Kenneth Westberry ’13

My two “C’s” at Davidson in Basic Studio Art and Basic Acting led me to the realization that I’m not that great at art.  In the first, I was “too explorative” and not willing to pay mind to structure.  In the latter I wasn’t explorative enough.

Back 2 School with GJP

But I put my skills to the test again this past summer at Georgia Justice Project’s 7th Annual Back-2-School Festival.  This was my first weekend after my first weeks worth of work at my new job.  While I had been in Atlanta for nearly two and a half weeks, I was very

excited for the opportunity to meet the children of some of our many current and former clients.  The only word that I can begin to formulate to describe the week before the event is…. “real.”  The packing, unpacking, loading, lifting, and pushing boxes in and out of trucks and buildings was “real.”  However, there is no doubt that in my first week I could truly see this whole family element that had been described to me before arriving.  The staff is a family.



It was 7:30 AM  Saturday and I realized that I only had about 30 minutes to pick up one of the summer interns, James, and head to the event.   On the way out of 100 Midtown (my first apartment in Atlanta) I backed into a random pole that magically appeared in the tight parking garage.  I kept it moving.  When we arrived at the gymnasium I was greeted by Sanchez, a GJP Social Worker, who yelled from the back of the truck, “Lets Go! Lets Go!”  James and I jogged from the parking lot and jumped into the back of the truck.  We began to unload hundreds of book bags into the hands of many eager volunteers.

The inside of the event was very well planned out by many on the staff.  I decided to put my art education to the test when I saw that Mazie (a BM&E summer intern from this past summer) was the only person manning the face painting station and there were nearly 5 kids waiting for their turn. Back 2 School with GJP

My first face-painting client was four year-old Suzie.  Her father is currently incarcerated.  She wanted to be a fairy-tale princess.  So I went to work.  She sat there, eyes closed, daydreaming to herself about how she would look once I was complete.   I used blue paint for her eyelids and pink for blush.   I moved in closer to ensure that I got the red lipstick just right…until her friend ran up and tapped her on the shoulder.  Her friend had obviously been painted as a clown.

“Can I be a clown now?!” she exclaimed.

I was uprooted from my artistic moment.  “I’m sorry?”  I said confused, and somewhat hurt, “I thought you wanted to be a fairytale princess?”

“I don’t want to be a fairytale princess anymore!

“Yes mam!!” I responded smiling and began to paint her nose red and her forehead blue.  When I was finished she ran off screaming and laughing with her friend into the bouncy castle.

My second piece didn’t receive such a reaction.  Seven-year-old Todd decided he wanted a fire-breathing dragon on his face.  I was enthused to take on this challenge.  I handed him my iPhone and suggested that he find a picture on Google images of the dragon that he wanted me to paint on his face.  He chose the Absolute. Most. Complicated. Dragon. I. Have. EVER seen. Back 2 School with GJP

I embraced the challenge.  However, I warned him before I began that it may not come out exactly as he expected, especially considering that he wanted the dragon to breath blue flames. After spending nearly 20 minutes on his face, I presented him with the mirror…

Back 2 School with GJP

“You said I can wash it off in the end if I don’t like it, right?”

At that moment, I decided that my professors were right and that my skills would be best utilized manning the basketball game.

– See more at: http://www.gjp.org/kens-blog/2893/#sthash.RgcVH3tP.dpuf

My Journey Begins

By Kenneth Westberry ’13

Before I applied to the Georgia Justice Project, I was familiar with their work. In my freshman year at Davidson, I remember hearing Doug (Doug Ammar ’84) speak at a dinner at Dean Terry’s house and saying to myself then…”Wow, I need to intern with this guy and his people!” I never was able to get around to it during my summers in college due to various travels. I knew that the Georgia Justice Project (or an organization similar to it) was where I wanted to be once I graduated. The problem is; however, there are not many organizations similar to GJP. What stood out to me then, and still stands out to me now after this first month, is the value in GJP’s systemic theory of change. This theory is presented in the book Forces for Good, explaining: “the most effective non-profits generate impact by combining direct service along with policy efforts.”

This is, working side by side with those whom histories are deemed deplorable by society so that they may become more productive citizens and not regress to a life of crime while simultaneously researching the statistical likelihood that these individuals will return to prison once stably employed.

This is, throwing Christmas parties and Back to School events for the children of clients who are currently incarcerated and may remain so for the next twenty years or more.

My Journey Begins

Doug Ammar ’84 and Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton

This is, sitting down in our intake lobby with a homeless, ex-offender on Monday, and sitting down in the State-House Lobby with the Governor of Georgia on Thursday to discuss needed legislative changes.

This is true impact.

Yet, even while I was able to say that I was familiar with GJPs work, I cannot say I knew what to expect.

I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with you throughout the year.

– See more at: http://www.gjp.org/kens-blog/my-journey-begins/#sthash.vspwTER8.dpuf