From prison to professor: Mitchell Jackson

June 20, 2014

Jackson chats with Life Beyond Walls workshop attendees after his talk on Wednesday.

Despite the fact that Mitchell Jackson began dealing drugs at the age 15, he never felt very good at it.

"I was never a grand hustler... I was a street nerd,” Jackson told an audience of more than 100 men and women on probation or parole on Wednesday.

Jackson once served more than a year in prison and now is a New York University professor and author of “The Residue Years,” a novel that has received praise from The New York Times Book Review and O, The Oprah Magazine.

The June 18 event at the New Song Community Church called the “Life Beyond Walls” workshop, was co-hosted by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice’s Adult Services Division and Volunteers of America Oregon’s Community Partners Reinvestment Program.

Workshop attendees included people receiving cultural or age-specific assistance to make the transition back into the community after being incarcerated; people affected by gang activity; and men receiving in-patient drug and alcohol treatment after being referred by the justice system.          

Just before Jackson took the stage, Ikaim Glover, a resident of the Volunteers of America Men’s Residential Center expressed his excitement about hearing the speaker.         

“[As an] ex-drug dealer, ex-gang member, ex-addict, what he’s talking about today really relates to me,” Glover said. “It’s very powerful, especially when he talks about the adversity we face as black men in a society where there are a lot of gangs and drugs. I’m here to just get the message.”  

A Portland native, Jackson grew up in northeast Portland and attended Jefferson High School. He explained to the crowd that his mother began using crack and became addicted for two decades.

In the midst of his turbulent adolescence, Jackson decided his best bet was to stay in school regardless of his drug dealing. He went on to graduate high school and attend Portland State University.   

“I decided to make the best of my circumstances,” Jackson told “Life Beyond Walls” workshop attendees.

Jackson’s illicit activities eventually caught up with him and he served 16 months in the Santiam Correctional Facility in Salem. When he completed his sentence, he returned to Portland State University and earned his bachelor’s degree.     

Jackson then decided to test drive a career in news broadcast journalism, securing an internship at KOIN 6 News after reaching out personally to news anchor Ken Boddie and then a news assistant position at KATU.

Then, in an effort to impress his peers, Jackson sought out and earned a master’s degree in writing at Portland State University. Continuing his educational pursuits, Jackson began researching the best graduate writing programs in the country and landed in New York. There, he received an M.F.A in Creative Writing at New York University and now teaches at the university.

During his talk at the “Life Beyond Walls” workshop, Jackson recalled what he considers to be “the most sage advice” he received in his life.

“Time is going to pass,” Jackson’s father told him. “If you don’t know what you want to do, stay in school.”            

Department of Community Justice employee Kathryn Sofich and Life Beyond Walls workshop attendee Jordan Burnham work together during the break out session of Wednesday's event.

After the talk concluded, attendees broke out into small groups and discussed negative thought patterns that may block them from achieving their goals, as well as positive thoughts patterns that will help each of them achieve those goals.       

“The system is trying to keep us down,” was a negative pattern identified by one group. The group then challenged that with the assertion that “It’s OK to ask for help because I need help to change.”

Another group presented the statement, “I don’t want to admit I’m an addict.” And countered it with the statement, “I can speak louder than my addiction.”

“I’m hoping that our clients get inspired,” said Kate Desmond, manager at the Department of Community Justice and organizer of the event. “I’m hoping that they see here’s somebody who made a bad decision and that doesn’t define who he is as a person.”   

Clyde Phillips, also a resident of the Volunteers of America Men’s Residential Center, said he enjoyed what Jackson had to say.  

“Seeing how he changed his life and now that he’s coming back to the community and giving back,” Phillips said, “it’s another side to this life than just hanging on the streets, sagging your pants, listening to other people that are in the same spot that you are in. I appreciate that he came here to enlighten me on how to better myself.”

“I did buy his book and he autographed it for me,” Phillips said. “I’m gonna tackle that tonight during my quiet time.”