University Park, IL,
13:52 PM

Rising Star Award honors exceptional life story of alum Jerry Davis-EL

A man smiling in front of GovState backdrop

The life story of alumnus Jerry Davis-EL has added new chapters of success and inspiration for others. 

Davis-EL was honored with a Rising Star Award at Governors State University’s (GovState) 2023 Distinguished Alumni Reception in October. He holds both a bachelor’s in social work ('16) and Master of Social Work (MSW) with a concentration in families and children ('18). The annual event recognizes exceptional members of the GovState Alumni Association.

“When I learned that I was nominated for the Rising Star award, it was amazing to me,” Davis-EL said. “I didn’t apply (for the award), this is God—I don’t do this for show.” 

Dr. Phyllis West, Director of the Social Justice Initiative, told him it was the first time in 50 years that the award went to a returning citizen (a person previously incarcerated). 

Among his many accomplishments, Davis-EL is a Qualified Mental Health Professional and Certified Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Counselor. He has received multiple awards for his community work, and he’s spoken at forums nationwide on social justice, mass incarceration, reentry, restorative justice and trauma.

Davis-EL serves as executive director of GRO Community, a mental health service provider for boys and men ages five and up from low socio-economic groups and/or black and brown communities. GRO utilizes an array of treatment modalities to ensure effective mental healthcare for boys and men of color living in high crime and high stress environments.

He brings his GovState education to that leadership role along with his own experience spending 16 years in and out of the Illinois prison system. In 2010, he vowed to make social injustice the cause to which he would dedicate his life. He knows firsthand that spending time in the prison system is a traumatizing experience. 

When you leave prison, you come out with anxiety and depression,” Davis-EL explained. “The other halfway houses (for returning citizens) don’t address this; they don’t have that skillset for treatment.” 

He credits trauma classes at GovState as a critical first step in reclaiming time he lost to a cycle of prison, poverty, drugs, and despair that began in his youth on Chicago's West Side. GovState helped Davis-EL find healing, the promise of peace, and his own voice. His experiences resulted in him being selected as the 2018 commencement speaker.

When Davis-EL enrolled at GovState, “the social work department embraced me, I found my voice,” he added. “Dr. West and Dr. Glass poured into us.” Dr. Lorri Glass is Associate Professor and coordinator of the Undergraduate Social Work Program, and Davis-EL helped establish a scholarship in her name. 

Davis-EL’s success as an undergrad at GovState resulted in his being named 2015 Lincoln Laureate for “overall excellence.” As a student, he led a charge to remove the “box” from college applications that flags previous incarceration. He’s also a proud founder of Generating Hope, a campus organization devoted to supporting students affected by incarceration. “I’m staying involved as a mentor,” he said. “That’s my baby.” 

Davis-EL recently brought seven clients from GRO to visit the Gov State campus. “I model that lifestyle,” he said. “It’s important bringing them to the space.”

Away from his work, Davis-EL is writing a book about his life journey to give “hope for people who have no hope.” At GRO, he’s excited about the opening of a unique halfway house that focuses on mental health counseling, along with workforce training through a screen printing business. It’s located in Roseland, Illinois, near the GRO offices. And the model that GRO has developed could expand nationwide, Davis-EL added. 

“But I never do any of this just for the paycheck,” he said. “Seeing clients transformed—that’s my paycheck.”