Locked up in a cell inside Cook County Jail a decade ago, GSU graduate Student Jerry Davis-EL decided he’d had enough.
He drafted a 10-year life plan, and incarceration wasn’t part of it.
“My daughter had just been murdered, I had been to prison seven times, and I told God I didn’t want to go back,’’ said Davis-EL, who adopted a Muslim name earlier in life but today is a practicing Christian.
From that moment in his jail cell until now, Davis-EL has been reclaiming time lost to a vicious cycle of prison, poverty, drugs, and despair—complicated by what he calls undiagnosed trauma.
Since Davis-EL’s release in 2010, he was named 2015 Lincoln Laureate for “overall excellence,” earned a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2016, and led a charge to remove the “box” from college applications.
Today Davis-EL is a champion for social justice –– working with the traumatized, socio-economically deprived, and marginalized adults and children.
He has presented at national and local conferences and events across the country, including the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting and reintegrative justice forums at Chicago’s Kennedy King College and at New York’s Columbia University in partnership with the Center For Justice.
In 2017, he spoke at Governors State's forum on Mass Incarceration/Reintegrative Justice and the role of higher education.
Davis-EL's graduation next month from the accelerated Master of Social Work Program marks yet another milestone in a long painful journey to overcome the socioeconomic and environmental factors that were leading him along a dark mission of destruction—both his and of others..
Davis-EL readily admits he could not have done it alone.
“I found my voice at GSU. I learned how to advocate at GSU–– how to network using skills I had. GSU opened doors for me.”
Growing up on Chicago’s near West Side, Davis-EL said he felt like the world was open to him as a child.
In his two-parent household, Dad was a factory supervisor, and Mom was engaged in the lives of her children and the community. Both parents insisted on education, and their sixth child excelled in school.
Davis-EL traces his earliest trauma to his dad leaving the family. When the racial makeup of the neighborhood changed, he felt unprotected and resorted to his own means to survive.
After years of hustling on the streets by selling drugs and stealing, Davis-EL landed in prison for the first time at the age of 26. The trauma he experienced is etched in his psyche.
“My number is B35789. I went to jail August 1992. Every time you go in, you get traumatized, but I didn’t understand it as trauma. I didn’t understand the psychological trauma of being separated from my family—of being dehumanized in prison, the degradation of prison life.”
That time, he was sentenced to two years, but would return six more times before that fateful day in 2010 when he decided to put an end to the cycle of inhumanity.
Spending nearly 16 years of his life in and out of prison was an experience no human should endure, Davis-EL said. Still, he took away valuable lessons about himself and others who carry unresolved pain.
While taking Trauma Classes at Governors State, Davis-EL found healing and the promise of peace—“that’s real freedom.”
A sister who lives in the area told Davis-EL about Governors State, and counselors from treatment and advocacy groups such as the Safer Foundation wrote letters of recommendation.
Attending college was a dream for Davis-EL, and he wanted to make sure others had the same opportunity, so he helped created Generating Hope, a student organization to support, advocate for, and empower GSU students who have been impacted by mass incarceration.
In 2015, the group challenged the GSU admission policy which asked applicants to indicate, by checking a box, if they had been convicted of a felony. Following a meeting with Davis-EL and other advocates, administrators agreed to relax the policy, though the box remains.
“The box is a barrier to education and it’s traumatic,’’ said Davis-EL, who is now working with the state policy makers to remove the box from college applications across the state. “We want the box removed. It’s discrimination.”
People are taking notice of Davis-EL's message and work.
Last year, in a nod to his achievements, the Cook County Circuit Court expunged Davis-EL’s criminal record. “I sit before you a man with no past, ’’ he said, and, his future is bright with plans to open a social service agency after graduation and to as write a book about his journey.
In it, he will offer words of advice to help others avoid traps of undiagnosed trauma. First nuggets off the top of his head: “Believe in yourself and have a plan.”
Looking back, Davis-EL said his healing really started with the 10-year blueprint his counselors pushed him to draft back in 2010.
Eight years in, Davis-EL said he is pleased.
“God has a sense of humor. Most of what I put in my plan has come true, and He gave me stuff that wasn't even on the plan. The 2015 Lincoln Laureate wasn't on the plan. Meeting with senators— a guy like me—that’s not on the plan.”
It’s time to update it now, he said. “I didn't put a doctorate on it. I need to go back and add that.’’