On Saturday, June 1, 2019, Defy Ventures held an event called Business Coaching Day at the NationBuilder offices in downtown Los Angeles. As a nonprofit focused on reducing recidivism by supporting currently and formerly incarcerated men to become entrepreneurs, Defy puts on Business Coaching Days to give their participants, known as “Entrepreneurs-in-Training” (or EITs), an opportunity to learn from and be mentored by local executives.
But their June event was unique: It was the first Business Coaching Day held outside prison and therefore primarily aimed to help EITs in transitional housing.There were roughly 10 EITs and about as many mentors, so that all coaching rounds were staged as one-on-one meetings. In between the coaching rounds were more personal exercises and icebreakers. Three Crime Story writers — Shawn Boursiquot, Leland Hall, and Wesley Yiin — attended this event. These are Leland’s reflections.
On my way to Defy Venture’s Coaching Day, an array of thoughts and emotions come over me. I immediately think about the friends and family I’ve lost to incarceration. I vividly remember how these individuals often struggle with adjusting to the “real world” upon release. After being institutionalized, they often come home with psychological and social challenges that are hard for most of us to even imagine.
And so, I arrive at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel. I take the elevator to the second floor and step out into a modern office space that looks like it came out of a Silicon Valley episode. The open space is adorned with large windows that fill the space with sunlight.
I am eager to help the EITs bridge the gap back into society. However, I am not sure how they are going to receive me or the advice I have to share. I’ve never volunteered in a place like this before, so I’m not sure what to expect. Will they have optimistic attitudes about the program? Through the briefing packet, I learn that some of the EITs have spent 20-plus years behind bars. That’s almost longer than my lifespan of 26 years. Will they value what I have to say? Despite all of these preconceptions, I keep an open mind and I check in.
I’m the first of the writers to arrive. As I look around the large room, people are gathered in small groups talking among themselves. I feel like the new kid on the first day of school. Individuals in the room notice me and immediately approach me with handshakes and introductions. One guy tells me, “Thanks for coming.” Another person says, “Glad you could be here.” My guard goes down immediately and the pressure fades away. It’s a relaxed environment — so relaxed it’s initially difficult to distinguish who is a volunteer and who is formerly incarcerated. One person whom I think is a volunteer is Efrain Ortiz. Efrain is a tall (around 6’3”), heavy-set Latino guy in his early 40s. He wears black-framed glasses and has a charming personality. It is not until formal introductions that I realize he was released from prison in May of this year. I pair up with Efrain multiple times throughout the day for our exercises.
To begin the session, we pledge to each other to be attentive, honest, and respectful. However, the part of the pledge that resonates for volunteers is a profound statement that many everyday people struggle with. “I will not judge.”
After the pledge, we sit down for resume building. I am surprised by the range of experience that Efrain has had. Between incarcerations, Efrain held professional jobs doing logistics for contractors and construction companies. I give him detailed tips and advice that could make his resume stronger. While we wait to rotate to the next activity, Efrain opens up about his upbringing.
EFRAIN: I GREW UP IN ATWATER VILLAGE, NORTHEAST OF LOS ANGELES. I GREW UP IN A LOWER-CLASS FAMILY, MY PARENTS WERE IMMIGRANTS FROM MEXICO. THEY DID THEIR BEST TO PROVIDE WHAT WE NEEDED.
Even though money was scarce, the love his family provided was plentiful. His parents and grandmother taught him morals and values. However, things started to change for young Efrain when his grandmother passed away.
EFRAIN: I WAS ADDICTED TO CRYSTAL METH FROM A YOUNG AGE. I BELIEVED IT FILLED THE VOID THAT I NEEDED IN MY LIFE. IT ALLOWED ME TO SUPPRESS THE EMOTIONS THAT I WAS GOING THROUGH. LOSING MY GRANDMA AT A YOUNG AGE REALLY TOOK A TOLL ON ME.
Around the time Efrain lost his grandmother, he also lost several of his friends to violence. Addicted to drugs and hopeless, his roller coaster ride with the law began. The drug use eroded the belief system and the moral center that his parents had instilled in him. As he transitioned into adulthood, he was constantly in and out of prison. He was lost. Headed down a path of self-destruction.
As he tells me this, I remember my own grandmother, the rock of my family. She would unconditionally give her time and resources to help out friends and family in need. She never asked for anything in return. She had a kind spirit and the personality to make anyone laugh. Because my parents worked constantly when I was a child, I spent most of my time over at her house. She raised me like her son and was an integral part of my upbringing. She lost a battle with ovarian cancer while I was still in high school. I was in a transitional phase of my life, preparing to graduate. I even missed my senior prom because I didn’t feel like having fun. I longed to ask her for advice on which college to choose or to just hear her voice one more time. Her passing came as a profound shock to my entire family. She was the glue that held everyone together. The support and love from my parents helped me tremendously through this time. Also, leaving my hometown and attending college out-of-state took my mind off of the loss. If not for the resources and support at my disposal, I could’ve turned to drugs to deal with the pain just like Efrain .
We break for refreshments and Efrain explains his mindset as he transitioned through prison. When he first arrived there, he was heavily influenced by other inmates in a negative way. He consistently got into violent confrontations with people, sometimes for no reason at all. Other times, he would take orders to carry out malicious acts. It’s hard to imagine that the friendly guy in front of me was capable of these things. Yet, Efrain is very remorseful about this time of his life and says he learned valuable lessons about his character. As we converse, I realize that it takes a great deal of courage to share intimate details about the worst part of one’s life.
At the end of the day, many EITs and volunteers stick around and continue to connect. Efrain and I talk more about his journey.
EFRAIN: I WAS INCARCERATED IN 2006 AND RELEASED IN 2007. WHEN I GOT OUT I BEGAN TO LIVE A PRETTY STRAIGHT AND NARROW LIFE. I WAS WORKING FOR TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS STILL ON PAROLE AND WAS ARRESTED FOR A CRIME I DIDN’T COMMIT. I HAD A LITTLE MONEY SAVED UP AND TOOK THE CASE TO TRIAL. I ENDED UP LOSING. IT REALLY DEVASTATED ME TO THE POINT WHERE I WAS DEPRESSED.
He once again turned to drugs to escape his pain, and relapsed in 2010. Even though he maintains his innocence, he acknowledges that his poor choices had left him vulnerable.
EFRAIN: ALTHOUGH I WAS INCARCERATED FOR SOMETHING I DIDN’T COMMIT, I KNOW MY LIFESTYLE BEFORE THAT LED ME UP TO THAT POINT.
While incarcerated, Efrain made the decision to once again change his life.
EFRAIN: I BEGAN TO ATTEND SELF-HELP GROUPS. I ACTUALLY ASSISTED ON OUR YARD TO BRING MORE SELF HELP GROUPS TO THE FACILITY. I STARTED ENGAGING AS A ROLE MODEL FOR OTHERS. I ALSO BEGAN PURSUING MY COLLEGE CAREER. I’LL NEVER TAKE AWAY FROM THE HARM I CAUSED IN MY PAST BUT I FEEL LIKE I PAID MY DEBT TO SOCIETY. I’VE RIGHTED THE WRONGS WITHIN MYSELF AND ALSO WITH SOCIETY AROUND ME THAT I ONCE TAINTED.
I ask Efrain how his adjustment back to society is going since his most recent release.
EFRAIN: THE FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN IS ALWAYS THE FEAR COMING OUT OF PRISON. NOT KNOWING WHAT TO EXPECT.
Its normal to fear the unknown, but for the formerly incarcerated, this anxiety is heightened. They have the feeling of walking on eggshells everywhere they go. Defy has helped Efrain with this transition immensely.
EFRAIN: IT ALLOWED ME TO GET BACK INTO MY TRUE CORE SELF BECAUSE I BELIEVED THAT I WAS ALWAYS THIS PERSON. I DIDN’T BECOME THIS PERSON. I WAS ALWAYS THIS PERSON INSIDE GROWING UP AS A CHILD AND THAT’S WHAT I BELIEVED I’VE TAPPED INTO. THAT INNER CHILD. THAT HAPPY CHILD. WITHOUT THESE GENTLEMEN AT DEFY, THERE WOULD BE NO HOPE FOR US.
At this point people start shuffling out. We have to end our conversations because most of the EITs are living in transitional housing. It’s getting late, their curfew is approaching, and they need to get home. I thank Efrain for his time as he walks ahead. Wesley, Shawn, and I are the last people to leave the building. As we head down the elevator, we discuss the impact the day has had on us. The experience is life changing and truly eye opening. We walk outside and the evening, downtown street is busy. As we say goodbye, I look across to a sea of people waiting at the bus stop. Towering over all of them is Efrain, wearing headphones. He sees me and smiles. We give each other a wave, and as I turn away, I think, Efrain is a guy just like me, trying to do the best he can.