Hard Road Home
The first time I visited Exodus Transitional Community, the scrappy program in East Harlem that fights each day to keep formerly incarcerated people from going back to prison, I was scared. The place is run by and for former criminals. I was walking into a world that I, like most middle class Americans, had worked hard to avoid.
When I arrived at Exodus and sat down with its founder and director Julio Medina, he told me right off the bat that the people of Exodus are going to see in my face every white caseworker they’ve ever hated and that I had better be prepared to listen hard and long if I wanted to earn their trust. I was coming with my assumptions and they were coming with theirs.
With a talented crew, I tried to do just what Julio advised. In fact the Exodus staff, I think because of their passion for their work and for the people they serve, were quick to open their lives and their stories to us, hoping to reveal what was the given to them – their humanity – to a society that seems to have no clue.
The issue of trust that Julio emphasized in his first words to me goes to the heart of the Exodus program and is exactly what we were privileged to observe and document in the Exodus participants – not their tentative connections with outsider-visitors or the caseworkers they have known in the past who have never understand them well enough, but the radical trust that becomes possible when formerly incarcerated people mentor each other to make it on the “outside.”
As new participants just out of prison engage with the empowered Exodus caseworkers not long out of jail themselves yet making a living and contributing meaningfully to the community, they encounter hard evidence that there might just be “a way out of no way.” I cannot imagine a more effective lifeline. Those who know the suffering, know the drives, know the pressures, and are beating the odds themselves can authentically persuade the recently imprisoned to have hope. It is this formula that makes me believe that the recidivism cycle that condemns so many Americans to a life without a future can be broken.
“But for the grace of god” is a phrase heard often among the staff and participants at Exodus. “But for the grace of God I’d be dead like my best friend.” “But for the grace of God I’d never have gotten out of prison.” “But for the grace of God I’d be working for the rest of my life as a janitor or at McDonald’s (if I was lucky).” My experience of making this film forced me to face how unearned my own good fortune has been. This is a story of class, of race, of the vital importance of education, of how close to impossible it is for someone to decide to strive for a life they’ve only seen on TV instead of stealing to put food on their family’s table that night. This is a story of heroic warriors fighting for their own – people society has given up on – and in so doing, working to save all our souls and mend the fabric of a torn-in-two society.
It is my hope that you see in this film humanity like you know firsthand, heroism you thought only comes from adventure stories, and hardship that can finally be relieved if you and I decide to care. We hope you will call, write or e-mail us and join in the movement to change policies and support programs that provide everyone “a way out of no way.”
Hard Road Home