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Ford turns life around, optimistic about future

Dean’s List recipient adjusts to college, finds focus, goal for life

By Veronica Santos, scene editor
On April 26, 2014

  • Clarence Ford, a community organizer and researcher for the Safe Return Project in Richmond, will graduate from Contra Costa College with two associate degrees in May. Ford has transformed his life after going to prison for robbery in 2008. George Morin / The Advocate

After serving three years in prison, Clarence Ford never thought he would one day find himself transferring to a four-year university.
Ford recalls sitting up and observing his environment while in prison in 2008 and saying, "Damn, what the hell am I doing here? How the hell did I get here?"
He was charged with robbery in the first degree. Today, Ford's name sits on the Dean's List and he is a recipient of both the Kennedy-King and the Associated Student Union scholarships. He currently holds the position of community organizer and researcher for the Safe Return Project in Richmond.
This summer, Ford will be graduating with two degrees - associate of arts degrees in liberal arts, and social and behavioral sciences.
When Ford was released from prison in the spring of 2011, he found himself having to re-adjust. He knew what his new goals would be, but had no idea about how to reach them.
He sought out services and resources with the help of a re-entry coach, he said.
"Fortunately, I had a home to come back to. I had somewhere to live and a lot of people (who were incarcerated) don't have that," Ford said. "That's one of the main things that's central to somebody's successful re-integration into the community."
English professor Barbara McClain said Ford could have easily fallen back on the hardships and obstacles in his life and used them as an excuse for not completing his work. However, she said, he recognized his responsibility toward his own success. "He is a teacher's dream student," McClain said.
Ford attended a PACT (Program of Assertive Community Treatment) meeting in Richmond and met CCC EOPS student services and instructional support coordinator Kenneth Reynolds.
Ford spoke with Reynolds after the meeting and was given a college catalogue.
"I kind of already knew I was going back to school, but he (Reynolds) reinforced that idea," Ford said.
On his first semester back at school, Ford earned a 2.5 GPA. Last semester, Ford ended with a 4.0 GPA.
"When I first met Clarence, I knew he had potential," Reynolds said. "There was no doubt. He was obviously very intelligent and picked up direction very quickly."
Ford described who he used to be as a product of his environment, where criminal behavior was glorified.
His re-entry into the workforce proved to be difficult at first. The dreaded question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" loomed over his job applications.
It was not until he joined the Safe Return Project team that Ford realized his potential, he said.
With the help of Ford and his team, the Safe Return Project has led the movement to advocate omitting the question from the city of Richmond's job applications. Ford said it gives employers the chance to get to know who their applicants really are before making snap judgments on their character based on their pasts.
This way, in the eyes of the employer, he said, everyone is equal.
"Since I've had this job, I've had a chance to get that question, the very same question that disqualified me from getting employment, (removed,)" he said.
While in prison, Ford said he spent his time reading and surrounded himself with people who he calls humble individuals, who regularly told him, "You ain't supposed to be in here."
Now, education is Ford's main focus.
"To come from that, and to be where I'm going now, there are really no excuses because it's possible, especially if you're determined to do it (get a college education)," he said.
He said one of his proudest achievements so far has been being awarded transfer to a UC "because I didn't even know that was possible for someone who was getting out of prison."
Ford has been accepted into UC Santa Barbara but is waiting to hear from UC Berkeley before making a final decision, he said.
He said his ultimate goal is to have an influence in his community, to be a lawmaker. He wants to change the outlook of the younger generation, to prove that they do not have to become hip-hop artists or athletes to achieve a wealthy, meaningful life.
Having many professors as part of his support system has made a huge difference in his life, he said. Of six former parole officers, only one showed interest in his future, unlike the teachers who really supported him and his decisions, he said.
"To give (that support) to a person who comes from a background of being told that he could never be successful, being called dumb, being told he'll be back in prison again and not have any power, having that support system makes all the difference," Ford said. "It's motivation to keep going." 


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