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Leading With Conviction: One Man's Journey to Freedom and Justice

02/23/2015 01:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

On Sunday night, John Legend courageously jolted Americans awake when he stated at the Oscars that, "There are more black men under correctional control than there were under slavery in 1850." For me, exiting from a New York state prison in 2000 after serving 6 years was a rebirth. As a life-long New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, my mission started to crystallize. I wanted to be a voice for the countless intelligent, earnest, and genuinely good people that I was leaving behind. Reflecting on the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails and another 5.6 million under correctional supervision, mostly young black and brown men and women, I kept asking myself, "if prison is where we send bad people who do bad things, where do we send good people who do bad things?" The hypocrisy and insidiousness of our criminal justice system has been ever-present for me, since the day in 1995 when the handcuffs first bound my wrists.

When exiting the belly of the beast, my vision was as crystal-clear as my path was uncertain. Throughout my adolescence, I encountered a formidable set of obstacles: poverty and resource scarcity, crime, subsistence-level public support, and intra-community violence that culminated with a term of incarceration. After leaving prison, like the other 650,000 people who exit each year, barriers to employment, enfranchisement, education and equality were faced, both mirroring and enhancing the challenges of my youth. I found opportunity in the advocacy world. There, I was valued for my professional skills, but also for the unique perspective that I brought to the work as someone directly impacted. I began to gain traction and attention nationally as a staunch advocate for reform, testifying for Congress, the US Commission on Civil Rights and the US Senate, ultimately drafting and advancing legislation to remove barriers to jobs, housing, education and voting in 10 states, co-authoring the Reentry and Employment Blueprint for Governor Spitzer, and leading the largest audit study ever conducted on race and criminal record discrimination. I knew that I was developing a distinct platform that, if fully realized, would become resounding enough to make a difference for me and millions of others.

In 2006, I transitioned to the Fortune Society where I eventually became Senior Vice President of Development and Public Affairs. All the while, I remained close to those that I served, leading a series of significant community organizing efforts toward criminal justice reform. I learned quickly that those closest to the problem also have the most to gain from a successful outcome, and therefore spent countless hours mobilizing the support of those who had been most deeply impacted by failed drug laws. Based on my personal experience of being denied by over forty employers after being released from prison, I also drafted the Employer Education Act bill and mobilized the grassroots support necessary to pass the bill in one legislative session. Through it all, I'm the first to admit that none of this could have been achieved without the support of thousands of directly impacted people.

Yet despite being many of the best and the brightest people that I knew, I observed that these peers largely remained relegated to roles of symbolism or 'trauma-porn'. In 2013, I resigned from my position as Vice President at the Fortune Society, one of power and prestige, to found JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA); an organization whose mission is to cut the number of people in prison in the US in half by 2030, while proving that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

JLUSA dares to put new and authentic drivers in the seat of the reform locomotive. The vision is straightforward: the most compelling advocates of change are those that have been most affected by incarceration. Why, then, are we not seeking their counsel about what needs to change, where we can improve, and what strategies we need to implement to actually manifest such change? JLUSA is the culmination of such reflection. The idea that communities and individuals impacted by incarceration and our criminal justice system will now have a formal space dedicated to tapping their potential to become leaders in reform efforts should bring hope that we will finally see change in the 21st century.

I remain devoted to dismantling the structural barriers that have made me the "exception" rather than the "rule," while instilling other formerly incarcerated leaders with the range of skills and the unique approach to policy reform that have made my own success possible. Speaking on behalf of the "voiceless" is not a mantle I aspire to. My job is to amplify the voices and expertise of those who remain either deliberately silenced or willfully ignored so that they may speak on behalf of themselves. It's time we acknowledge that the experts we so urgently need have always been close at hand.

This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.