Change your choices, change your destiny

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hope and opportunity are inspirational messages for any graduate. But for 100 inmates participating in spring commencement exercises at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud (MCF), the personal story of determination and redemption delivered by former inmate Les Green was captivating.

Les Green"I think he shocked everybody," said one inmate of Green's opening line about returning 40 years later to the gym where he and his fellow reformatory basketball team members practiced, and where he'd formulated some of the goals that straightened the course of his life.

Green, director of the SCSU College of Education Office of Cultural Diversity and a former chair of the Minnesota Parole Board, didn't sugarcoat his blueprint for beating the odds of returning to prison, which MCF Warden Patt Adair said are currently about 40 percent.

"His message was much more meaningful because he's been here – he's lived it," said Adair. "I think this can give these guys hope."

It's all about choices, said Green, who had his first incarceration at age 16 and returned at 18 after another brush with drugs and the wrong set of acquaintances – and the realization that the one way out was to fix himself. "Anyone can find a justifiable excuse for failure," he said. And the lonely, gangly adolescent from Minneapolis who'd messed up his life found a way to put aside his feelings of rejection and to reach deep inside to rediscover the Green family traits of honesty and hard work that he'd grown up with.

Those family traits and some tough advice helped Green take advantage of a new work release-to-college program offered to three qualifying inmates each year. In 1968 he scored the highest of his group on the ACT test, and at 26 he threw himself into this opportunity to achieve.

"Everything depends on what happens when you leave the reformatory," said Adair. "It's that transition that makes the difference, and the one thing we know that makes a difference is education."

Green went on to graduate from SCSU with honors in 1972, be the first African American named to the Minnesota Parole Board and serve on a National Prison Industries panel.

Green earned his master's degree and is finishing his doctorate in education administration. He has worked with his community, sold supporters on the importance of teachers and other role models of color, and taught students and educators to welcome and incorporate multiculturalism into their curriculum and into their consciousness.

Going back to the correctional facility across the river to speak was a step back into the environment where Green adjusted his attitude and – with the help of coaches and mentors like Virgil Trewick and Jim Cashman – set out to change his life. It was Trewick who taught him what was needed to make the SCSU basketball team in 1969 and to go on to earn his letter in that sport.

Cashman, Green's parole agent in 1966, also had a tremendous impact when he told the misguided young inmate, "I don't know what I can say or do for you; you will have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps." Green took that catchphrase to heart and eventually it became the foundation for "Project Bootstrap," which he spearheaded as a student at SCSU to support other students of color in achieving their educational goals.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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