(Photo by Tony Abraham)
This is part of "Leaders of Color" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. Find the series here.
Bill Cobb is rather jovial for someone who has had his livelihood compromised by the criminal justice system for two decades. But don’t be fooled by his chipper spirit: It’s taken time and energy for the prison reform advocate to get to this point, and he means business.
After spending nearly seven years in prison for robbery, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy convictions, Cobb returned home in 2000. He spent the next 14 years of his life trying to shake his lingering criminal record.
“Can’t go to school, can’t get a job, can’t live in certain houses, can’t get insurance — the can’ts are far too many,” he said. “The system is churning out these outcomes.”
Cobb might have gone through the system of corrections, but employers refused to believe his behavior had been “corrected” and social service providers weren’t all up to code on how to rectify his situation. His social and economic capital had been compromised as collateral consequences of a 20-year-old conviction.
How was he supposed to successfully re-enter society if he couldn't get a job?
By 2014, Cobb had been laid off 12 times due to his criminal history. How was he supposed to successfully re-enter society if he couldn’t get a job?
That same year, Cobb learned he had certain rights after meeting with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been suffering as a consequence of my criminal history for 14 years, and nobody ever made me aware of these particular protections,” he said.
After meeting with Community Legal Services litigation director Sharon Dietrich, Cobb became obsessed with educating himself on his rights as a reentrant. He became an expert, educating fellow reentrants on their rights, mobilizing their votes and playing a key role in the passage of Philadelphia’s new “Ban the Box” legislation.
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“What I wanted to do was start an organization and make an education program to inform people of their rights, starting with service providers,” he said. “The pervasive culture of discrimination would change. Someone had to do this.”
Cobb didn’t want to be that “someone.” He’s always been a “number two guy, not a number one guy.” It took some convincing from his wife and the endorsement of Dietrich to break his hesitance.
Now, after a year of groundwork, Cobb is officially launching REDEEMED, a nonprofit dedicated to educating providers and reentrants on their rights, advocating for progressive policy and mobilizing the vote of formerly incarcerated citizens.
REDEEMED's mission is to increase civic engagement among Philadelphia's reentrant population three percent over the next six year.
REDEEMED’s mission is to increase civic engagement among Philadelphia’s reentrant population three percent over the next six years, and their “#freetovote” campaign aims to register 20,000 reentrants voters by October 8.
Cobb’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious. He fancies himself REDEEMED’s “Ferocious Frontman,” a term he’s trying to get himself used to as he learns to be an “aggressive advocate.” He’s an animated and eccentric speaker who half-jokes that the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t exist insomuch as “bad policymakers” do.
He plans on calling those “bad actors” out and pushing legislators to introduce policies that will restore political, social and economic capital to reentrant populations.
“I know we will make a systemic impact,” he said. “People closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but they’re also the people furthest from the resources needed to implement those solutions.”
That’s why Cobb believes reentrants need representation from elected officials who share their experience. After all, nobody can champion reentrants’ rights like a reentrant can.
“I plan on having everything to do with that.”