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How this Rastafarian-Quaker and Mutulu Shakur protégé is fighting for returning citizens in Philly

Jondhi Harrell. January 26, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
“I’m a Rastafarian-Quaker,” said Jondhi Harrell, easing back into his chair at the Friends Center, where the administrative office of Harrell’s nonprofit The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) is located.

“I know. It’s weird.”

Maybe at first, but comparisons between the two religions have been drawn before. The Atlantic in 2010 pointed to an excerpt from a 1966 paper on the Rastafari movement. Both Rastafarians and Quakers, the author writes, have notably refused to “modify their beliefs when confronted by a hostile society.”

Much like Jamaican Rastafaris and 17th-century Philadelphia Quakers, Harrell has refused to modify the beliefs he’s come to hold since returning home from prison in 2009. The nonprofit founder spent 25 years incarcerated for armed robbery. Eighteen years were in federal prison, 12 of those were spent “under the tutelage” of Black nationalist Mutulu Shakur.

Shakur’s guidance, Harrell said, created the “foundation” for the man he is, the beliefs he holds and the vision he’s striving to make manifest.

For one, there’s The Village, Harrell’s forthcoming Nicetown construction project replete with a hotel, a farmers’ market and mixed-use real estate — all community-owned and operated.

“It’s our responsibility to rebuild the Black community,” he said. “Yes, the system has built-in discriminatory practices that we bang our heads against, but there are things we can do to create a new environment that will revitalize our communities. We need to control the economy of our neighborhoods.”

He’s not particularly fond of Philly’s staple “eds and meds” industries.

“It doesn’t speak to the Black community,” he argued. “We need to create programs that will facilitate an economic model that can employ them and teach them to be entrepreneurs.”

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He supports the city’s sugary drink tax.

“One, soda is bad for you. Two, it’s a way to funnel money into education.”

He was heartbroken to learn Defender Association chief Keir Bradford-Grey is not running for district attorney.

“I think it’s a tragedy. She’d be the best DA you could possibly have — integrity, heart, a great organizer, she’s respected,” he said. “When I heard that she was considering, I was break dancing in my living room.”

"There are things we can do to create a new environment that will revitalize our communities. We need to control the economy of our neighborhoods."
Jondhi Harrell

His biggest concern, though, is reentry. He’s passionate about community outreach and civic engagement among formerly incarcerated Philadelphians, and has dedicated his life to helping returning citizens better their own lives through TCRC.

Harrell wasn’t the sole founder of TCRC — his two founding partners parted ways after the Rastafarian-Quaker refused to focus his efforts on workforce development programs.

That’s not what TCRC is about.

“It’s about a philosophy of hard work and dedication to yourself, your family, your community and changing your life,” he said.

Think of it as Harrell’s vessel for guiding returning citizens through reentry. Through his own network, Harrell is able to steer reentrants toward the services they need, from child care to legal and mental health services. That network is now expanding through a fellowship Harrell has accepted with JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy organization that aims to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030.

He doesn’t want to be a “spokesperson for the masses” or “the face of reentry.” He considers himself a doer in a “city of talkers.” He wants to continue bringing the voices of formerly incarcerated men and women to the forefront of the reentry conversation as leaders.

“People make plans for returning citizens and they don’t ask us what we really need, what we think about it, or how we would fashion it if we had the power to move it forward,” said Harrell. “We are trying to live how we want our community to be.”

Spoken like a true Rastafarian-Quaker.

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