Like many adult learners at NLU, Alphonso Johnson experienced a moment of realization about the course of his life: He wanted to commit himself to living up to his full potential, as a worker, a student and a member of the community. There’s only one difference. He experienced this epiphany in jail.
“My last time in prison I told myself you’ve got to grow up,” he said. “You can’t blame anybody. You can’t justify or rationalize your behavior. You just have to grow up. You have to take the same effort and energy you used to create this criminal person and redirect that energy and effort into building who you are.”
A native of the old Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s North Side, Alphonso was a self-described troubled teen, and like most teens, he said, he was searching for an identity. In a neighborhood where options were limited and criminals revered, he fell into gang activity and selling drugs, driven by a desire to fit in. Trouble followed.
Alphonso was first arrested at age 14, tried as an adult and served time till he turned 21. He did two more stints in prison, of 17 and 30 months a piece. His criminal life had indeed become like another person — an alter ego, he said — and he’d cultivated it for more than 20 years. Alphonso came to see that he must stop or he would end up in jail for the rest of his life or even dead — and that meant denying the false aspirations he’d grown up with.
“I realized that what I thought was normal because you see it so often every day, stepping outside of that, I found that it was actually abnormal,” he said.
Driven by this new sense of purpose, Alphonso began to pursue two tracks to put his life in order: work and school. For the latter, he was inspired by his sister, April, an NLU MBA graduate, and also his wife, Nesha, who will graduate in February with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. Alphonso looked into what NLU could offer, initially enrolling in the Bachelor’s in Human Services program.
Former felons have limited work options, so Alphonso turned to Helen Roy, Career Readiness Advisor at NLU, for advice. She helped tune up his resume and encouraged him to do volunteer work to gain positive momentum and make connections. And it was while volunteering at St. Leonard’s Ministries teaching GED classes that he saw an ad for a rail-car servicer apprenticeship program with the Chicago Transit Authority.
The nine-month apprenticeship gave ex-offenders a second chance, joining the crews that clean CTA trains. Alphonso was interviewed and then accepted into the program. Recognizing it as a special opportunity, he committed himself to showing up and working hard on the evening shift. After just six months, Alphonso said he helped develop a better method for chemically cleaning graffiti from the trains, a time- and money-saving process now being implemented throughout the CTA.
This accomplishment gained Alphonso some acclaim, and in December he was asked by CTA leaders to help advocate for the ex-offender program by attending a press conference and telling his story. Ultimately the rail-car apprenticeship ended on the first of the year due to a conflict between the CTA and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 over worker pay. But happily, the 65 current apprentices have since been moved into a similar bus cleaning program to save their jobs.
Alphonso became a full-time CTA employee at the end of December and avoided this transition. And he’s now finding he’s in demand. Recently he accepted an achievement award from Illinois Department of Corrections officials and state Rep. Camille Lilly. He’s been asked to speak to young people coming out of minimum security prisons. And he’s set to receive an award from the West Side Health Authority.
The attention can be overwhelming, Alphonso said, but he’s staying humble and grounded. He said his life is now full of the priceless things he could never have chasing a criminal lifestyle — a sense of pride and of peace. He’s part of a team that helps keep the city moving, and he no longer has to look over his shoulder in fear of the police or danger from the streets. His wife and his mother couldn’t be prouder, he said. It’s all a validation of that moment he experienced in prison and what he’s done since.
“I can’t make up the time I’ve lost,” he said. “I can only step up and take advantage of the time I have now to become a more responsible and positive, productive member of society”.
At NLU, Alphonso continues to pursue his studies, finding support from faculty and staff. He’s since changed his major to business administration and wants to start a community support program that will help at-risk young people find a path away from crime and violence. He hopes to get corporate investment to provide real economic alternatives for youth by offering jobs and encouraging education, whether its college or trade school.
And he’ll continue to tell his story. Alphonso said it’s the least he can do for the second chance he’s been given.
“Any time, any place, anywhere that I’m able to share my story to inspire someone else, I’m there,” he said. “Because that’s another form of restorative justice to me.”