De’Asia Landrum -- The Butterfly Effect

This piece is part of a series done in collaboration with New America Media chronicling the impact of incarceration on families called "Children of Re-Entry."

(Photo by Jesus Medina)

In the photo above, De’Asia Landrum stands before a mural of a butterfly. Her arms stretch across its painted wingspan, her palms reach towards images of justice and peace, and her smile radiates with the strength of hope in action. Below the butterfly’s wings and De’Asia’s arms are stark depictions of society’s ills; the mural offers a balanced perspective by acknowledging the realities of poverty, crime, and disenchantment. But like the vibrant butterfly, De’Asia is able to rise above life’s painful obstacles.

De’Asia Landrum has lived this upward flight for twenty-two years. Now, she serves as a beacon of inspiration and guidance to others while continuing her journey towards positive change. As an alumni intern of San Francisco’s Youth Warrior program,  De’Asia trains young adult leadership nominees in developing public speaking skills, gaining knowledge of city government procedures, and discussing community issues with city officials. Her goal is to help young voices realize their potential for starting societal dialogue, increasing awareness, and overcoming issues as difficult as prejudice and poverty. The expressive butterfly mural painted by these youth leaders is a testament to their determination to grow and inspire change in others.

De’Asia’s belief in the individual voice reveals itself in her personal creative pursuits as well.  In her free time, she writes poetry to reflect on and challenge problematic societal notions. One of De’Asia’s poems, “Daddy’s Little Girl”, is an intimate exploration of the concepts of race, gender, and legacy. While “Daddy’s Little Girl” addresses her spiritual faith in her Heavenly Father, it also expresses De’Asia’s tested faith in her real life father.

De’Asia’s father has been incarcerated three times in the New York prison system. He is currently serving his longest sentence yet, with an earliest projected release year of 2033. “It’s hard,” De’Asia admits, “I will be forty-two. He will be sixty.” The last time De’Asia saw her father in person was over two decades ago, at the painfully young age of one.

Despite the immensely difficult circumstances, De’Asia has always pursued a meaningful connection with her father. The two communicated through letters, pictures (sometimes of her father in “prison poses”), birthday cards, and once even a poem written in honor of De’Asia’s thirteenth birthday.  “I always loved him,” says De’Asia, “I always wanted to have a relationship with him.”

Though her father is physically absent, he permeates all aspects of De’Asia’s life. Questions about personal identity always trace back to her father. De’Asia remembers her mother, who passed away in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, as a very reserved woman. While De’Asia recognizes her mother’s strength and giving nature in herself, she often wonders about the other aspects of her personality. Did she inherit her talkative and casual manner from her father? Which habits and traits does she share with him?

Her father’s presence resonates in De’Asia’s approach to family life as well. She embraces the responsibility she shoulders of being a mindful, much-needed role model to her two teenaged siblings.  De’Asia acknowledges that her father even influences what she looks for in a romantic relationship. Even while separated from her physical life, De’Asia’s father continues to shape her ideas of what it means to live and to love.

Professionally, De’Asia dedicates herself to understanding and fighting societal injustice. Her father’s recidivism has led De’Asia to see “there is a problem with the system”. She believes that only comprehensive rehabilitation can decrease the alarmingly high prison retention rate. And according to De’Asia, successful re-entry is only possible when ex-prisoners are guided and fully supported to grow into productive, working citizens instead of returning to the familiar “square meals and medical treatment” offered in prison.  She argues for the humanization of people like her father who have been dehumanized by a system that seeks punishment instead of treatment.

As a firm believer in proactive positivity, De’Asia does not blame anyone for the situation of prisoners like her father or for its adverse effects on their families. Instead, her personal belief is that “everything happens for a reason”; sometimes difficult challenges present the opportunity for new voices to contribute ideas to a collective dialogue. Perhaps our community would benefit from adopting that mentality as we enter into a deeper discussion about what justice truly means when applied to rehabilitation. In considering the material and mental needs of people making the difficult transition of re-entry, our community should never forget the immense influence that a single person can have on others’ lives. Just as De’Asia’s life is impacted by her father’s incarceration, the people in De’Asia’s life are influenced by her unwavering faith in people’s capacity for positive change. Therefore, it is our duty as a community to encourage others and especially ourselves to discover our potential to rise above obstacles and reach for justice. Let the butterfly effect take flight and move us forward.

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