Talking Shop with Aaron

Bam Bams & No Nonsense

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We’re entering a watershed moment for criminal justice reform, and a key component of systemic change will be addressing the lack of access to quality jobs for returning citizens like Aaron.

83% of released [state] prisoners were arrested within 9 years.
— National Institute of Justice
85% - 89% of ex-offenders who are re-arrested are unemployed
— National Institute of Corrections
The recidivism rate for people who find employment is <9%.
— Real Clear Politics

Last week we rediscovered some footage of Aaron reflecting on life after prison. At one point he says, “I’m going back to where I created all my havoc, to create beauty.” This sentiment is at the core of what we want for Lazlo—to engage with systems that are failing humanity and the planet, and to affirm human potential in building a thriving culture for the 21st century.

We wanted to share a taste of the wisdom and comedy that we were privileged to enjoy during the 18 months Aaron was on our team:

  • I was gone 22 years and now I’m free—free and off parole—so I’m enjoying myself! I’m loving it; I’m ecstatic.

  • I was put in solitary for six and a half years; that’s where I grew up at, all by myself. Before I went in there, I can win battles by physically fighting. Meaning if I felt someone was doing me wrong, instead of me just talking about it, I always did the physical thing. I was stronger, I was good at fighting. That was my mentality at the time, so I didn’t have a problem fighting, but once I got locked up in solitary confinement, you can’t fight physically no more. You lose—you can’t touch nobody, they ain’t going to open that door for you to touch nobody, and in order for me to come out that door, I had to be chained up.

  • You’re put in the box for 23 hours a day, you only come out for 1 hour. So my travels now, you only got one hour in a day to get exercise, and the rest is doing nothing, unless you start reading. So that’s what I started doing, reading and listening to the same music over and over again, until I got tired of repeating the same stuff. That’s when I woke up—quit repeating the same stuff. So I stopped repeating the same stuff. That’s why when I be telling y’all I’m excellent, I’m really excellento!

  • I like facing my problems. I don’t like running from my problems, it’s just the other way, I was way more destructive as far as solving my problems instead of now—thinking and resolving my problems on a whole other level. That’s something different, for me.

  • [On buying a typewriter for practice] They was already telling me y’all was on computers. That’s why I learned, as far as keyboards for the computers. I started making my money in the joint, doing more than one job. I worked in the kitchen, I did janitorial work, I typed people’s resumes, novels… whatever books they did, I typed the books up. That’s the way I came up; that’s the way I survived, without doing no nonsense.

  • [On learning to sew in a prison factory] They teach you about every part of the machine, how you take off the needle, put the needle on, how you basically do small repairs. We was making mattress coverings, duffel bags, shower curtains, bam bam suits, bam bam blankets [bam bams = straitjackets]

  • [On getting out and visiting Highland Park] Me coming back to my old neighborhood was something new. Ain’t nothing there— bunch of grass, abandoned buildings. It was disappointing, meaning that they done destroyed a whole area without no concern… me personally, it’s like the young ones just don’t care no more, and it falls all on us, because we ain’t never passed the torch, we ain’t ever teach them. I got stuck in my little situation, I was gone for twenty, so my head went somewhere else, but it went to a good place this time.

  • I was looking for a job instantly, so I wouldn’t fall victim back to the streets. I was looking for a good way to just kick off my start. Lo and behold, who comes to my door? Lazlo. Y’all… it was great. That was beautiful; that started my course. I was off and running.

  • I’m having fun—I’m having a ball. Lazlo is my foundation.

  • I learned how to iron, I wasn’t an ironer! I ain’t never ironed. I ain’t never put a big old cutting table together. Indigo dye, how to cut stuff; she ain’t teach me all the little finagles, but how to cut the designs out and all that, I had never had that in my arsenal. And I can make t-shirts; I’m ahead of the game, all the way ahead of the game!

  • I do what needs to be done, but I love sewing. Putting the shirts together, love it. I put the whole shebang together. The patience, the time….  I be trying to make these as perfect as I can, without no flaws. We don’t like flaws. Do we like flaws? Nah,  we don’t like flaws. I goes in, we try to make sure every stitch, no holes, nothing. This is beautiful fabric that we just can’t waste, so I try to take my time to make sure the vents are on point, the sleeves are on point, make sure everything good.

  • [On Highland Park and plans for the future] That’s where I’m buying my home at; I’m going back to my community and clean it up, correct my error that I did when I was younger, the best way that I know how… A lot of people neglect their own responsibility. I used to, but I don’t no more. I used to put it on somebody else, but now I gotta be responsible—and I ain’t even got no children to be responsible for! I’ll take everybody else’s children and I’ll protect them like they was mine. That’s my sense of community. I’m going back to where I created all my havoc - and go create beauty. I’m going to assist the best way I can.

  • It’s just that vibe. I’m happy, I’m happy where I’m at, even though I’m still struggling, as far as living life out here, that ain’t easy either. But I’m enjoying the experience… like I said, I like being free, mentally free, so I’m blessed.

After 18 months at Lazlo, Aaron moved on to his next job in the apparel industry, where he continues to thrive and light up the room with his laughter.

Our efforts to create opportunity for marginalized populations have transitioned to the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center [ISAIC]. ISAIC’s mission is to bridge the training of traditional skills with those for emerging technologies, creating viable career paths within apparel manufacturing; partners include the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the City of Detroit, Tracy Reese, Carhartt and Shinola.