As a graduate of Barnard College, I was educated in the tradition of “leaning in”, which operates on the premise that everyone deserves a spot at the table and that all voices matter. And so, after reading Sarah Zarba’s recent Spectator op-ed, “Second chances at Columbia,” in which she advocates for Columbia to end the practice of asking prospective students about their conviction history, I felt inclined to take a stand for second chances, too.
Columbia, like all learning communities, must be a place of inclusion and opportunity; it must be a place in which students have the chance to revisit their pasts and this time, with more knowledge, make healthier, more purposeful choices for themselves and for those whom they love.
Sixty-eight million of us in the U.S.—more than the entire population of France—have a criminal record. This means that if Columbia were to step up and ban the box on its application for prospective students, it would become a much-needed beacon of change, an institution that fully acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of the prison system in our country and that wants to be part of the solution. By banning the box, Columbia would become a place in which students are more than their worst mistakes and where they are given the chance to use their past experiences to become catalysts for change, not just within themselves, but in their communities, both on campus and at home.
The company I run is partnered with Adopt an Inmate, a nonprofit organization that seeks to transform the justice system and to connect individuals who are incarcerated with those beyond the prison walls in the spirit of support and friendship. I am an “adopter” with the organization, meaning I write letters and connect with women who are incarcerated.
This work is not work at all, but a lesson—many lessons over and over again—in humanity and compassion and our inextricable connection to each other. Moreover, it is why I am absolutely certain that Columbia must ban the box.
The Ban the Box campaign at Columbia is part of a national civil rights movement to eliminate questions about past convictions on school and job applications, a movement initiated by formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. For Columbia’s chapter of the campaign, the mission is for University administrators to choose prospective students for admission based on their qualifications, not on their past convictions. While opponents may suggest that banning the box on college and job applications is a threat to student safety, we must see the box for what it is: a cowardly disbelief in our ability as individuals to transform.
One of the friendships I’ve formed through Adopt an Inmate has been with Alicia, who, at 27 years old, could have been my classmate. Alicia, incarcerated in Texas, is also a mother of two. Her first opportunity for parole is around the corner, so she’s been working hastily to make sure she has a plan for her release: a halfway house with a strong and spiritual support system, a positive and safe environment for her kids, an education, and a job.
But as I continue to work with her to find post-incarceration opportunities and discover how many are closed to her, I fear that she will leave prison only to enter a world in which she is not fully free, either—a world that continues to label her and define her by her past, a past she has come face to face with, acknowledged, and risen from. “I put myself in this situation, so I can’t blame anyone,” she wrote to me. “Although this is not where I want to be, I’m using this time to better myself… I have made many mistakes, but I don’t allow that to define me. If anything, it’s made me a better person, the woman I am today.”
Indeed, Alicia is now a woman determined to be a full and present mother to her children and to lead with love. “I want to give back,” she tells me, saying she wants to serve her community with her children so they know the power of connecting to others in love and support.
What Alicia’s story and her strong desire to make something of her second chance have taught me is that we all deserve an opportunity for redemption. Healing is possible, and when we do heal, labels should not hold us back. Maintaining discriminatory policies against individuals who seek to re-enter our communities after a conviction is not only double jeopardy, but it also makes us complicit in allowing individuals with purpose and potential fall to through the cracks.
As an institution that emphasizes growth, wisdom, and experience, Columbia has the responsibility to make sure that a single question on its application never discourages anyone from applying and cultivating their talent in its classrooms and its communities; it has a responsibility to ensure that all who are accepted into its gates truly feel welcomed and included. And it has a responsibility to believe in and nurture every student’s greatness.
I stand with Columbia’s Ban the Box Initiative, because the truth is that holding back one holds back all. Divided, we fall; together, we rise.
Ashley Asti, BC ’12
The author graduated from Barnard College in 2012 with a B.A. in English. She is a writer, an advocate, and the founder of an eponymous organic skin care line rooted in sustainability and wellness.
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