I had the chance to sit down with community leader Donovan Harris to talk about his life, his work and his ministry. Because he was traveling to Yale University this week to speak about a film that was made about his life, I assumed this is how the conversation would begin. Instead, he spoke first about his children.
“To be a father, that’s my main thing. That’s above and beyond everything else. Two kids–my son, Donovan, he’s 12. My daughter, Devin, she’s 11. So my main focus is my children, but my main purpose is to bring help and hope to our community, and that embodies the simple reality of helping people.”
Harris spoke about being the Reentry Liaison for Summit County, a part of the team that hosts the Reentry Network at The Front Porch in South Akron on Tuesdays from 4 to 5 p.m., sponsored by South Street Ministries.
“I’m responsible for connecting people coming back from incarceration with the programs, organizations and opportunities they need to transition back to society.” A part of his work is going around to potential employers and asking them to hire returning citizens “to give our people a chance.”
For Harris, change comes through creating opportunities that extend beyond housing, employment and transportation, and into creating an empowering system for leaders. He sees the Reentry Support Network as a part of this network of empowerment.
But for Harris, his life work paints a broader picture than is so much more then connecting those coming out of incarceration to support. “I do prison inreach. I identified that real leadership in the community comes from those who have been incarcerated. People in the streets are more inclined to follow those who have been incarcerated more than they might follow the educated. So in that, I identify the strong leaders who are now incarcerated in prisons in Ohio, and then redirect them in the way that they can be strong leaders when they return to the community–because the community will follow them.”
In addition to the Reentry Network and prison inreach, Harris travels all across the country as a part of a documentary film tour based upon the life of him and his codefendants called “The Cooler Bandits.” The film is described as “a feature documentary about four friends in four stages of incarceration, struggling to reenter society and confront their future.”
Harris has been on over 60 speaking engagements for the film since its release in 2015—from Texas to Gary, Ind., from Columbia University to England. The next stop on the tour is in Yale University on Jan. 30 for a film showing and Q&A, a radio interview on Jan. 31, and a conversation they’ll be facilitating on mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, post-incarceration and the realities of incarceration on Feb. 1.
As we sit in The Front Porch Café, he receives a text from the director of the film. “Oh! There’s going to be a screening at St. John’s University in Manhattan on Feb. 15.” There is a thoughtful pause. “I might bring my kids up there for that one and go a day earlier on the 14th.”
He continues: “Do you remember how Akron felt the day after the Cavs won the championship? I could be in that gas station over here [he points] and I see an old white lady wearing a Cavs shirt at the gas station and we connect over that, even though we’re different. I wish when the Cavs won the championship, that we could have bottled that feeling up and sprinkle it over the city and feel that again.”
Harris sees the Akron Leadership Foundation [a leadership and economic development entity that focuses on grassroots leaders and grassroots initiatives] being the vehicle that brings people together to sprinkle that feeling over our city once again.
“I did so much harm in Akron, when I was involved in my criminal ways, and now as a grown man in his 40s, I have the opportunity to repair a lot of the damage me and my co-defendants did in our teens. And the way I do that is offering help, hope and opportunity to the community, and getting to highlight my city all across the country.”
Donovan may be reached at [email protected].