In the summer of 2014, Jodi Anderson Jr. attended his first Cornell classes through the Cornell Prison Education Program as an inmate at Auburn prison, hoping to change his life inside the dark cell room.
Six years later, Anderson completed his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Government and master’s degree in Education at Stanford University, now returning to Cornell to inspire and motivate Cornellians.
Motivated to establish a pipeline of steady employment and opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, Anderson founded his own business, Rézme, to help and encourage justice-impacted individuals to transition back into society.
Anderson spoke to the Cornell community on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at Ives Hall. The event was sponsored by Cornell Prison Reform and Education Project, the Advocacy Project and the Spanish Debate and Argumentation Society.
Early in his life, Anderson was separated from his birth mother and forced to wander across the country homeless, finding beds at dusty shelters, until he reunited with his siblings in Brooklyn, New York. His foster brother introduced him to the underground economy and ways to make money, motivating him to work hard and escape poverty.
Growing up, Anderson had a prior belief that impoverished people would always lack access to educational resources and social capital, creating the idea of “poverty of the mind.” According to Anderson, this state of mind dissuades impoverished individuals from seeking education and become stuck in a downward cycle until they end up in prison, self-reinforcing their poverty.
In 2009, Anderson was arrested for car theft and imprisoned at a juvenile correctional facility. During his time in prison, Anderson realized he craved a better and more meaningful life and was eager to attend school again.
“The only way to make some change in life is to put them inside of a cage, no sunlight, food, water, books, and human interaction,” Anderson said. “Coming into a [new] space is terribly cool.”
After passing an entrance examination, Anderson started taking classes through Cornell Prison Education Program, where he found a community willing to support him.
“[My academic breakthrough] inspired the whole team,” Anderson said. “Some professors literally launched a campaign to the parole board and governor to get me out of prison. Three weeks after getting out of prison, I began to audit classes. I took Chinese courses, government courses and tons of ILR courses … That really gave me the confidence that it changed my own fate. I think life has changed drastically for me at that moment.”
Despite the warm support he received from most of the faculty, some of the Cornell community weren’t convinced of his new path, which inspired Anderson to seek a new environment to reach his full potential. With the help of Cornell professors, Anderson transferred to Stanford.
Coming into Stanford, Anderson was exposed to Palo Alto’s technological atmosphere, inspiring him to further learn the subject area.
“There are robots moving around and drones flying around. All these technologies really captured my mind,” Anderson said. “And then, instead of focusing on the deficiencies in the system that I have already encountered, I started shifting my attention to all the opportunities that were in front of me at the moment and how I’d like to stop those [deficiencies].”
Palo Alto’s technology inspired Anderson to launch Rézme, a technology company aiming to provide incarcerated people with employment opportunities and help build their professional development after prison.
“How can we make sure that they [incarcerated people] have access to diversion programs and mental health resources, to mentors to other community-based resources that can help them reintegrate back into society?” Anderson said. “You’d be surprised that there isn’t an app for that.”
According to Anderson, the application strives to introduce the candidates differently during the job recruiting process. It can show a candidate’s qualifications that fit the job and remove the influence an inmate’s lack of access to social resources may have on decision-making.
Anderson pointed out that model citizens who could access better educational opportunities are generally supplied with more resources, while the people who desperately need the resources fail to receive them.
“There’s a notion that if someone has the privilege, they are so far removed from the problem that they can’t contribute to it in a meaningful way,” Anderson said. “I think that is false, in short, it is valid to a certain degree that inspired me to utilize my own resources and the people that I knew who positively impacted the world.”
Anderson emphasized the importance of seeking education after being released from prison. He voiced that finding self-actualization from education is far more important than searching for immediate professional or financial opportunities.
Anderson also believes people need to be open to make substantial changes with their lives.
“But if you return to the same environment that was not conducive to productivity in the first place. … Transition into society and don’t be distracted by people who have nice things or cars in town,” Anderson said. “Keep being diligent, we’re working towards a long-term plan. In five years everything will change. In ten years, everything will change, but it’s not gonna happen immediately.”
Anderson stated that he hopes his future still contains getting inspiration from his peers while continuing expanding his goals and reforming the system.
“The more ambitious route actually will lead to a greater blessing,” Anderson said.