Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Jason Bryant of CROP Is Helping To Change Our World

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After our first opportunity to deliver a personal leadership seminar to a group of college students while incarcerated, I experienced a freedom that I never had before. It was the freedom of being a contribution to other people’s lives. I wish someone told me (or rather I had listened to them) about the value of giving. There is freedom in being in service to others.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Bryant.

Jason holds a BA from Adams State University with an MA in Philosophy from California State University and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. He has 20 years of lived experience within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Jason dedicated his term of incarceration to higher education and serving other people through thoughtful conversations and coaching about new possibilities for people’s lives and is now the Director of Programs at Creating Restorative Opportunities and Programs (CROP) Organization.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After making a series of poor choices that resulted in great harm to my community when I was 20 years old, I was sentenced to life in prison for taking part in a crime that resulted in a shooting death. From the moment I was arrested I understood that the choices I made had a serious impact on the people I loved the most. This realization prompted me to not spend my time incarcerated revisiting this pain upon my family, and I therefore began pursuing my higher education.

After 10 years of incarceration, fate put me in the same yard as one of my co-defendants, who had made a significant transformation in his own life and established the non-profit CROP Organization with support from his father. It was at this time in my life that I identified the distinction of going fast alone and going far together. Up until that point, I was focusing largely upon my own growth and development but doing very little to contribute to the community around me. Once I began working with my co-defendant and other committed leaders, however, I began to appreciate the value of working together in service of a purpose that was bigger than myself.

For the next ten years, I contributed to our team’s development of workforce development training, personal leadership programs, and scholarship establishment. As a culmination of this work, the Governor of California ordered my immediate release from prison and I have been serving as the Director of Programs for the CROP Organization ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

From the airing of a season premiere on CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling” that heavily featured my story of incarceration to President Obama’s New Year post about the scholarship program that highlighted work I contributed to, there have been numerous interesting stories that I could share over the tenure of my employment with CROP Organization. Most interesting, however, is the fact that our team of 5 formerly incarcerated leaders developed a holistic reentry model for formerly incarcerated people that inspired the State of California to partner with our organization for three years to the tune of 28.5 million dollars. A partnership of this nature has never happened in California and it represents a historic acknowledgment of the value of proximate leadership in creating innovative solutions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made when running our six-month virtual pilot was inviting an organization to speak about workforce opportunities to our program participants that was counterintuitive to our organization’s value proposition. Long story, short, this organization was offering job opportunities in low-income gig economy jobs and charging placement fees to employers. CROP’s stance is that people coming out of incarceration have more to offer the workforce than the proverbial sweat off of their back. What I learned from this mistake was to take responsibility for the people and organizations I invite into our programmatic space. When creating something new and innovative, don’t expose your participants to an old way of doing things that yields poor results for their future.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

CROP stands for Creating Restorative Opportunities and Programs. From the earliest days of our work inside of prison, our leadership team has worked tirelessly to equip people with the mindset and resources needed to create unprecedented futures. Our efforts have directly served over 1,500 people from the incarcerated population to college students, high school students, school administrators, community leaders, and people coming home from incarceration. One of the more notable contributions we accomplished inside was the raising of 32k from the incarcerated population (who made on average 11 cents per hour) in support of a young man’s education. CROP’s guiding philosophy is to contribute to the establishment of a culture of giving. We believe in the principle of going an inch wide and a mile deep into the lives of our participants in order to provide the support they need to thrive. This investment in people is the undergirding in creating significant social impact.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My co-defendant and the founder of the CROP Organization has served as a catalyst for much of the work we do today. While he would humbly confess that he doesn’t always have the best ideas, it has been true that he can recognize them when shared. Ted’s leadership and personal sacrifices combined with each of our team members’ respective talents has contributed significantly to us being able to perform this important work.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think this question is best answered by a short story about the purpose of incarceration through the lens of other countries’ approaches. In several African countries, for example, their native tongue does not have the word “prisoner.” This is because people who commit crimes are viewed as brothers and sisters who, while having made poor choices, must be educated and returned home where they belong. In Germany there is a considerable amount of spending on rehabilitative programs. The justification for this spending is that when German citizens commit a crime, the German society takes a portion of responsibility for creating a context that made that crime seem like a good choice. Therefore, the German prison system is established with the purpose of reeducating and reintegrating its citizens as quickly as possible.

In the United States, however, the penal system has been steeped in an overarching purpose to punish people who commit crimes. This has resulted in the tragic situation of mass incarceration, high recidivism rates, and “second class citizenship” status for people returning home from prison. To address the root problem, we at CROP are working to solve, community members and politicians can do three things:

  1. Create and vote in policy that supports comprehensive rehabilitative programming for the currently incarcerated population.
  2. Establish incentives for employers to engage in Fair Chance hiring policies that provide people returning home from prison with an opportunity to join the workforce with family-sustaining careers.
  3. Begin to generate a new conversation about society’s shared responsibility in equipping marginalized communities to thrive and redefine the purpose of prison in America from punishment to people-centered approaches.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

In the context of community, leadership is influence. A person cannot lead unless there are people who are willing to be influenced by their direction and choose to follow. This ability to motivate others externally, however, is contingent upon the more subtle discipline of personal leadership. Personal leadership is an act of the will wherein a person makes the internal decision to look in the mirror (at their contributions to the outcomes created in their life) instead of looking out the window (casting blame on other people or circumstances for the choices they made). When a person exercises the discipline of living with integrity, accounting for their choices, and owning their contributions to outcomes, there is a natural attraction from others to follow.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

After our first opportunity to deliver a personal leadership seminar to a group of college students while incarcerated, I experienced a freedom that I never had before. It was the freedom of being a contribution to other people’s lives. I wish someone told me (or rather I had listened to them) about the value of giving. There is freedom in being in service to others.

When my father died in 2002, I became emotionally unavailable for nearly 10 years. It wasn’t until I engaged in advanced leadership training that I explored the value of mourning and “touching my pain” to become an emotionally integrated human being. I wish someone had told me about the value of vulnerability. There is growth and maturity in embracing our emotions.

During a training seminar, I attempted to provide an answer to a question that I did not take the time to understand. This resulted in me realizing that I was not a good listener and, in some ways, a poor friend (as it was a friend of mine who posed the question to our group). I wish someone would have told me about the importance of being present and not allowing my internal dialogue to distract me from what is truly important . . . namely, the people and relationships in my life.

When I came home and was exposed to the work of reentry, I was shocked how many CBO’s related to each other in a way that was akin to the self-help politics that transpired inside of prison. Instead of collaborating in the fight against mass incarceration or the removal of barriers for formerly incarcerated people, there was jockeying for positions and competition for funding dollars. I wish someone told me how the prisoner’s mentality of scarcity is not restricted to people inside of prison.

After completing our first virtual cohort for CROP’s Ready 4 Life program, there was an overwhelming expression of gratitude from our participants who had never been cared for or been provided with the resources offered through our work. I wish someone told me how deeply scarred our social consciousness is to allow systems to persist, which results in people feeling unloved and unwanted.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am blessed to be a part of a movement that is doing just that. By making an investment in people instead of punishment, the good that will result is bound to impact all of society. When a person coming home from incarceration is met by a community of support and opportunity, they are provided not only with the belief that they matter but the tools to thrive. The act of receiving this opportunity often inspires the recipient to live as a contribution themselves. From the way they show up to work, time spent with their family, or ways in which they engage their community, people who have been invested in are inclined to pay it forward by making an investment in others as well. One of the more notable expressions of this movement that are highlighted in CROP’s Ready 4 Life program is the provision that allows graduates who earn over 60k to contribute to a scholarship program, which supports youth in obtaining a first-rate education and helps to disrupt the school to prison pipeline. This virtuous cycle of the community investing in formerly incarcerated people and those people paying it forward to the youth is a movement I’m proud to be part of . . . a movement that will create incalculable good in this world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A wise man plants the seed of a tree which he knows that he will not enjoy the shade.” This is a paraphrase of a quote I heard long ago that speaks to the value of doing good work for the sake of leaving something good behind. One of my most profound realizations came with the understanding that my life is not about me . . . it’s about the value I can help to create for others.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

One of the people I most admire is President Barack Obama. Politics and perspectives aside, I view him as a man of incredible character who epitomizes poise under pressure, steadiness in his service of a cause that is bigger than himself, and what it means to be a good husband and father.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My LinkedIn profile can be found here More about my story and work can be found at the website or on the podcast The Prison Post.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Jason Bryant of CROP Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.