Time to LEAD: Leadership, Exploration & Discovery
ORANGE – The New Leadership of Exposing Injustice through Creativity
What’s happening here?
Since 1973 the occurrence of mass incarceration has grown. The “War on Drugs” declared by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s was an effort to prevent the illegal use of drugs in America by promoting drug abuse prevention and control. Many believe that a larger goal was to incarcerate those who were “criminals” because they were black or another minority. After the War on Drugs was declared, black men convicted of drug possession offenses began receiving longer and undue sentences, as compared with white men, for possession of equal or smaller amounts of illegal drugs. Minorities received prison sentences for crimes they did not commit, or for petty crimes which, had the offender been white, likely would have been punished with a “slap on the wrist.” One Greensboro, NC, man faced this type of injustice head on in 2012.
Sherrill Roland III had recently completed Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and was on his way to continue his education. Little did he know that those dreams would have to be put on hold. Roland received a phone call from a detective in Washington, DC, in August 2012, regarding a warrant for his arrest on felony counts. It was on that day that a different journey of continuing creativity began. After nine months an indictment was never issued, and his federal charges were dropped to misdemeanor charges. Roland hired a lawyer but was convicted and sentenced to 13 months in prison.
A leader emerges
Sometimes without setting it as a goal, a person grows into a leadership role in the process of standing up against things that are extremely unfair in this world. During his incarceration Roland says that he was “forced to relinquish control of his life” and was continuously questioning the hows and whys of his situation. He knew he had to keep strong during the days of his incarceration. He was found innocent after serving 10 months of his prison sentence. He later was exonerated of all charges. It was his innocence and incarceration that led him to start The Jumpsuit Project. “When I returned, I had to make my experience and the experience of others impacted by incarceration known,” Roland said. He knew it was important “for others to share their stories.” In prison, he had read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. This book, along with the stories of other inmates, inspired and gave insight to Roland about how the justice system operates.
The Jumpsuit Project is Roland’s “socially engaged art project,” through which is is spreading awareness to others, teaching others about his experiences and similar experiences of others, and giving people the facts and basic knowledge about mass incarceration. Additionally, it is about inmates gaining the courage to share their stories, and “create a network of support,” Roland explains. He wanted people to ask questions about the issue itself and about his own experience as an innocent man, who served prison time for most of a year. Of course, doing this project, there was a chance that people would assume the worst, but he couldn’t let that stop him. He had to overcome his fears to raise awareness, a true quality of a leader. Despite the challenges and stereotypes, a leader emerged.
A leader’s journey
Throughout this journey, Roland has displayed leadership in raising awareness. The UNCG community–Roland soon will complete a Master of Fine Arts degree–and the larger local community have shown a lot of respect and support for Roland. His project has taken him and his message across the state and to points around the country. He has encouraged others to be curious about what they do not understand, and to continue to question. “The more we share and communicate with each other, the more we can learn and possibly prevent certain experiences in the future,” he asserts. He also has a lot of support from followers who want to make a difference as he has done–college students and inmates alike. “I have received handwritten letters from inmates and other members of the Greensboro community expressing their support.” Without the support of those followers, facing challenges and sharing his story would be a difficult task. “That’s all I need to continue with this project—is the support of the community,” he says.
Through creativity Roland is providing a new view and spreading awareness about mass incarceration. Just by wearing the orange jumpsuit, he has shown others how making a difference and spreading awareness about a serious issue can be a creative and artistic process. Sherrill Roland’s leadership has made an impact. When asked how he felt he has made a difference, Roland states, “I take it one person at a time. I think my experience is relevant to anyone who has or is battling to overcome an obstacle in their lives. So at the very least I hope to provide support for whoever needs it.” He has raised awareness and stood up for what he believes in, and he will continue to. It is definitely a journey for him, but it is a journey that is making a difference for others. Through this, he is a true leader.
– Kara Harris and Catherine Baratta
Time to LEAD features the voices of Communication Studies students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Students offer diverse perspectives on what it means to be a leader and share reflections on their experiences.
Join us for this weekly series of posts on leadership, exploration and discovery in today’s society. Today’s post was submitted by Kara Harris and Catherine Baratta.