After graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering from Georgia Tech, self proclaimed data geek Victoria Westbrook had a bright future and landed some great jobs and titles. An unexpected tragedy brought old wounds to the surface, and led her down a path that ended in her becoming a convicted felon. Now she’s passionate about changing some of the stereotypes and stories we hold about people who’ve had rough times, especially those who’ve become convicted felons and are trying to enter into a productive post-prison life. She’s a powerful voice for empowerment and inclusion, removing assumptions and barriers based on erroneous assumptions.
For more information about Victoria go to her linked in profile at: https://bit.ly/2QU3m71
For information on Code Tenderloin go to https://www.codetenderloin.org
To email Victoria: VictoriaWestbrook1@gmail.com
For more episodes go to https://schoolofconnection.com/podcasts
Rana Olk (Host): Hello everyone. Today’s guest has a story to tell that I hope will make you rethink some of the stereotypes that we hold about people we all do. So while I say that I want to remind you of a guest I had, it was Episode Two neuroscientist and coach Shaun T. Giovanni Taylor was here to explain how as human beings, our brains are designed to create patterns and group things together as much as possible so that we can make quicker decisions and understand the people and things in our world more easily. Our brains love to categorize finding out for example, once upon a time that one red berry is poisonous was likely to make us fear all red berries just in case it was a useful survival skill. Fast forward to today. And this tendency to take shortcuts for our brains to take shortcuts actually hurts us because it led to the biases and stereotypes that we’ve created about groups or types of people based on all kinds of characteristics or lifestyles, experiences or even their possessions. We know better now at least most of us do. We keep an open mind. But it doesn’t stop our brains from instinctively wanting to create those shortcuts anyways, to categorize things. So the solution is to train ourselves to continually be mindful of our brains’ tendency to categorize and to continually be mindful of the fact that people do come with all kinds of different stories and experiences. And many do not fit our expectations based on society. stereotypes. So Victoria Westbrook is one such person she’s smart, she’s educated. She is a top of the class civil engineering graduate of the famed Georgia Institute of Technology. She’s held great jobs and fancy titles she’s articulate she knows her stuff. Now, I’ll bet that this very second, you probably have some sort of mental impression of her. And it’s definitely, I would guess, not an impression that includes any possibility of her having been a long-term meth addict or a convicted felon. Here is her story. It’s a messy one. But what’s great is that her messy story is now her message and her mission. So here she is. Hi, Victoria. Thanks so much for being here.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I’m so happy to be here.
Rana Olk (Host): Great! So tell us a little bit about what you do and how you wound up there.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Sure. I’m the director of programs and operations for a nonprofit called code tenderloin. We do workforce development for people who have employment barriers, so that means we work with house homeless people, people who are returning home from jail or prisons people who have been out of the workforce for long periods of time, really anybody who’s underemployed or chronically underemployed, we help them get better jobs. And I got there because when I was released from federal prison, I was staying at a halfway house and halfway houses as a federal inmate, you’re still considered in custody. So you have to have good reasons to get out of the halfway house. So I had a job as a food runner and a host at a restaurant. And a friend of mine told me about code tenderloin and honestly, like, I didn’t think it was going to do anything for me. It was just a really good reason to get out of the halfway house. And so I took it and it actually did do a lot for me. It helped me with my 32nd elevator pitch. It helped me get my four-page resume down to one page. It helped me with my interview skills. It helped me to be more clear about some goals that I wasn’t clear about.
Rana Olk (Host): The audience, I can hear them going. Whoa. You just said prison. And how does someone who has a degree in engineering right from Georgia Tech? No less. How did you wind up in prison, to begin with?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah. So I might, you know like I have some childhood trauma. Like my mom died when I was 11. My dad was an alcoholic. I was molested for like over six years by an older family member. And even with that, I overcame that. I graduated from Georgia Tech and engineering like you said, on the Dean’s list and started my career but when I was 27, my twin died and in my mind, I went from like partying and dancing on the weekends with friends to using meth daily after about 14 years, I lost my current job I did another light contract job and then you know, my self-esteem and my confidence level was tanked and I wasn’t able to get another job. So I started selling drugs to support my family and my habit and apparently the federal government didn’t appreciate it. They came knocking on my door and I was indicted on federal drug charges.
Rana Olk (Host): So you said when you were 27 that your twin died before that, were you using drugs at all?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I smoked cigarettes I would drink occasionally every now and then maybe smoke weed but it wasn’t it was just like a fun thing it wasn’t really problematic I definitely didn’t use it every day but something happened to like my identity was rocked like I the pain that I felt around losing my sister was just too much.
Rana Olk (Host): So what happens where you say oh, I’m just going to use meth was it that you tried it once and it made you feel happy and it progressed from there or…
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah, like I had tried it like going out dancing all night in the city and stuff like that. And I found that like when I was on it, the pain I didn’t feel the pain right. I was able to…I was…I had the motivation to do whatever I needed to do. Because I was like, I didn’t realize at the time, but I was really depressed and I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to engage in life or work or friends or anything. But I found that when I was on meth that I could get up and go to work, and I could do things and I could act like everything was fine and people would stop asking me what was wrong and stop giving me that look that Oh, you poor baby look that would like I don’t want your pity. Like you don’t even understand like, Get away from me. I don’t want to talk about it kind of thing, right? And so and I’m sure it wasn’t overnight, right? It went. It was gradual, I’m sure but it didn’t really take that long to where I was using meth daily. It became the way that I had a motivation and had a will to keep going.
Rana Olk (Host): What is it Do you think that allowed you to deal with the childhood trauma for so long. It’s almost as if the dam broke with the death of your twin. Correct?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah.
Rana Olk (Host): What is it that did you have any counseling when you were growing up at all for the incest or abuse? It was just something that was swept under the rug. And you did what you had to do and…
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah, it wasn’t. Yeah. I it wasn’t talked about in my family. I didn’t receive counseling. I didn’t…I you know, I guess I just stuffed it, you know, and made everything fine. I was kind of, you know, I was like the good kid in my family. I was the first one to go to college, I made straight A’s so I wasn’t allowed to have problems you know what I’m saying? So, I just didn’t I was able I did I figured out how to do everything on my own. I wasn’t I didn’t get good practice asking for help. And that you know, and that was kind of like the, you know, like, especially like, okay, so I wasn’t in practice for asking for help and growing up with an alcoholic. You learn that what you’re feeling isn’t valid, you know,
Rana Olk (Host): So you had an alcoholic parent?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah, my dad was an alcoholic. And so like, I didn’t have an emotional, I didn’t have the vocabulary really, for a lot of emotions from internally like, so you could, I could see you and I can say, Oh, she’s sad, or she’s mad, or she’s disappointed. But I couldn’t go from feeling inside to knowing what that was. So it’s really interesting. When I got arrested. I was in a jail out here called Santa Rita and it’s a horrible jail. It’s the county jail and Alameda County and the magistrate gave me the option to go to rehab and honestly, I had no interest in becoming clean. But I would have done anything to get out of Santa Rita right. And so when I got the treatment, it was interesting. I walked in there thinking I was a boss, and everybody else was a notch, right? As if I didn’t smoke dope for breakfast. And then, you know, something shifted. I got to the point where in a first I was only getting indicted by the feds because somebody told on me, right? I wasn’t taking at the point of taking responsibility. But then I got to the point where I was like, maybe just maybe getting indicted by the feds is kind of means my life is kind of out of control, like, not everybody gets indicted by the feds. And I started to really look at what was going on and, and one of the things they wanted to they would the counselor would say, Well, how do you feel about that? And I would answer her I think and she was like Vicki, it’s the F-word not but you like we-we get it you know how to think you think well, what how do you feel about something and it’s funny because like I would get so mad when she would ask me that because and I know now that what I was feeling was like panic because I couldn’t tell you what I felt.
Rana Olk (Host): It takes practice. It’s something that we have to learn how to express and feel our feelings. And a lot of us, unfortunately, don’t don’t learn that as children.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): No and I seriously like I had three emotions good bad and yuck. And she would be like, those are not emotions. I’m like, well they’re all the ones I have. So take them are like I would get mad like these are what I have. And I mean I was I’m no dummy. Obviously, you know, I can tell you definitions of emotions, even the gradients the very you know the nuances of different emotions I could even see them in other people but I couldn’t see them in me I couldn’t associate certain feelings and know oh that’s guilt or that’s shame or that’s anger or annoyance I just I didn’t have that capacity yet. You know, and then I got to the point where I realized the doing drugs wasn’t going to wasn’t the best way to deal with what I was feeling or what I was trying to avoid. Or it wasn’t the best tool to use to keep going in life. But I really thought I was going to wake up every morning and be miserable because I would want to get high. Do you know I’m saying like I got I was pregnant at one point, and I stopped using drugs while I was pregnant. And if having that little reprieve taught me that I could kind of stop but it also taught me is like, I didn’t want to.
Rana Olk (Host): You weren’t happy.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I wasn’t happy. I mean, I was preoccupied with being pregnant. So that was enough of a distraction, but it’s like I could do life without drugs. But I didn’t want to do life without drugs. And so it wasn’t, you know, it probably wasn’t three or four months after I stopped breastfeeding that I went back to using I was just not using while I was pregnant because of the baby like you think I would have had enough sense to know that if it’s not good to do it while the baby’s growing and you may be just maybe it wouldn’t be a good thing to do while the baby was growing outside of you either.
Rana Olk (Host): Yeah. So what you’re saying is you quit doing drugs because you were in jail, and you really didn’t have any other choice. Did you think you were going to start again when you got out?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): No. I mean, they sent me to the rehab center, right? And luckily, I was there for six months. And it’s really interesting, you know, like, they call us mandated clients, right? Because quite often you get there like, I didn’t have any motivation to stay clean. But I had a lot of motivation to stay out of Santa Rita right. And it’s really funny because they tell you, you know, they would tell us like you don’t, you know, like people would complain or do something crazy and treatment and they’re like, well, you don’t have to stay here. There are no bars on the doors and windows, right. And I would think to myself, yeah, okay, maybe for those people, but I have to stay here like if I leave I have I don’t have a choice like that’s how I felt until one day one of the other people that were mandated by the courts to go to treatment left, just walked out the door and left. And I was like, Oh, okay. It actually is a choice that I’m staying here. There may be they’re not the best choices. They both of them suck right at the time. But it is a choice. I am choosing to stay here as opposed to leaving or going back to Santa Rita and that…
Rana Olk (Host): Leaving rehab mean like going back to jail and spending your days in jail?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah, yeah.
Rana Olk (Host): So it’s either spend your days in jail or spend your days and rehab.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Mm Hmm, yeah. So, you know, luckily, I had enough recovery under my belt when I got sons to go to prison, that I had made a very conscious decision to be a better woman on the other side. And I really believe in my heart of hearts that that decision that being that conscious of that decision is what saved my life in prison. So you know, when people get put in situations where they’re powerless. They tend to respond in one of two ways. They either rebel and I saw women who did that rebelling to the point of getting more time on their sentence or they succumb to the powerlessness like they become a victim and they become more bitter and withdrawn. And I definitely saw women who did that too. But making that conscious decision, gave me enough agency in that powerlessness situation that I was able to use my time constructively, right. I took every psychology class they offered, self-esteem, DVT, CBT, seeking, safety, trauma-informed everything transaction analysis, anything that they offered to like to work on yourself, I took. I also did another re like drug program inside that was super challenging. It was very CBT based cognitive behavioral therapy based, a lot of women didn’t graduate from that program, but if you did, you ended up getting a year off your sentence and at least six…
Rana Olk (Host): What was so hard about it? I mean, we hear cognitive therapy, and I’ve been to therapy and I know what it is what was so hard about this particular class?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): You had to be super accountable, and there were things that we weren’t allowed to do that other inmate were like, for instance, we would go to chow hall and they’d put the little sugars on your tray for your coffee in the morning. Well, normally, if people don’t use them, they take them back to the room and keep them for when they make their own coffee or something, right. We weren’t allowed to do that because it was considered stealing from the kitchen. You know, there were things that people did in prison that were kind of like under the covers, it really was kind of against the rules, but everybody did it, but we weren’t allowed to do it. If we got caught doing any of those kinds of things, we would get kicked out of the program. Like for instance, somebody worked. We all worked in prison at different parts of the prison to support it, so I worked in the kitchen so people would take stuff out of the kitchen all the time if I got caught without that would be stealing from the prison and I would have gotten kicked out people were who work in electrical their side hustle to make money or like to get extra commissary was you know, we had mp3 players with we could use with our earphone, like your phone’s right so they would break so they had a side hustle of fixing the earphones. If someone of us who was in that position got caught doing that we would get in trouble we weren’t a layup. Like when people women leave prison, you know, anything you have you give to the people behind you that don’t have things right. So like I had sweatshirts or things like that you would the thing is to leave it to other people. So those of us in the program if we got caught with something that we didn’t buy ourselves directly off of commentary or that wasn’t mailed directly to us from the outside we could get kicked out of the program. Because we were in possession of somebody else’s property, even though they gave it to us, they would give it to you. You weren’t allowed to do that. So those kinds of things, and the other thing that made it super hard is that we really had to work and face ourselves. And that’s not easy to do. Like, there’s a lot of things that you, you know, there’s a lot of things you do in your addiction that you’re not proud of. There’s a lot of things that you do in a life of crime that you’re not proud of. But one of the things that I learned for myself is that the opposite of shame isn’t pride, right? I’ll never be proud that I sold drugs in my community, to parents who had kids to younger people that were just starting their lifestyle, you know, in their early 20s, like, I’ll never be proud of that. But the opposite of shame is acceptance. And once you’re able to come to terms and accept the choices and the things that you’ve done, the choices you’ve made in the things you’ve done, you’re able to move past them and then they don’t have power over you anymore. And nobody else can put that shame back on you.
Rana Olk (Host): So how long were you using drugs before you started dealing them?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): You know, it’s funny, because when I first when I first started using drugs, like in my friends, you know, like, you go, you would go to a dealer, and by a quad like, that’s, that’s a quarter of a gram, right? And you could buy this quarter of a gram for $30. And how long does that last? For the typical user? It just, it depends. It depends on how they use it. You know, it’s all different, whether they’re snorting it, eating it, smoking it, or injecting it at that point, I was snorting it so that would last a good while, you know, probably like four or five days. Okay, of course, that didn’t…that wasn’t the case when I got arrested. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that I could that me and my seven my six friends could go by each by a quad for $30 and you know, totaling $180 or the didn’t take me long to figure out that I could go to that same drug dealer and by what we call a teenager, which is seven grams and get it for like $100. So I could buy that teenager and split among all of us would be able to party cheaper, right? And back then it never occurred to me that that’s I was dealing like, I didn’t like stupid like, I would carry a scale and baggies in my purse, you know, and my friends like, you know, you’re going to go to jail. And I’m like, for what they’re like for dealing drugs. I’m like, I’m not dealing drugs. I’m just, you know, buying in bulk so that we can all get cheaper. He’s like, Vicki, you’re dealing drugs. What do you think the dealer does? He does the same thing you do. You’re doing just on a much bigger scale. So that was like when I was 27. I didn’t get indicted, like it was 14 years after that, that I started selling drugs like selling drugs, right.
Rana Olk (Host): What was a difference?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I was using it to make money then.
Rana Olk (Host): Okay,
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): And I was buying much bigger bulk. The only…the thing that got me indicted by the feds was that because I was shipping it across state lines do you know I’m saying so like I knew dealers because I had been buying for a long time and I had always paid cash because I had really good jobs like I’m going to tell anybody like it’s much easier to be a dope fiend when you got a real job and it is when you don’t.
Rana Olk (Host): Okay so that is something that is interesting you were in you are the highly educated woman you had good jobs described to us how is it that somebody who is using math on a regular basis can actually be out there functioning and looking like a responsible adults and doing what they need to do?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I mean, it’s just how you do it and how you let it impact your life or not. It’s different like it’s different than I could do meth and most people who aren’t don’t know meth users, they wouldn’t know that you were high. They would just think you were super happy and super energetic and motivated. Right?
Rana Olk (Host): Did any of your family know you were using meth? Like your parents? Or you were married at one point or had a partner at one point?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): I mean, he did but I mean, he, he had been a dealer when we first met and then he stopped dealing and started his own business and then stupid me I started, but it’s it’s different. Like it’s you just some people can’t do it. Some people get high and they can’t function well, they can’t keep things together. But I already had so much structure in my life that I was able to figure because you know like I can’t like most of the people that I sell to were professional people.
Rana Olk (Host): Could it be that you started later in your life I mean, there’s…
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Actually that definitely impacts things Yeah, yeah, for sure. Because I mean that’s that goes for any drug right? The earlier that you start the different impact that it will have like for instance like, you know like your frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until you’re 25 or 26. So for sure doing any substance that’s a chemical that will impact brain function before you turn 26 can impact you in some ways. And so that if you use a lot of it in that time frame, then it’s of course, it’s going to impact you in a different way than somebody who started after that was already developed. And I mean, I had like I said I had partied a little bit but it wasn’t it wasn’t consistent. It wasn’t daily. It wasn’t to the extreme that it was impacting my responsibilities and you know, you learn little tricks so like I learned like nowadays we would call it to harm reduction, but I learned that if I got high before I got finished being dressed in the morning, chances are I would be late to work Luckily, I’ve had jobs where I didn’t have to be somewhere at a certain time, most days, right? Unless I had a meeting or something. So it didn’t really matter so much. I was on flex time. But what I learned was if I waited to get high in the morning until I was all done, and ready to go walk out the door, I could be on time or even early every day like certain things aren’t acceptable. You know, you have certain standards. Just because you start using drugs doesn’t mean that all of your standards go out the door. Of course, they do once you start your in that life, your standards decrease, right at one point, it wasn’t my standard to be around people that were committing crimes and selling drugs all the time. But by the end of my addiction, except for the people that I knew, like from my kids’ school or their baseball team or something like that everybody that I knew was either using or dealing drugs.
Rana Olk (Host): So give or take a few years. We don’t have to be exact here. How long were you using meth regularly?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Over 20 years.
Rana Olk (Host): And then you get caught for dealing. How long did you spend in prison?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Like two and a half years.
Rana Olk (Host): So now you’re convicted felon and you get out of prison than what?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah. So you know when you’re in prison the people that come back to prison that you know, got out and then come back either because they violated or they had new charges all they tell you is that there’s nothing out there for you that you’re not going to be able to get a good job you’re not going to be able to support your family people are going to judge you and think you’re untrustworthy and not reliable and sneaky and things like that. So when I was getting out, you know, like, it’s crazy, like I was the most the healthiest I had ever been, emotionally internally than I had ever been in my life. But at the same time, like it wasn’t like you start thinking like, it’s not going to matter because of the the stigma and then the fact that you won’t be able to support yourself like it nobody’s going to care about that. Nobody’s going to be able to see that. They don’t care. All they’re going to see is that I’m a felon, right? And so, honestly, like, there was a point close to when I was about to get out that honestly, like, if I could have seen my family, the feds could have kept me because I was scared to death. And I honestly didn’t have you know, like, I would have moments where I didn’t have a lot of hope for my future. But I didn’t, I didn’t have a choice. You know, like I had kids that I was coming back to, and, and one of my sons was going to college The next year like I had to figure out a way to get my life together. And so what I did was like I was planning on going back to school to become an alcohol and drug counselor because getting clean changed my life and gave me another chance, right? Like I don’t really recommend it as a way to get your life together but getting indicted by the feds was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I really don’t believe I would have gotten clean otherwise, right? I think …I feel like God had been throwing things in my path. And I kept going, you know, I lost my job. A lot of times people losing jobs is enough to get them clean. Nope. I figured out a way around it. I lost a house, my housing at one point, I figured out a way around it got another, you know, like I kept going around and over and up and down and continuing to do what I was doing. And then the feds came along and I couldn’t get around that, you know, believe me, I would have tried if I could have like, there was no getting around that. So when I was getting out, I was just going to do what I had to do, put one foot in front of the other and deal with things as they came and believe that I could, I couldn’t make it in some way that there was some place for me to be able to contribute, right? It was it was really important to me to give back to my community to help people in addiction or help people with reentry. reentry is my passion. I really am doing everything I can to help those that are coming after me.
Rana Olk (Host): When you say reentry just to clarify for those listening, I love that it’s called this. Can you explain what that means? Exactly? re-entry.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah. It’s the people that are re-entering our communities in our society, from jails and prison. So some people call them felons. Some people call them justice involved. The re-entry community, convicts, combine a lot of things…
Rana Olk (Host): Who has been in prison who want to come out and actually make a difference and contribute to the community
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah
Rana Olk (Host): Now is that everyone?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): No, honestly, no. Some people get out, they’re not done you know, they don’t feel that they you know, some people getting out still like don’t feel that they have a choice that they’re not going to be able to make changes. So there they aren’t trying to change things because honestly, some of them don’t believe that they can or they just feel like they’re…It’s easier for them not to make those changes.
Rana Olk (Host): I have a question then. If I am a recruiter or I am someone in hiring in any capacity, and I’m seeing somebody who has actually taken the initiative and applied for a job who has a felony on the record, that person is likely motivated and wants to change their life, correct?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yes. Honestly, if…
Rana Olk (Host): Aren’t motivated, that we’re not even seeing. But yet, I’m judging the people who are applying as felons or excluding the people who would actually make very good employees based on the stereotype of the people who wouldn’t even be applying for the position.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Right. It’s estimated that 650,000 people are released from prison in jails each year. 650,000
Rana Olk (Host): That’s crazy.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): It’s estimated that one in three adults in this country are justice involved like so chances are a few aren’t justice evolve somebody you know is and you may not even know who that person is, you know in California background checks for most jobs go back seven years so it’s crazy. So at some point I’m going to become more employable not because I’ve increased my skill set or had more specific work experience or went to some self help class or went to college it’s because at some point you’re not going to be able to see my conviction how arbitrary is that it could have been three years it could have been 10 years whom I mean it’s just randomly they selected seven years you know people a lot of people that are in the reentry community don’t know about things like in California we have ban the box and San Francisco we have the fair chance ordinance that’s a little bit basically ban the box but a little bit stronger.
Rana Olk (Host): Ban the box is?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): That you can’t ask me about my background until you offer me a job and then once you offer me a conditional job employment then you can ask me about my background and run my background check. But then you’re not supposed to not let me keep my job offer if it’s not related to the job. So I was convicted on drug charges, chances are, I can’t get a job at a pharmacy and they would be in the right to deny me employment because I was my head nonviolent drug charges. The vast majority of people in prison across this country are there for nonviolent drug offenses. So if it’s not related, if my conviction isn’t related to my job than it shouldn’t, you shouldn’t be able to withdraw that offer. But the problem is that most people getting out of jails and prisons even in California or San Francisco, they don’t know that they have rights. And employers aren’t even aware of these things.
Rana Olk (Host): Would you have known if you hadn’t become involved with code tenderloin. Would I be correct in saying that?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): That’s true. I’m very active in the trying to get more systemic changes. I was appointed to the San Francisco reentry council by the Board of Supervisors. I’ve been very active on the subcommittee’s the direct services and legislation policy and practice subcommittees that feed into the reentry council over the last year and a half. So I’m very involved and I do know these things and I’ll tell any person getting jail prison or talk to employers about to having those kinds of hard discussions. But honestly, it’s like you said if you if people aren’t really trying to change their lives, you’re not going to see them. They’re going to go take some very low barrier entry job like a food service or a waiter or something like that where they don’t run background checks just to get their peel off their back. They’re not going to change take the chance of being rejected. And believe me, when people with records get the opportunity to have a good job at an organization. They know that it’s an opportunity and they’re extremely grateful for people who give them that opportunity. They’re super motivated to succeed and work hard that tends to make them great employees.
Rana Olk (Host): So Victoria, this is what’s so great if you are actually somebody with an engineering background and going to prison and getting out and getting clean. This is what you are devoted to. Now, this has nothing to do with making money with paying the bills with anything like that. This is a mission for you. So if your mission was accomplished, let’s just say it in a perfect world, what would the world look like?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): So drug use and abuse wouldn’t be criminalized, it would be a public health issue and a medical issue as it really is black and brown people would not be disproportionately arrested and convicted and have longer sentences, people who are in prison now you know, like in 1970, then the war on drugs started we have like 300,000 people in prison. 350 thousand people in prison at that time we have well over 2 million people in prison now, make no mistake the war on drugs wasn’t a war on drugs. It was a war on black and brown people. Some of us white folk tried it got caught up in the mix, too. But these people, many people have gone to prison for a long time because of nonviolent drug offenses.
Rana Olk (Host): So if you were a black male, yes. A woman, do you believe your sentence would have been longer?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yes, I do. And the statistics prove it. Yes. And then what they then they also around the states, they started doing mandatory sentencing for different offenses taking the power from judges to actually hear a case and use their judicial discretion on what kind of sentencing somebody’s got right. Like in my sentence. My charge actually had a 10-year mandatory minimum but because I hadn’t I didn’t have a record for the past 10 years. And I was forthcoming with information about my involvement in all of the things that I had done. The judge granted me, they call it an in the feds, they call it a safety valve. So that meant that I, he was able to sentence me under that mandatory minimum, otherwise, I would have been imprisoned for 10 years period.
Rana Olk (Host): So none of this was on your radar even close before you went to prison, correct?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Um, no, I mean, I live in Oakland, which is a…
Rana Olk (Host): Very diverse city
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): It’s very diverse, yeah. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where I was the only white person on the block. Like, I know, I saw what happened. I mean, we knew like if you were black or brown, what happens to you? We already know that right? It was no it was no mystery, but it wasn’t until I got out or I got in and I started doing research and I started learning about different things that I realized to what extent that how far up it went from the Supreme Court different decisions that limited constitutional rights for people that the sentencing guidelines that the way they classified drugs in our in our society the fact that that marijuana is still a controlled one substance which is ridiculous there are so many different things that we’re working against so…
Rana Olk (Host): It wouldn’t be half as bad and that’s kind of a different topic but it wouldn’t be half as bad if it wasn’t big pharma and doctors now being the biggest drug pushers out there, I hope I get a lot of heat for saying that.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): No no no there I mean it’s true. There’s the opioid epidemic. Most of them they’re not heroin addicts or they didn’t start off being heroin addicts. They started off on painkillers that doctors prescribed right and then you know, it goes like they can’t there’s a big underground market for prescription opiates. So and I just saw an article this morning that the FDA just approved another opiate that is 10 times stronger than fentanyl. Like, really? Do we really need this? We really need another drug that’s going to be called…
Rana Olk (Host): Very discouraging, actually.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): It’s, it’s also in my perfect world, people would be able to get jobs based on who they are today and their skill set and what they can actually contribute to an organization. You know, focusing on the worst decision that I had made in my life in my past as an indicator of who I am today, and what I can actually contribute to an organization is inherently flawed. It just is, you know, if everybody had to be judged by their worst mistake when they went into a job interview. Nobody would get a job. Yeah, but it doesn’t look like that.
Rana Olk (Host): You encounter people every day or at least most days of the week I’m sure who are trying to change their lives after having made possibly the worst decision of their lives, correct, right. What does a typical day look like for you at code tenderloin?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Wow, that’s hard. So I, you know, we’re a small organization. So we were a lot of hands. So in a given day, I might help somebody with a resume or help them figure out short and long-term goals, help them apply for a job or, or like tell them about job openings. I might write a grant or figure out our budget and how much money we have going into the next pay cycle. I do community engagement with other community-based organizations because there’s a lot of good organizations in our city that are doing that have a lot of different services and resources that we don’t have. So we partner with other organizations to try to leverage their services and resources to best help our people.
Rana Olk (Host): So you were a lot of hats. It sounds like basically what you’re saying is you whatever it takes.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah. I mean, we’re a startup, essentially. So, anybody that’s been in any kind of startup company, it’s the same thing. Whether you’re for profit or not for not for profit. It’s the same kind of thing. You do whatever has to happen to keep things going. I’m no different.
Rana Olk (Host): Then this is it. this. This is what you’re doing. This is your mission I learned. So, unfortunately, I know that we’re running low on time, and I would love love to hear more. But do you have any last words or something you would want the audience to know before I asked you my last two very important questions?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Sure. I would like people to just be aware that the labels that we use to describe or identify other people like homeless, felon, addict. The purpose that they serve, is to distance ourselves from those people, and there’s a lot of reasons I think that we do that because, you know, we don’t want to believe that we could be those people if we haven’t been those people already, but I would just challenge people to remember that there are people, they’re not addicts. They’re people who have misused and abused substances. They’re not felons there. people with criminal backgrounds, they’re not homeless. They’re people who are facing housing insecurity. They’re people first.
Rana Olk (Host): And everybody has a story. Victoria, where can people find out more about codetenderloin and you if they want to reach out to you or help.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): So code tenderloin’s website is www.codetenderloin.org. That’s c-o-d-t-e-n-d-e-r-l-o-i-n.org they can reach out to me on LinkedIn or my direct email address which is VictoriaWestbrook(“No E”)1@gmail. com.
Rana Olk (Host): Victoria West broke as in B-R-O-O-K @
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): No. B-R-O-O-K the number one @gmail.com
Rana Olk (Host): Okay the number email@example.com and we will put that in the show link. So now I’m going to ask you my last question Victoria somebody out there is listening what is one action that they can take to either improve their lives or remember this episode and what they learned here?
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Yeah So one thing that I think is good for anybody to remember is that communication is vital. That’s how we make connections with other people. One we all have the same needs and we all have the same emotions which basically give us feedback on whether or not those needs are met. We might look different, we might be different ages and different cultures and different backgrounds. We all have the same needs and the same emotions. We understand that and we understand that many times people’s reaction to us has less to do with us and more to do with them and the needs that they may or may not be getting met. Right? It makes it easier for us not to take things so personally, that kind of understanding about needs and emotions will sometimes let us be more compassionate with ourselves.
Rana Olk (Host): In case you are following this podcast regularly. I spoke with Shelly winner a couple of weeks ago. That is how Victoria and I met. So if some of those sounds a little familiar, like codetenderloin.org, that is why this is a very important topic. It’s why I wanted to have Victoria on as well and this is an issue in a cause that I know I will be revisiting again. So Victoria, thank you very, very much for being here.
Victoria Westbrook (Guest): Thanks for having me.
Rana Olk (Host): All right everybody, see you next time, take care. And don’t forget if you have any comments or questions about any of the episodes that you hear you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, Take care!