Privileged Discontent

I couldn’t shake it. On the bus. In the street. At the apartment next door. Homelessness. Poverty. Drugs. Systemic marginalization. A blind eye turned. A gaze diverted. I was growing numb. Numb to the realities of a fallen world. My heart was hardening and I had to stop it.

I’d spent the past six years learning the ins and outs of some of our world’s most successful companies. From Honda to General Electric to Northrop Grumman to Boeing. I’d earned my engineering degree from The Ohio State University and soon found myself on the fast track to executive management at the world’s largest aerospace company. By many accounts, I was winning. Winning at this thing called life. Yet I couldn’t shake it. The growing discontentment. It was becoming far too easy for me to move through the routines of daily life in my safe bubble of self-absorption. Eat. Sleep. Work. Make money. Spend money. Be entertained. Do it again. Over and over.

Why me? Had I earned this life? Why are some people forced to suffer in the pits of generational poverty, while others coast scot-free on the backs of their forefathers? What was I doing to help? Do I have an obligation to help? Was I actually part of the problem? I needed to know.

These questions, and many more, plagued me. The more I learned about the complexities of poverty, the more distracted I became. I’d sit at my desk, staring at drawings of pressure bulkheads, and wonder how a man could possibly get to the point where he is content to dig his ‘meals’ out of a trash can. I’d wonder what led the young woman to work the street corner just to get by. That couldn’t possibly be her preferred choice…could it? I knew I had to do something, but I just wasn’t sure what.

I’d grown disgusted with my unmerited privilege — a White male raised in a middle-class family. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for those that worked tirelessly to put me in this position and for the freedoms that this life has gifted me, but I just wasn’t sure that I was leveraging those freedoms appropriately.

I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.

At Boeing, I was losing my passion for a career that I’d dreamed about for so many years. The lifestyle of Corporate America was weighing on me and I didn’t have the strength to fight it. I was no longer that young man who out-hustled everyone in the workplace. I was subtly becoming okay with average work. Believe me, that is NOT okay.

So, I moved. I made a switch. I took a risk.

From Boeing to Coffee Crafters Academy. From building airplanes in Seattle, WA to making coffee inside of prisons around Central Ohio. I quit my job and promising career to serve with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.

I needed to get as close to poverty as I could. Books and TED Talks were no longer enough. I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.

For me, prison has been my playground over the past year, and I’ve been astounded by what I’ve learned. Take a look at these facts:

  • We, as a country, incarcerate nearly 25% of the world’s total prison population (over 2.3mil people without being a markedly “safer” country)
  • Our average annual cost of incarcerating each prisoner is over $31k
  • Our average rate of a prisoner returning to state prison within 5yrs of being released is an astonishing 76.6%

Folks, our prison system is not working, and it’s about time that we try something different.

Prior to joining Coffee Crafters Academy, I knew nothing about our country’s prison system. Again, a prime example of my privilege. I didn’t need to know anything about it. It didn’t affect me, but that was no excuse for my ignorance. I confess, I still don’t know much about prison and why exactly things are the way they are, but I’m striving to learn more each day.

Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on.

The truth is that incarceration is trapping many families in endless cycles of poverty. Loss of income. Court fees. Poor communication. Isolation. Hopelessness. Fear. We are a people made for community, made for fellowship with other human beings. We become like those we surround ourselves with, so what do you think will happen when we group thousands of people struggling with drug addictions, mental illness, anger, and sexual perversion in the same cramped quarters? Those individuals are, inevitably, influenced. Influenced by ideas, attitudes and ways of life that are not conducive to a healthy existence. They learn to cope and survive in a world that is radically different from life outside their walls. Yet, we expect them to thrive once released? Really? Our strategy, in general, has been to make life so unbearably difficult and miserable for them that they couldn’t possibly want to go back to prison. I get it, I do. A bit of that makes sense, but that idea, on its own, is far from an adequate strategy or solution. The stories and data prove it.

Do I have all the answers? Absolutely not. But my eyes have certainly been opened to a problem. A problem that is so complex and multifaceted that is, at times, paralyzing. And that’s okay. Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on. I often find myself tempted to return to the lifestyle of Corporate America, and that, also, is okay. I just may do that someday. To be clear, that life is not inherently bad. Those in that space are part of the solution as well.

However, for right now, this is good for me. It’s changing me. It’s giving me new perspectives, influencing my motives and making me uncomfortable. It’s blurring the boundaries of my life in ways that are challenging me to consider the whole. I encourage you to lean in. Embrace the messiness and not yet of this life. Soften your heart. Take a risk. It’s okay to hurt a little. In order to change anything, you must first be willing to be changed yourself.

Friends, use your freedom to serve each other in love. Life is a gift, strive to live like it.

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Additional sources: The National Institute of Justice, The New York Times, Vera Institute of Justice, and the Prison Policy Initiative


by Nick Hirsch

Hirsch is the operations manager for Coffee Crafters Academy by way of the Corporation for National & Community Service’s AmeriCorps VISTA program, a partner of Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org.

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