Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on “20-somethings” in Milwaukee.
Jafar Banda calls it living a fast life. If his parents couldn’t give him money, he would make it himself by dealing marijuana, heroin and crack cocaine. He started selling at age 13 after seeing his dad use drugs. At 18, he was sentenced to a year in jail for selling heroin.
Banda, now 28, is a senior majoring in community engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He hopes to eventually enter the political arena, but these days his main goal is reforming the state’s criminal justice system.
In particular, Banda wants to promote second chances for people who have been jailed for nonviolent offenses, so they too can “reach the highest quality of life.”
Banda is president of a UWM student group, Community Uprise, which focuses on ending discrimination against nonviolent offenders. For him, it’s a civil rights movement, particularly in Wisconsin, where more black men are incarcerated than in any other state.
“I was involved in a drug offense where nobody was harmed, no guns were involved, nobody was shot,” he said, adding with a mix of repentance and exasperation, “I have to suffer for the rest of my life as if I killed somebody, when I was only selling drugs because I didn’t have a family to take care of me, and I was just trying to survive.”
After his arrest in 2007, Banda began to take education seriously while inside the Milwaukee House of Corrections, earning his GED thanks to an alternative youth program. Upon his release from jail, he decided to make a change in his life.
“I wanted to figure out how can I be successful without selling drugs,” he said.
Banda began taking classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and soon after enrolled at UWM. He was denied student housing, however, because of his criminal record. It felt like “being treated like an alien,” he said.
“A lot of felons can’t even rent a house, even if they have a higher-paying job than the average living wage. It’s almost like when you are a felon the odds are stacked against you.”
UWM professor Florence Johnson recalls Banda being homeless and said he “wasn’t wearing proper clothing” when she met him in her class, “The Milwaukee Community.”
Johnson took Banda to a Goodwill store and bought him clothing. She also became a mentor, helping him to write grants and bring Michelle Alexander — a noted civil rights lawyer and author of “The New Jim Crow” — to campus as a lecturer. Johnson also helped Banda meet with local and state officials such as Mayor Tom Barrett, state Sen. Chris Larson and Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde.
“He doesn’t have many people in his life,” Johnson said. “I play the role of mother, provider and adviser. He keeps me in the loop with everything he does.”
Mark Rice, a doctoral student at UWM and president of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), a community organization, said Banda is committed to ending discrimination against felons, calling him resilient and unwilling to let anything stop him.
“He has completely turned his life around,” Rice said. “He’s been through a drug conviction and is now committed to changing the system.”
Banda expects to graduate from UWM in December, after which he plans to continue making a difference for those suffering inequality in Milwaukee.
“I want to be able to prevent many black boys from facing the challenges I endured,” he said.
“I regret (selling drugs) every day,” he added. “I honestly just wanted to make a dramatic change for people living in poverty and for people who are felons. I don’t want to suffer the rest of my life for being a felon.”