Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of articles about the people and places of 53206.
Sean Wilson’s family had a dream for him, but it was a “dream deferred” he said, quoting the famous Langston Hughes poem. After being incarcerated for 17 years, Wilson recently was hired as ACLU of Wisconsin’s Smart Justice statewide organizer, an advocate for criminal justice reform. Wilson’s family predicted that he was going to do great things, and Wilson is finally on his way to fulfilling that prediction.
“I’m proud that I’m able to make that promise, their vision, come to fruition,” he said.
With his family’s faith in him at the forefront of his mind, Wilson, 35, said he worked hard to better himself while in prison.
“Even while I was in prison, I was planning and preparing as if I was already out,” Wilson said.
As a self-proclaimed autodidact — a self-taught person, Wilson finished his high school education. While attending a Bible study class, he met his mentor and best friend, Rudy Bankston, who introduced him to a side of African-American history he was not taught in public school. In large part due to Bankston, Wilson said he read voraciously about black civil rights and power. Invigorated by his studies, Wilson said he realized his calling as an activist.
“You have to first come into the knowledge of yourself,” he said. “And when you come into the knowledge of yourself, you come into the knowledge of your responsibilities to your family, your community, your state, your country and your world as a whole.”
Wilson also reflected on his childhood in 53206. He said he did not realize it at the time, but he experienced trauma while growing up and witnessing drug dealing, gun violence and prostitution. Wilson said peer pressure played a large part in his decision-making when he was convicted of armed robbery at 17 years old. He had scholarships to go to college, but Wilson said he “squandered those opportunities.”
“As a young person, you emulate what you see. You’re very impressionable,” Wilson said. “I’m glad that my poor decisions did not cause me the rest of my life.”
Now Wilson is using the rest of his life to make sure young men like him do not end up behind bars.
“I use my story, in hopes that they will be able to pull from it and allow it to be a deterrent as opposed to them having that experience for themselves,” he said.
Once Wilson was released in January 2017, he began volunteering with Urban Underground and Youth Justice Milwaukee to spread his message. Learning the power of mentorship from Bankston, Wilson said he wanted to continue the pattern of “paying it forward.”
Bankston said Wilson has the unique ability to do so.
“He’s relatable because he grew up in circumstances that a lot of people in the so-called hood are going through now,” Bankston said. “As painful as that was, he has that experience.”
Jarrett English, ACLU of Wisconsin youth organizer, said that Wilson also has the unique experience and knowledge needed to create change in the criminal justice system.
“The people closest to the issue are the best equipped to undo it. … that makes common sense,” English said.
“Even though he doesn’t have those degrees, he has that lived experience that is absolutely precious,” Bankston added. “He carries the experience of so many other brothers within him. He carries my story.”
Wilson was selected for the position out of 84 other applicants. English said he was chosen because he has connections to the decarceration community and thoroughly knows the prison system.
“Being able to meet people where they are while not seeming judgmental or condescending are very important characteristics in a good organizer, and I think Sean has all of that in spades,” English said.
As an organizer for ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign, Wilson’s long-term goal is to reduce the prison population by 50 percent by ending crimeless revocations and expanding the Earned Release Program (ERP). Crimeless revocations re-incarcerate those on extended supervision, parole or probation for minor rule violations. ERP provides inmates with drug treatment and the possibility for early release. Wilson has been working with organizations such as Just Leadership and Youth Justice Milwaukee to create a coalition to address these issues.
Wilson said his own encounters with wardens and prison guards motivate him to expose the system of mass incarceration that disadvantages black and brown people. He said he believes the criminal justice system should actually help those who go through it and prepare them to re-enter society.
Wilson said he hopes more institutions and companies can be as welcoming as the ACLU was for him.
“If society looked at us not as felons, but as humans, and gave us a second chance, (this country) would be in a better condition,” he said.
English said he admires Wilson because he did not let a system define him. Instead, Wilson stayed true to his family’s confidence in him and he now living their dream and his own.
Wilson’s family continues to inspire him, though one person in particular drives him to be the person he is today, he said. His greatest supporter was his grandmother, but she passed away just two weeks before he came home. Wilson said he knows she would be proud.
“I want to continue to make her smile,” he said.