DeKALB – Earnell Brown wants to help people understand their value and has created an organization in DeKalb that he said will do that by restoring dignity, offering resources and building community.
Brown is the executive director and founder of Sir Donald Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization based in DeKalb that recently opened its doors at 223 S. Fourth St., across from the former DeKalb Municipal Building.
“There’s nothing like Sir Donald Foundation in the county,” Brown said. “There’s drug court and programs, but they’re not focused on the entirety of the needs, changing of the nature and behavior. They don’t offer that heart-to-heart, human experience of knowing what you’re going through.”
In bold, capital letters emblazoned at the top of the foundation’s website is a message: “Based on your decisions from today forward you never have to see the inside of a prison or jail again.”
According to the nonprofit’s website, the organization “exists to create, support and provide opportunities for criminal justice involved individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.” The foundation is named after Brown’s uncle, who he described as having “went to prison in 1992, came home and never went back.”
“A lot of times people are changing and becoming something new,” Brown said. “I grew up in a very rough neighborhood among gangbangers, drug dealers, and I adapted. And now that I no longer have to adapt, I went to Florida and got in the ocean, something I never thought I’d do. I never thought I’d see 13. This is most of our story. Now that we’re trying to live, let us live.”
Sir Donald Foundation supports the efforts of individuals involved with the criminal justice system by offering guidance, training and mentoring. Foundation staff build community-law enforcement partnerships and provide and support pre-incarceration and re-entry programming through criminal justice reform initiatives.
Brown said he believes the difference between Sir Donald Foundation and other programs is its inclusivity. Brown himself was incarcerated and has been active and involved in the community since his release from prison.
“A lot of people who know me now won’t believe who I was, but those who know who I was then can hardly believe who I am now,” he said. “That’s the 180-degree change that’s necessary.”
The foundation partners with other local organizations.
Danita Sims, founder of Passion Pursuit Inc., said that a support system, like the one created at Sir Donald Foundation, is “needed to help people stand on their own two feet.”
“They’re ready to work and prove something,” she said. “They’re ready for a chance to get it right. They want to provide for their family, their children. They want to be a part of society.”
Patricia Jones, who is involved with a Christian recovery home, said that the work Sir Donald Foundation is doing “is not just about a job, welfare and a paycheck.”
“It’s about helping people who get lost along the way,” she said. “All of us here care. We have resources for the community.”
Sir Donald Foundation works closely with the Fully Free Campaign, a statewide initiative that has the goal of ending permanent punishments in Illinois for people who have records. According to the campaign’s website, there are 1,189 permanent punishment laws and regulations in Illinois, mostly denying people housing, education and employment.
Access to resources for those looking to rebuild their life after time in the criminal justice system isn’t provided easily, according to the Fully Free Campaign, a roadblock worsened by economic and racial disparities.
Brown said even words used in legislation to describe people can create prejudiced stigmas.
“Don’t use the word ‘convict,’ ‘ex-felon,’ or even ‘formerly incarcerated’ because it denotes a former connection to prison,” Brown said. “Don’t use words that would make people afraid of us or that’s not inclusive. ... You’re saying that I’m an offender, not a community member.”
Stigmatized language such as ‘offender’ creates barriers, he said, instead advocating for language that denotes a community feel, such as community member, neighbor, friend.
“We know that they’re people, they’re human, they’re just like every other person,” Brown said. “We’re people, we exist, we matter, we care, we love, we hurt, all of those things, the same as everyone else around us. But yet, with that [language] stigma, they’re someone to blame. They’re somebody to look down on.”
Brown described Sir Donald Foundation as “an advocate, a home, where you know you belong ... and where you can become engaged to belong in broader society.”
Brown said that by working with other organizations, Sir Donald Foundation is building bridges in the community and offering second chances.
“The problem is, we’re building people with criminal history bridges to nowhere,” Brown said. “When you are building this bridge, we need it to lead to somewhere. We pay taxes. We work jobs. We live here. And for those that leave here and come back here, they need a place to live.”
Brown said he’s asking the community “to support us, give us a chance” and be actively engaged. He said he welcomes visitors to the DeKalb office to learn more.
Sir Donald Foundation’s community-based offices in DeKalb are open to clients by appointment only. For information about the foundation, go to sirdonaldfoundation.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 815-995-9103.
“Get engaged and involved in what we’re doing,” Brown said. “If you have a skill, find out how you can help. We need your support and help to do this. It’s not something we can do alone. We’re telling you we’re here, what we’re trying to do, and we’re asking you for your help to do it.”