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Take Note: Divine Lipscomb On Improving Support For Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

Divine Lipscomb talked with WPSU about how his own experience turned him into an advocate for better supporting those reentering society.
Courtesy of Annemarie Mountz
Divine Lipscomb talked with WPSU about how his own experience turned him into an advocate for better supporting those reentering society.

Divine Lipscomb is a formerly incarcerated student studying rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. He also works as a special projects coordinator for the Restorative Justice Initiative in the College of Education, where he creates dialogue around the intersection of race, institutional barriers and trauma associated with incarceration. He’s the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Adult Student Award and Stand Up Award from the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.

He talked with WPSU about how his own experience turned him into an advocate for better supporting those reentering society and why he thinks educational equity should be front and center when it comes to reentry.


Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I’m Min Xian.

Divine Lipscomb is a formerly incarcerated student studying rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. He also works as a special projects coordinator for the Restorative Justice Initiative in the College of Education, where he creates dialogue around the intersection of race, institutional barriers and trauma associated with incarceration. He’s the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Adult Student Award and Stand Up Award from the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.

Divine Lipscomb, welcome to Take Note.

Divine Lipscomb: Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: You have talked about how being a formerly incarcerated student is an important part of your identity. Can you start by talking about the circumstances of your incarceration and how it has changed you?

Divine Lipscomb: So I experienced incarceration at two points in my life. Once at the age of 14 and then again at the age of 16. And I was also institutionalized in a rehabilitation program at the age of 15.

It impacted me because, one, at such a young age -- and such an important part of my developmental stages were spent locked away in cages for making decisions that technically my brain was not developed enough to even comprehend the consequences for. And so most of my developmental years were spent under the tutelage or under the supervision of the state, which has direct impacts, such as trauma, high levels of anxiety, trust issues. There's a slew of barriers, especially as I'm learning through my courses that are a direct result of incarceration.

Min Xian: And you came to Penn State in 2018 to study rehabilitation and human services as an undergraduate student. And you told me it wasn't easy. And you made several attempts to enroll, actually. What were the barriers in that? 

Divine Lipscomb: So the barriers in enrollment were because of my crime. And not just the crime I had committed. So my first time applying to Penn State, I was accepted. But I didn't meet certain criterias, like math criterias. And so I was not accepted into the School of Business, which I have an associate's degree in business. And so because Penn State doesn't take anyone else's business credit and I didn't meet a math criteria, I wasn't accepted. But I was accepted into the College of Liberal Arts. So at that time, I wasn't aware that Penn State likes to do things within two weeks of enrollment to school, which is also their busiest time and I was unable to get people on the phone to direct me and how to enroll in the College of Liberal arts. The second time I tried to enroll -- there wasn’t a financial component during the first time I was accepted -- so I was accepted again, but then they were like, here, you need to pay this $250 before we accept you. I had children at that point. I had employment but it wasn't gainful employment. And it didn't allow me to have $250 in savings or to have any form of disposable income. And so I couldn't enroll. The third time I anticipated that I was going to have this barrier of $250, which actually, it was a little more. And, um, I knew what college I needed to enroll in. And so I -- because I've experienced those other two instances, I was better prepared the final time I got accepted and enrolled into Penn State. 

Min Xian: Were you discouraged?

Divine Lipscomb: Um, yes, no. One of the things that I've found about my form of resiliency is that if I want to actually succeed at something, tell me no, I can't do it. And it pushes me to want it even more. 

But I also know the importance of education, and what education has done for me in my life. And so every time Penn State told me no, or said yes, but put a barrier in my way? I’ll take -- I think the first time I enrolled, I didn't try or attempt to re-enroll again for about a year. The second time, it took me about two years to apply again. So I do have gaps in between me coming back to the application process. But no, it never completely discouraged me from trying to come back. 

Min Xian: And when you first arrived on campus, finally in 2018, you said that you felt somewhat at lost and you were without support. Can you talk about the experience then? What made you feel that way?

Divine Lipscomb: So one, I'm an adult student. I'm an adult learner and through my travels in life, I understand that people need support systems. Even children -- not children -- young adults, when they enter college, they seek out their peers or people who have a certain affinity to them. That's human nature, like we look for people that we can relate to. And when I was, when I arrived on campus, I looked for people I can relate to: older individuals, some who were formerly incarcerated, or at least had one of my salient identities outside of being African American, and being male, right? But I needed someone who was pursuing the same path that I was, who had similar experiences to me, which is hard to find. I mean, I still haven't found it in 2020, someone who was formerly incarcerated, who understands the struggles of being in a classroom with 18-, 19-year-olds whose main objective is to party or to be --what do they call it -- to pledge. Those aren't my aspirations, right? I'm looking for individuals who are in the master's program that are like, Okay, how do we actually change the world as opposed to talking about changing the world, you know?

Without those kinds of supports, I started to feel alone. I start to feel like, “Am I going to survive this campus life?”

Min Xian: Do you feel like you're still as lonely as you were when you first got here?

Divine Lipscomb: No, I'm not lonely at all. I found a great support system and the College -- we changed the name -- I think it's the Office of Education and Equity; in the College of Ed, it was Office of Multicultural programs. Still getting used to the name, so bosses, please forgive me if I just butchered it. But yes, so I found -- I was asked to do a panel for Efraín Marimón who’s the director for the Restorative Justice Initiative. And after that, I was still in the College of Liberal Arts. And he invited me to come over to the office of education and social equity. And I went over and I met Dean Schmidt. And I met Brenda Martinez, all office. And then I met a few undergrads who were in office, Deja, Jovan, like some key elements and individuals for that particular space. And immediately, I felt welcome and I felt like I was at home. Because we were all like minded in our goals, in our mission, which is to provide educational pathways for individuals with minority backgrounds or underrepresented communities. My passion happens to be formerly incarcerated individuals, but it -- they all lead down the same walkway. 

Min Xian: And you're now a special projects coordinator for the Restorative Justice Initiative on campus. So can you talk more in detail about the work that you do for the initiative? And why are you passionate about it?

Divine Lipscomb: Yes, the joke still is that everything's a special project. Right? And so I've pretty much involved in almost any component of the organization. My role, particularly, is to be a support to all of the many efforts that are housed under the RJI umbrella, which consists of educational programming in our correctional facilities, direct outreach on our campus, our student Restorative Justice Initiative. I am the incoming president for that. And also, more importantly, I think, is to bring that voice, that representation to the organization. One thing that is key in anything that we do in this world, which I don't think some people have figured this out yet, is representation is important, right? If people cannot identify what you're doing, or they don't feel represented, your organization is almost like a dictatorship. It doesn’t represent the people. And RJI is about restorative justice. It's about having those pathways for people to navigate back into society, or to at least comfortably find spaces that they can exist. And so that's my role, at least I believe that's my role. That's how I operate. 

Min Xian: Did you feel like you have seen that kind of representation that you were talking about as you were growing up in your process of learning, in your process of growth? Or was that lacking for you?

Divine Lipscomb: I wasn't there when I was growing up. But I had different goals growing up also. By the time I was 10, I remember I want to be a police officer, or something kind of --

Min Xian: You did?

Divine Lipscomb: I did. Yeah, I wanted to be a cop. And then I wanted to go from being an officer to be an FBI agent. And then I wanted to join the CIA. Those are my goals at 5, 6, 7, 8. And Brooklyn -- I was born and raised in Brooklyn -- by the time I was ten, starting junior high school, I actually met the police. I was stopped and frisked every day. I was harassed by the police every day. I was treated less there. And so my image of the police was no longer John McClane, Die Hard. It was no longer Riggs, Lethal Weapon. It wasn't all of these fantastic cops bringing justice to the world. It was, “I didn't do anything wrong. Why are you bothering me?” Right? So when I met the police, my images of the police changed; my reality of police changed. 

But then I met the gangsters as well, right. And they lived up to what was romanticized on television. They had the money, they had the cars, they had the respect -- all things that people yearn for growing up in impoverished neighborhoods. And when you're shown something, that's what you tend to want. And so I want to be a gangster. And there was room for me to be a gangster. So that that was the representation I saw. And so that's the path I followed.

Min Xian: What changed along the way?

Divine Lipscomb: As far as?

Min Xian: You have now a new set of goals. You have a new set of ambitions. I think, you know, the things that you're looking to do is different. You're talking about restorative justice. What changed along the way? How did you figure out now what's the most important thing for you?

Divine Lipscomb: So the first time I sat inside a locked room, I knew that I needed or wanted to change some things. When I was introduced to rehab at 15, and the idea of what addiction was, I was also exposed to my ability to listen and to counsel. Right? So I was told since the age of 15, that I'd supposed to be a counselor. And I rejected that notion. I don't want to counsel people, I don't even like people. To this day, I still believe I don't like people. But if you ask my wife, she's going to disagree with you.

But my goals have ultimately always been the same. So in my traumas, when there was abuse taking place in my household, I was the caregiver, right? So I'm still essentially a caregiver. That's just my role in life. That's who I am. Without knowing what that is though, I couldn't embrace it. And when I wasn't embracing it, I was causing harm. Right. And so when I moved away from addiction -- so I'm on a path to long term recovery -- and so when I put my drug of choice down, and I started to deal with my traumas, it became a little easier for me to identify who I am as a person, and what my role is supposed to be in this world. And that's to create pathways. That's to be empathetic, err; that is to help empower individuals, that is to create healing spaces for trauma. Because I am a caregiver. That's who I am. And that's how I've always been. I think we all know who we are. It's just a matter of do we have access to blossom into that full potential?

Min Xian: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Divine Lipscomb, a formerly incarcerated student studying rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. He also works as a special projects coordinator for the Restorative Justice Initiative in the College of Education, and is an advocate for better supporting those reentering society after incarceration.

Sounds like it took a really long time for you to go down this personal path. And I'm sure everyone's path is very different. But what do you think that the general public doesn't understand about you, about re-entry, about those who have similar struggles like yourself?

Divine Lipscomb: Oh, that's simple. What the general public does not understand is we all want the same thing. Right? We all aspire to the same things.

Min Xian: And what are those?

Divine Lipscomb: To live comfortably. To be happy -- if you ask anybody what they want, they're going to say to be happy -- and to be financially stable, right. We want to have money to take care of our family and to enjoy ourselves and live and have some type of ownership right? Most people don't say I want to go rent a condo, they say I want to own a condo, right? So we all seek to own something to have something that is ours.

Most people in the general public have access to that power, right. But then we start -- to touch that, we need to touch on systemic problems, systemic issues, like generational wealth, right. Generational wealth next to generational trauma. We talk about access to education, opposed to policing in schools, right. My children go to SCASD, right? Their library in their high school is bigger than half of my junior high school. They have access to education, they have access to teachers who care -- not saying my teachers didn’t care but my teachers didn't have the resources. Those pathways, which is what RJI focuses on, those pathways to that educational platform are different. And if you don't give people access you leave them no other outcomes, right? When you take those things away from people, you leave them marginalized, you leave them impoverished. And I can't get a better job if I don't have a job right? Or if I don't create a business. So we talk about economic issues. All people strive for the same things. It's just who has access to it and who doesn't. 

Min Xian: You see education as a crucial pathway for upward mobility and for successful meaningful re-entry. Why is that and how has your own experience shaped that belief?

Divine Lipscomb: If you don't teach someone how to fish, they will never learn how to feed themselves. They will always ask you for a handout. Education is that pathway for me. One thing a[n] old timer told me, when I was 17 years old at a state correctional facility, was one thing they can never take from you, Divine, is your education. Take this book, read. I've been reading ever since. I've been pursuing education ever since. As I keep my mind thriving, there's always going -- I can find an opportunity somewhere. I can learn how to do this, and if I master it, it might generate some income. And that opens doors.

But that kind of formal education -- So for me, it's formal education. I love formal education. I love being in a space. I love intellectual debates. And I don’t have to agree with people all the time. I don't need to agree with you all the time. Because if you agree with me, and I agree with you, what do we actually learn? We just found out that we share similar interests. Healthy debate allows room for creativity.

And so in those formal spaces, because there's discourse and then because it can be healthy discourse, it allows room for growth. 

Min Xian: The advocacy work that you do for supporting re-entry and for greater educational equity are interconnected. And from what you're saying, you know, your education can’t be taken away from you. That sounds like it really stemmed from a need for self sufficiency. And I know that you have said that it's very important to you. Tell me more about what self-sufficiency means to you.

Divine Lipscomb: Self-sufficiency means that I do not have to rely on a system in order for me to thrive. Self-sufficiency means financial freedom, it means the freedom to think and to be. And so I strive, even though I work for RJI, even though I created this nonprofit, and my wife and I have been working on a business, although these things are great, my ultimate goal, for me, self-sufficiency is the freedom to help people, right? Without limitations, without bounds. I don't want to give you a handout. I just want to be that pathway for you to do that yourself. Right, and to be that guiding voice. 

It's more like healing, right? This work is healing for me. There's a selfish component to why I also do this work, right? Because, again, like I said, I'm a caregiver. To watch someone thrive, right? Coming out of that pit of darkness. And they're like, ‘Oh, wait, I actually can do this.’ Yeah, you can do it, right? Someone told me the other day like, dude, I remember you were running a gang, right, back in Brooklyn. And now I see you and I'm going back to school, right? Because I'm watching you in this. I’m just like, you know what? That's dope. But I don't feel like I'm a role model. Like, I don't feel like that. I'm just -- I'm charting a path because I feel like when someone knocks on my door and say, How do I get on the path to leave this gang? How do I get on the path to recovery? How do I get on the path -- like how did you do it? Like, I need to be ready so I feel like I'm preparing myself for that door to open, for someone to knock on that door to be like, hey, Divine, I need your help. Okay, what do you need? Or, how can I be of assistance? This is a service right? And there's no greater place to find happiness but within service. If you are of service to others, the problems take care of themselves. 

Min Xian: And earlier this summer, our local community joined thousands of others across the country to protest racial injustice and police brutality. And you joined efforts with the 3/20 Coalition in State College in demanding changes to be made within the police department. What brought you out there to push for those changes?

Divine Lipscomb: I had a desire to no longer be silenced. I've sat back year after year after year and watched this state-sanctioned violence against African American people. And it's like, well, eventually, like, we'll get there and I stayed within my tunnel vision. I have a goal. I need to get there. That's what I'm going to do. And when I get there, I'll figure out how to help. And watching Ahmaud (Arbery) get murdered and then turning right around and watching George Floyd get murdered and the justification behind that, it jarred me. Because like you said, I was given these awards this year, right? And I was rewarded for my work. But the narrative and their justification was, these people are criminals. But wait, I actually have a criminal record, right? Just like these men and women that you can pick out any new story. And we criminalize them although they were the victims of state-sanctioned violence, right. And so I can no longer be silent. Wait, if you can kill them on camera and not seek justice, who's to say that if I get pulled over, despite all of the good that the community feels that I'm doing, that you can't kill me also and get away with it?

When you look at restorative justice, the meaning of restorative justice, it's typically the offender, the victim and the community, and you bring them into the setting and you try to figure out how to create a healing space for everyone. What typically does not happen though, is we don't look at the person who committed the offense as also being harmed. Right? There's some form of trauma. There’s something that has happened to this individual way before they started harming others. And we don't remedy that. And so how are we restoring anything, if only one person, well, two parts of that component, the victim and the community, are getting any type of retribution, and we're not healing the offender? So is it restorative justice? That's what we do at RJI. We look at everybody that has been harmed. How do we mitigate that? How do we fix all of this? And this way, we can live together.

Min Xian: And you have also shared with me that you plan on going to law school after finishing your undergraduate study at Penn State and maybe run for office one day. What's driving those ambitions? 

Divine Lipscomb: All three of my degrees will actually be in the three components of my program. Entrepreneurship, I have an associate's degree in business; counseling, rehabilitation and human services -- that's a heavy emphasis in counseling; and then legal. That’s why I’m heading to law school. So that's what's pushing those efforts. And that's mainly because I'm tired of -- I got tired of asking people to help me. And the responses were usually very condescending and patronizing. “That's a great idea, Divine, keep going.” Pat me on my shoulder and tell me to go about my business. And I couldn't do that anymore, so I'm back in school. And I'm going to succeed at doing this and office -- running for office will help me help people like me. You can't have a society without crime. that's unrealistic. But how we handle individuals who can make crimes can change. And what we do with that time while people are incarcerated can also change. And it's up to us to make sure that it does. If people in office don't see that, our society won't get any better.

Min Xian: Divine Lipscomb, thank you for joining us on Take Note.

Divine Lipscomb: Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: Divine Lipscomb is a formerly incarcerated student studying rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. He also works as a special projects coordinator for the Restorative Justice Initiative in the College of Education. He’s the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Adult Student Award at Penn State and the Stand Up Award from the Rock Ethics Institute.

You can listen to more Take Note interviews on I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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