We Need More Lived Experience Leaders

CJ Burge, who heads up our SOS+ Team, has recently been appointed a new Trustee of the Longford Trust Board, alongside another former scholar. Here the First class degree graduate reflects on her journey from prison to boardroom, offering hope and advice to other upcoming leaders who have personal experience of prison. This blog piece was first published on The Longford Trust.

 
“I was bowled over when I got the call from the Longford Trust’s Chair to say that they would be delighted to have me as a Trustee on their Board. I was thinking “I’m the one who’s delighted, humbled, elated….!”

You see, even now, years on from my release from prison, I still suffer from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that I shouldn’t be where I am, doing the things I’m doing: sitting amongst these professionals; leading this partnership meeting; speaking on a podium to a national conference of experts; being asked for my perspective by senior government officials, and the list goes on….Impostor syndrome in this context is institutionalisation’s best friend, waiting to confront you as you leave the prison gates, hiding in your shadow as you stride forward into your new life. Although it has never quite gone away, I’ve learnt to live with it, and I’ve found that over the years, the more I’ve challenged myself to do new things, and be in new settings (that quite frankly have filled me with trepidation), the more I’ve conquered and silenced my unwelcome friend from prison.

If you’d have asked me 7 years ago, when I started my degree in prison, whether I’d be where I am today – Trustee of two remarkable charities, and a National Service Manager at another – I’d have smiled at you in incredulity and utter disbelief. Incarceration and the prison system are far from the vessels of hope and transformation they really should be in a progressive 21st century society like ours. Reflecting on what has got me here and how it has been possible, I’ve boiled it down to a combination of actions, mindsets and opportunities that have accelerated my path to being in leadership positions, just four years out of prison.

Actions – The one thing I knew for sure in prison was that I needed to re-educate myself. If I was going to go anywhere or do anything of significance, I needed to use the thousands of hours at my disposal to better myself as a human being, so that one day I could effectively give back to the community I would be re-entering. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship through the Longford Trust to study Law, and with that came an amazing mentor who encouraged, inspired and challenged me, in equal measures. At the end of my degree, the opportunity to do a placement at the Cabinet Office arose, again through the Trust, and this short immersion in all things government and policy lifted the lid on what I thought was possible. It enabled me to dream the dream, that people like us could one day be in positions like those, not just as some summer intern, or token achiever, but for the knowledge, skills and much-needed lived experiences that we bring of the criminal justice services and social systems that see people at their lowest, most vulnerable state, and in much need of help.

Mindsets – The number one mantra for me has been to embrace challenge positively. I’ve known all along my journey, from 9 months’ solitary confinement in a Japanese prison, to having my daughter taken away from me at birth, to speaking in front of hundreds at a Longford Lecture or even delivering the first TEDx talk in a prison in the UK, that this would be hard, well more than hard, potentially soul-destroying if I allowed it to be. Very early on I had to come to terms with my actions that had led me to where I was and the hurt that I had caused others. I made a decision that this wasn’t the end, that no matter what, I could turn it around and, though now through a more colourful path, still fulfil my life’s ambitions to help others. Notice I said embrace challenge positively? Well positivity and gratitude are the two other mindsets that have smoothed the rocky landscapes that I have traversed. Without these I would have probably been bailing out of every challenge that came my way, but it was the positive thinking and the gratitude that kept me both buoyant and grounded, at the same time.

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