Stephen Jackson is no longer ubiquitous physically at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he once mentored vulnerable, at-risk students through his work as a community youth advocate with Oak Park Township. But his impact is still reverberating.
Last year, a group of community leaders, including past and present District 200 Board of Education members, created the Stephen Jackson Clemency Project. The project, which is being spearheaded by D200 board member and public defender Sara Dixon Spivy, is an attempt to get Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to pardon Jackson so that he can return to OPRF to continue his work with students.
A Facebook group for the project launched late last year has generated nearly 400 likes and the clemency campaign itself has attracted dozens of letters of support.
Jackson served a 12-year prison sentence for armed robbery before turning his life around to become a widely respected community figure — so respected that at a Jan. 28 meeting, the D200 board authorized the creation of a full-time motivational mentor position at the high school that is largely based on the template Jackson set.
Jackson worked at OPRF as a motivational mentor while he was employed full-time with the Oak Park Township. But when township officials terminated Jackson for an alleged conflict of interest connected to a consulting firm Jackson started last year — a move that generated lots of pushback from Jackson’s community supporters and mentees — the position was vacated, although the district still has a staff member who provides mentoring services.
The motivational mentoring program was funded through the township and designed to provide “safe, group mentoring during lunch periods weekly at District 200 for 60 plus students,” according to a 2015 summary of the program by John Williams, the township’s youth services director.
“I hope Stephen applies and I hope they hire him,” said former D200 board President John Phelan, who has played an important role in the clemency project. “I understand the predicament the school finds itself in and I don’t want to second-guess the current administration and the board, who I think are doing good things and are well-meaning. But if I were still in that position, I’d be urging my colleagues to take the risk. It’s not as if Stephen’s a new commodity. He’s proven himself to be valuable and trustworthy.
“His character is so impeccable and his outlook is so positive. He really desires to help kids who are where he was,” Phelan added. “It’s just so inspirational and I think that’s why that [motivational mentoring] position did so well.”
Spivy, however, downplayed the possibility of Jackson himself occupying the newly created mentoring position at the high school, since “pardons are not only rare but very slow.”
“As a public defender, I am an eternal optimist, but it is unlikely that Stephen can be hired to fill this position,” she said, adding that the position was “created because there is clearly a significant need for it and we want someone who is part of our staff to do it.”
Spivy said that if Jackson’s pardon isn’t successful this time, “We will try again. Often the struggle is as important as the outcome.”
Preston Jones, an attorney and Spivy’s partner, acknowledged that “clemency is rare and difficult,” but noted that “there is a sea change, we think, happening throughout our country.”
“The ‘Ban the Box’ movement has picked up steam not only with liberal democrats, but also with Republicans,” Jones said, referencing what has become an international campaign among civil rights advocates to pressure employers to remove from job applications the box that asks about applicants’ criminal records.
“I think the opinions on [the issue of incarceration] are changing all over the country — from the White House on down. Too many men have been incarcerated,” said Phelan.
Phelan said Jackson went through a clemency hearing in 2014, when former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn was in office. That attempt was denied, but Phelan noted that this year, Jackson “passed a milestone where he’s been out of prison for more than five years,” which could strengthen his case.
Jones said a 100-page clemency petition — which included “dozens of letters from high school students, former students, teachers, and community people showing their support for Stephen” — was sent to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board last month and a hearing is scheduled in mid-April in Chicago.
“I appreciate the support of my community in going above and beyond to see that I do not have to serve a life sentence of exclusion. To have the support of your community is humbling,” said Jackson, who did not address the new mentorship position.
While making the case for the new position, D200 officials referenced what they said were Jackson’s off-the-clock commitment to students and his ability to communicate with students who may not have found other staff and faculty members at the high school relatable.
“Mr. Jackson came in on his own time, as far as we know,” said D200 Superintendent Steven Isoye. “He was coming in at different times of the day to meet with students and touch base with them to see what their experience was like and how their day was going.”
“This person [would have] the ability to talk to students differently than we do,” said OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse. “At the same time, [they would] work collectively with the organization, and the counselors and social workers, to meet the needs of our students.”
Rouse said the position would come with a salary range of between $34,000 and $50,000 a year, based on the candidate’s experience. The successful candidate would hold a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university; have one to three years of related experience and/or training; or an equivalent combination of education and experience. He noted that the district is looking to hire someone later in the year.