Robert Thomas Jr. was an assiduous student, a kid who prided himself in hard work and defied the odds of his environment. But once he entered high school, his life took a turn. He needed to make money to support himself and his family. Thomas, now 33, felt the only way he could do so was by selling drugs.
He was soon in prison under drug trafficking charges after taking up this lifestyle. He spent 11 years incarcerated total. The first sentence was five years long. He was released at the same time the Great Recession was happening. He tried to get a job but could not find employment because of the recession and his criminal record. Because he could not find a job, he was again forced to sell drugs to make ends meet.
“I felt angry at society because it almost felt like society was forcing me to sell drugs,” Thomas said. “I have experienced all of the disparities of the justice system and their biases, all the way from being arrested, to conviction and incarceration.”
Thomas faced many racial injustices as a part of a mass incarceration system and structural racism. He felt like he was set up to fail from the day he was born.
Nearly a year after he was released, he was charged with drug trafficking again and sentenced to serve six years. This time, he went through a mental paradigm shift while in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was an existential test for Thomas. He could either succumb to his thoughts of despair or be triumphant and get his life back.
He started studying Kemetic meditation and learning the breathing cycles of Kemetic yoga. It was an outer body experience that allowed him to extensively learn about his mind and soul. It was also an opportunity to reflect on his life.
“It was about me, not about my physical body but about the individual that controls this vessel,” Thomas said. “It showed me that I needed to work, remold and reshape in order to achieve what it is that I wanted out of life no matter what was against me.”
When Thomas was first imprisoned, he was angry at the world. Before he was imprisoned, he had no choice but to sell drugs and commit crime to survive. His anger for white people grew. It was a bitter feeling to see white people having comfortable
lifestyles, far removed from the lower class, while seemingly punishing him for the life he was forced into. Thomas sat in his anger, with no outlet to express his dark thoughts, or so he thought. He began reading numerous self-help books, gradually withdrew his anger from white people and developed a different, more spiritual understanding of reality. One that connects everything, living and nonliving.
“Everything is made up of the same thing,” Thomas said. “Take this wooden table for example. The material from this wooden table is no different from the skin on my arm. It is made up of atoms, which is made up of electrons, neutrons and protons. And
everything in essence is energy. It has been scientifically proven that atoms communicate with each other.”
Thomas’ new perspective on life is that everything exists as part of a collective consciousness. Everything is one, experiencing reality in different modes and mediums. His life was forever changed after this realization. This was his epiphany.
After Thomas served his six years in prison, he found it incredibly difficult to find housing anywhere that had a property management system. He had the paperwork to show that he was making a living wage, legally, yet he was still denied because of his previous trafficking charges. If it were not for his wife, Yashika Smith, he could havem been homeless.
Thomas met Smith while attending Asheville High School, but their relationship was no more than an acquaintanceship at the time. They did not talk much, but they knew of one another. They reconnected about three years ago after finding out about their mutual spiritual beliefs and ideologies. Smith has her own equity consulting firm and works for the city of Asheville in the Equity and Inclusion Office as the Inclusive Engagement and Leadership Manager.
Thomas’ story is not unique. One of the reasons Asheville decided to approve reparations for Black residents is because there are systemic obstacles that burden the Black community, especially in the justice system. Asheville has attributed to systemic oppression among Black Americans. Thomas wants to use his position of power to eradicate these obstacles so people do not have to experience the same misfortunes he did.
Thomas was convicted before North Carolina’s Post-Release Supervision program, an independent agency responsible for releasing offenders who meet eligibility requirements established in North Carolina general statutes. After serving his sentence, he was not required to be on probation or parole, his rights were instantaneously restored. In order to become a city council member, the candidate must be able to vote and they must live in the city of Asheville. Thomas met these requirements. He was fiercely determined to become a city council member in his quest to bridge the gap between political decisions and community input.
Thomas and his wife knew that in order for him to become a city council member, his lived experiences alone were not enough. They both knew of Thomas’ industrious attitude and willingness to get things done by any means necessary.
But he needed the resume to prove it. It seemed like fate when his wife found a job opening in Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition. The RJC is an organization that hopes to become a national model for best practices and improved community-police relations.
They appreciated Thomas’ lived experiences and shared his concern regarding racism in law enforcement and reparations resolutions. They decided to hire him as the community liaison in Oct. 2019.
“A large part of what I do now is focused around equity in all systems,” Thomas said. “We identify institution al, systemic and structural racism and then make changes by creating structures that oppose the ones that exist or advocating for policy change.”
Thomas said the community needs more of a voice when it comes to policy change. Too many times the city has granted policies or promises that end up being empty gestures. He does not want to be glorified for starting as a drug dealer and eventually becoming the community liaison for RJC. His ultimate mission is to humbly bridge the gap between community and politics as much as possible. He is doing this as a selfless act, a necessary duty, so people do not have to face racial injustice the same way he did. His background and firsthand experience give him the passion needed to create such change.
“My lived experience is probably my biggest tool that I use in this work,” Thomas said. “I am directly impacted by the injustices that I am fighting, whether it’s economic, housing or the criminal justice system. My goal is not to work for the community, but to work with the community.”
“The things Rob is trying to change are not abstract to him,” said David Greenson, community organizer and Thomas’ colleague. “It informs how he organizes because he has felt that oppression and has to deal with racism on a daily basis.”
Smith said the community liaison position is perfect for Thomas because he is modest and his true lived experience gives him credibility.
“At the very core of Rob he is passionate about community and he wants to make sure that figures are not in positions to speak for the community, but that there is space for communities to speak for themselves,” Smith said. “He is passionate about elevating community voices. He is not a big fan of the middleman of — anything. So, in his work he always carries himself with a lot of humility and is always cheerful to say, ‘I don’t want to be the middleman of the community, I just want to make space at the table and uphold the voices of the community.’”
Thomas continues to make a name for himself by taking steps to fulfill his mission. His next goal is to become a city council member. He entered his name to be a candidate and made his way to the final selection where the newest addition to city council is chosen on Sept. 8. Current council members, the vice mayor and the mayor interviewed the finalist. They decided who will be seated on the same day the interviews were conducted. Only six people out of 30 made it to the final selection. What distinguishes Thomas from the rest is that he is the only one with a prior felony.
Thomas said he is running for city council to play his role in assisting the community on a larger scale than he would be if he were just the community liaison of RJC. He represents the underserved and stigmatized individuals within the community. He also wants to become a city council member to set a precedent for others that have a similar background as himself and to show that no matter how many obstacles you have been through, you can still make a change in the community and achieve greatness.
Thomas understands he is probably the most viable candidate as far as having the most authentic experience with systemic racism. He cited his firsthand experience along with the acquired knowledge of being a town hall member would make him a powerful asset. He wants to understand what goes through a city council member’s mind when impactful decisions have to be made because these decisions have a ripple effect that trickle down to the entire city. The decisions made in the past by the city council have affected the lives of Thomas and others like him.
Thomas also made it clear the issues he wants to address do not just pertain to the Black community, a lot of the issues relate to class discrimination. He is the only candidate that can connect the community and politics because he vowed to attend the same meetings he does now and keep the same engagement with the community as he does now when he earns a seat in town hall.
But Thomas was not chosen to become a city council member. He had a great run, but the current city felt that another candidate would be a better fit.
His background and his efforts that got him to where he is today were not in vain. He still has the voice and the influence to help create a more inclusive Asheville. He will continue to serve his community and work with them, not for them. The precedent he hoped to set by becoming a city council member has not yet been fulfilled. Yet his story, as it stands, is inspiration enough.