Community activist discusses life after imprisonment

Asheville Racial Justice Coalition Community Liaison Robert Thomas describes his life before, during and after imprisonment.

Cameron Woodyard
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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.