ASPEN, Colo. – On the drive in from the airport, she made a wrong turn. Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin was lost among Aspen’s huge houses, awed by them, then stopping the car and gawking. She was trying to move quickly, because how would the locals like a lady from Brooklyn snapping pictures of their palaces? Plus, she was waiting on a phone call.
The first thing you wrestle with when you arrive for a poverty conference in Aspen is that you’re at a poverty conference in Aspen. It is jarring, the multimillion-dollar lodges yielding to tennis courts and manicured lawns yielding to intense discussion of social-work strategy in buildings named for billionaire donors.
It is even more jarring when you stroll the conference grounds at the Aspen Meadows Resort clutching your Samsung Galaxy, waiting for the call from a Pennsylvania prison. Waiting to know whether your 25-year-old son is about to walk free for the first time in 11 years.
The Aspen Institute is famous for its Davos-in-the-Rockies summer conference, where corporate sponsors rub elbows with Thought Leaders who dispense genteel advice on how to save the world. The attendees at the four-day Aspen ThinkXChange conference, sponsored by a branch of the institute called Ascend, are more grounded. They’re also more focused: The whole conference revolves around a specific “two-generation” approach to fighting poverty that combines education and workforce training for adults with educational assistance for their children. (I moderated a panel at the conference; the Institute, which is nonprofit, funds attendees’ travel, including Johnson-Peterkin’s and mine.)
That two-generation approach – skills to help adults earn more money, schooling (especially pre-school) to help kids position themselves for good jobs when they grow up – has experienced some success in small doses across the country. The goal is to break what’s called the generational cycle of poverty, where lack of education contributes to adults being poor, and growing up poor hinders children in their pursuit of education.
Conference attendees spent a lot of their time this week talking about how to take that approach national. Johnson-Peterkin was thinking about generational cycles in her own life: she worried that her son was going to be stuck in the trap she had once fallen into.
“Look at how God works,” she said Tuesday, under sunlight and trees turning from green to yellow, “to put me at a second-generation conference, in Aspen, at this time.”
It has been 24 years since Johnson-Peterkin left prison herself. She was a young woman in a rough part of New York City who was busted for selling $10 of crack cocaine. She did 21 months for it. When she went to prison she was pregnant. Her son Demitris was born there. She had to hand him to the officer, let them take her baby away, while she finished her time.
When she got out, she got herself together. She became a social worker, earned a master’s degree, eventually became director of operations for re-entry services for the Women’s Prison Association, which helps former inmates forge better lives.
She told her son about her past. She warned him not to follow suit. But when he was 15, he joined a gang, and she kicked him out of the house.
He’d never been arrested — never even been to Pennsylvania — until one day, he accepted a gun from a man whose name he doesn’t recall, and he and a friend robbed a jewelry store. He was sentenced to as many as 20 years. He has served 11 of them. He is waiting to hear if he will be paroled. When he hears, he will call. He’s not allowed to leave a message. She will have to catch him, or wait for his next window.
Johnson-Peterkin flew into Aspen on Monday and rented a car with a friend. (The man at the counter insisted they take a BMW, no extra charge.) She woke Tuesday, looked out upon the trees and the lawn, and was overcome with gratitude. She was still struggling with the contradictions of the place. But she was beginning to see what organizers had told the group was the point of coming to one of America’s most notoriously posh mountain towns: to let the beauty and the luxury of the surroundings stimulate new thinking.
“It’s a privilege to be here,” she said between conference sessions Tuesday, to be surrounded by “powerhouse people” like herself. It was something she could take back to the correctional facility in New York, to tell the women she serves: “I went to Aspen. And there were people there, thinking about our future. What do you think of that?”
She was thinking of her son, and what might befall him, if he wins his release. He’d earned a GED and 35 college credits in prison. He hoped to manage a business. She was thinking of him, but also past him. She teared up. “What can we do to catch Demetris’s children?” she asked.
She pulled out her phone and called up his picture. A boy, now a man, 6-foot-4 in orange prison scrubs, with a thin beard, strong shoulders, soft eyes. She showed him off, proudly, then put the phone away.
It did not ring Tuesday.
It had not rung Wednesday by lunchtime.
She waited, under the changing leaves.