John Bailey is a volunteer with Faith in Florida and is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is a living example of how one person can make a difference in someone’s life. Keep reading to learn more about his organizing story.
Tell me about your story. How have you gotten to this point in your life?
I wasn’t raised to be the person I became. I came from a great family; my mom and my dad were incredible. What really got me going down a bad path was moving to Tampa from Mobile, Alabama when I was 15 years old. I became the target of a lot of bullying since I was the new kid on the block. I think when you’re afraid, you’ll run anywhere you can. I got tired of running and started fighting back in the wrong way. Instead of seeking out a mentor, I found trouble. I was afraid, so I started looking for somebody that could protect me. And the gang guys found me and started saying, “Don’t worry, we got you.” I’m not going to lie — it felt like the weight of the whole world was lifted off my shoulders. So I started asking them what they needed me to do. One year later I got arrested for hanging out on the street. I was 16 years old. The guys told me to lie and say I was 19. We all ended up going to jail for vagrancy and ended up doing 10 days. That’s what started me on my path.
What inspires you to continue to work in the organizing space?
I believe in building relationships so that people can begin to trust each other. The kids here, they need and want to be a part of something. There’s not enough mentorship programs to meet the demand. They don’t want to turn out like I did, but if there’s no respectable mentors there to help them, there will always be someone on the other side that’s going to take them in. What these kids are looking for is love and protection. The people on the other side might give them clothes and some shoes, and that’s all it takes. But if good people could take a kid under their wing and teach them what they know, and show them friendship and respect, that could keep that kid from going down the wrong path. I always say that I feel like society turned its back on me and I wish someone had reached out to me. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing today.
What are some challenges you’ve faced, both personally and professionally? How did you overcome them?
The attorney helping me with my case while I was in prison said that my record was so bad she didn’t know how she could help me. But my brother encouraged me to write a letter to President Obama trying to seek clemency. I wrote about my life story, how I grew up and how I got there. I remember sitting there in prison and listening to the noise thinking to myself, “What am I doing here? This ain’t me.” My mind went back to when I was a kid. So I wrote about my life. Now the president didn’t help me, but the attorney read my letter and agreed to take my case back on. She said it was a long shot but she would try, because she saw something in me. That attorney found a way to get me back in court and now I’m free. I believe there’s a reason I was freed and why I’m here today.
If you could look into the future, what are some things you would want to see in your community? What would need to happen to get there?
I hope to see people really care about each other. When you have people in your neighborhood breaking into your house or shooting up the street, that could very easily be a kid that if you would have paid attention to or mentored, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It’s like the saying goes pay me now or pay me later. If you don’t reach out to your community now, you’re going to wish you would have down the road. When I got involved with Faith in Florida, I got to meet so many people that are doing work across the state. Different backgrounds, different faiths. That’s what I want to be a part of. These are people who are doing the work and making a difference. In the future, I want to see more people willing to do the hard work for free just because it’s good for their community. I hope to see it coming from the heart first.
What advice would you give to organizers that are just starting?
There’s so many different organizations around here. For someone who really wants to get involved, it really depends on what area of concern that you have. The great thing with churches being involved, the members can ask the pastor and he can point them in the right direction. Like for example, one of the biggest concerns in our community right now is speaking out on gun violence. That’s an issue that touches everybody here. It’s important to network with different organizations, because if someone calls on you for help, you can show them where they need to go.