Growth is carried out over the course of an entire lifetime. This is a concept that resonates well with Scott Tompkins. Over his lifetime, he has been a father, a journalist, an educator, a community organizer — and someone sentenced to 18 months in prison. Now back home in northern Michigan, Scott wants to put all his experiences and talents to use to benefit his community and others who face the challenge of coming home from prison.

That’s why Scott is one of Safe & Just Michigan’s new fund development fellows. Here, he will learn skills such as fundraising and grant writing — tools he can use to create and grow nonprofit programs that will help people going through the re-entry process.

Scott grew up in a couple different Midwestern locations during the 1950s and 60s. He was raised in a conservative family but gravitated towards the progressive movements of the era, describing himself as a bit of a “hippy.”

After earning an undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University in photography, Scott worked for a stint at an advertising agency, snapped photos for a newspaper and did freelance work.

But Scott’s interest in social change drew him to the VISTA program, which he describes as a sort of “domestic version of the Peace Corps.” Scott joined the program and worked as a community organizer in Indianapolis.

Through his work in Indianapolis, Scott met people who were starting an organization in Stockton, Calif., and was asked to join them. He agreed and took on a complementary role to the program director and worked as a community organizer.

While in that role, Scott earned a master’s degree in education, with certification to teach special education students. He went on to teach in California, largely working with students with severe emotional impairments.

After a few years in California, Scott and his wife decided to move back to the Midwest to raise a family. The couple settled down in Northern Michigan and had four children, all of which are now grown and share Scott’s passion for working to improve the world. Two of Scott’s children earned master’s degrees in social work. Another is an attorney. The fourth works with special needs students in Chicago schools.

Scott took a teaching job and continued to volunteer for various agencies, including the American Civil Liberties Union. For more than 20 years, Scott carried on this way. Then everything changed.

“My wheels kind of came off and I caught an assault case,” he said. “I ended up doing 18 months in a state prison.”

Scott said he hadn’t given much thought to the prison population until he was charged. With his arrest and incarceration, Scott also knew the way he was viewed by others had changed.

After more than 20 years in his community, Scott was viewed as an upstanding citizen. After he was convicted, he knew many had shifted their views and now viewed him with suspicion.

Scott didn’t lose his passion for helping others while he was incarcerated. He worked as a tutor and led history and creative writing classes. He and another man who had been incarcerated for more than two decades worked together to help others learn how to teach.

“That was a very successful and inspiring class,” Scott said. “There were a lot of men in my sessions that had a lot to share in terms of their knowledge and skills, but they didn’t know how to be educators.”

Scott was released on parole and has since worked a variety of jobs, such as retail and delivery for Organic Farms. He also continues to help people who have been incarcerated.

Looking back over his time in prison, Scott realizes the advantages he had over some of the people he met there, as he was able to walk out to income from social security and the economic resources in Northern Michigan.

“I had the advantages and the privileges of being an older white dude,” Scott said.

He thinks of people he met in prison who worked hard to get their GEDs or pass a citizenship test, and wants to increase the resources available to them once their sentences end. He is aware of how challenging it is for people on parole to access basic resources like transportation, housing and employment, and knows he can be of service.

For this reason, Scott works with the Before, During and After Incarceration program where he mentors people who are incarcerated or recently released to help them survive the reentry process.

Scott is still in counseling and therapy to help him work through the harm his mistake caused to himself and his family. He reflects on his own growth and uses that to help others overcome the challenges they are facing.

“I’m never going to repeat that situation again or that experience again,” he said. “That’s why I continue to work towards the betterment of other people.”

Beyond his work with Before, During and After Incarceration, Scott works with the Prisoner Creative Arts Project and continues to work with the ACLU. He also contributed to writing an article that was published in Prisoners on Prisons journal and presented at one of their international meetings on criminal justice reform.

Now, Scott will take his talents to Safe & Just Michigan where he will serve as a fund development fellow.

Scott is excited to build on his existing skills and learn new ones while he’s at Safe & Just. He has some grant writing experience, but much of it is from decades ago when he had to go to a center to look through physical documents to write grants.

“Computers were still kind of a Steve Jobs pipedream at that time,” he said. “It’s exciting for me to know what to do with some of the new resources that are available.”

Scott hopes to learn as much as he can during his fellowship, so he can continue to help others going forward.

“The skills I’m able to pick up during the fellowship, if I could help translate those to benefit people up here in Northern Michigan, let’s do it,” he said.

While the stigma people who have been incarcerated face can present challenges to fund developers, Scott knows that the topic of criminal justice is one that just about everyone can relate to personally. He hopes to use this when working with potential funders.

“Everybody has been impacted by someone being incarcerated,” he said. “Whether it’s a family member, a good friend, a colleague, a classmate, or whoever, it touches so many people. We just don’t realize how prevalent it is.”


~ Lucas Day
Social Work Intern