by Jeff Samoray, Published October 20, 2011
Natalia Harris isn't seeking sympathy-she's seeking social justice.
Once a homeless teen on the streets of Ypsilanti, Harris is now pursuing a master's degree in social work at Eastern. She's interested in helping formerly incarcerated citizens successfully reconnect with their communities and lead productive lives. It's a topic she's all too familiar with on a personal level.
"Many people think jails and prisons rehabilitate criminals," says Harris, 26, who received her bachelor's in social work from EMU in August. "Instead, inmates learn how to become better criminals. My older brother was incarcerated at age 14 for seven years in a detention center for arson. He had a lot of trouble developing social skills after being released. He just adapted to other people who commit crimes."
Harris says the criminal justice system has failed people like her brother and others who simply return to their former neighborhoods-the same places that bred their criminal behavior. She believes society should tackle the problem within urban areas themselves.
"Communities must empower themselves to bring about change," Harris says. "Younger residents have to invest in that change just as much as the older residents. Because people are afraid to go outside of their comfort zone to access community services, we need to bring the services to them."
Harris has already begun serving local communities through an internship with the Community Engagement Division of the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office.
"I created a safety survey for some of the highest crime neighborhoods in Washtenaw County," Harris says. "The responses will help the Sheriff's Office see what issues are most important to the citizens of those high-crime areas. A sense of safety has a lot to do with resident empowerment."
During the internship, Harris listened to 911 calls, read police reports and visited jail cells, where she saw many people she knew from her homeless period. Harris left her aunt's home at age 18 and lived on the street for several months before entering Miller House, a transitional living program in Ann Arbor. She received free room and board there while completing her high school diploma and learning independent living skills.
"At the jail, I talked with people I knew about why they were there and why they should never come back," Harris says. "I understood their issues because of what I had been through.
"I've experienced many barriers in life, but I never feel bad about what's happened. A person can take their barriers and use them as a tool for success. That's what I want to do - help people use their past experiences for empowerment."
In October, the Ann Arbor Jaycees will honor Harris with its Outstanding Michigander Award, recognizing her achievements and contributions to the community. Last April, the National Association of Social Workers Michigan chapter presented Harris with its Student of the Year award.