Chris Beasley Builds a Pipeline

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Chris Beasley wants to help formerly-incarcerated people get a college education, and wants the world to know the power of that redemptive transformation.

Beasley to Speak at Startup Week Seattle

Dr. Chris Beasley will be one of seven panelists in a discussion called "Looking Forward, and Reaching Back," moderated by Grace Novacek of the Prison Scholarship Fund.

The event is part of Techstars StartUp Week Seattle.

When: Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, 6-7:30 p.m.
Where: ATLAS Workbase, 500 Mercer St., Seattle, Wash.
Registration: Free tickets are required to attend Startup Week Seattle.

The future is a murky, undefined place. Predicting what comes next is difficult from one day to the next. Yet from a young age, Chris Beasley knew his future. “I felt what was possible in my life was factory work,” he said. “No one ever told me college was an option.”

Beasley comes from poverty. He grew up amidst the cornfields of Southern Illinois. Beasley was smart but his grades did not reflect his intelligence. A high school principal once told Beasley he was too smart for his own good. That assessment came after he accidentally hacked into the school’s computer system while working on a related assignment.

Following high school Beasley ended up exactly where he thought he would. He worked a good job at a local factory. Beasley supplemented his income by selling drugs. “I think everyone likes to feel important, to feel like they’re doing something that’s worthwhile,” he said. “I found that in the drug world.”

Beasley ended up in prison. Upon release, an uncle encouraged him to enroll in community college. Beasley thrived. He completed his associates degree then transferred to the University of Minnesota Duluth. “I figured, hell, if I can get an associate’s then I can get a bachelor’s then I figured, hell, if I can do that I can get a master’s,” he said.

By the time he finished, Beasley had earned a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Minnesota, a master’s in clinical psychology from Roosevelt University and a Ph.D. in community psychology from DePaul University.

Early in his academic career, Beasley planned to be a clinical psychologist. His eventual shift to community psychology was a result of happenstance. During a mixer at Roosevelt University, a faculty member mentioned a colleague at DePaul who studied addictions through the lens of community psychology. Intrigued, Beasley looked into the field and ultimately decided to switch disciplines. “Community psychology looks at the ways in which people and communities influence each other,” he said. “It’s very macro focused and I felt this would allow me to help more people.”

Beasley had another important decision to make. There were a number of career tracks he could pursue within the world of community psychology, but one in particular stuck in his mind. “I always respected professors but could never see that for myself,” he said. “Someone like me could never do that.”

Beasley may have once been able to predict his future but, in this case, he got it wrong. Not long after earning his Ph.D., Beasley accepted an assistant professor position at Washington College in Maryland; a role he served in for three years. He may have stayed at Washington College if he hadn’t happened across an ad for UW Tacoma. “I thought, ‘wow, this really speaks to me,’” he said. “The more I learned about the place, the more I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to come here.”

Formerly incarcerated people face a unique stigma. They can be viewed as dangerous, untrustworthy, and/or likely to reoffend. During the hiring process, Beasley made the decision to talk about his past. “In my first phone interview I made up my mind to tell the interviewers that I had been to prison,” he said. “If I got hired, I got hired with them knowing I was formerly incarcerated and I wouldn’t have to hide that fact.”

About a year ago, Beasley started a private group on social media to connect formerly incarcerated college graduates. The group has grown to include more than 500 members—50 of whom have doctoral degrees. “People who have been to prison have an ‘X’ on their back and the ones who have transformed their lives like to keep it covered up,” said Beasley. “You have this isolating identity that you feel you can’t share with others and so this group provides space for people to talk about their experience.”

Beasley’s commitment to helping the formerly incarcerated extends to his research area. He has moved from studying addictions to exploring the transition from prison to college. “I want to know what the social and psychological factors are that facilitate or hinder that transition,” he says.

Part of this work includes establishing a prison-to-higher education pipeline. Beasley has started forming a Tacoma Post-Prison Higher Education Coalition of community colleges, universities and social service professionals to support formerly incarcerated people who want to pursue higher education in the South Sound.

“I want to be able to help students not only attend UW Tacoma or pursue other higher education goals, but also support them while they’re on that journey,” he said.

A caring uncle changed the trajectory of Beasley’s life. In some ways, he’s doing that for others. He is helping people see an alternative to what they imagined was possible for themselves.

For most of us, the future may be murky and undefined, but if you start out with little in life, you may come around to realizing you can take redemptive risks from which others might shy away. “It is more about doing something in particular even when its likelihood of success is uncertain,” says Beasley. “I’ve been down here in life,” he says, pointing low toward the floor. “At this point, it’s going to take a lot for me to end up back down there.”

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge and John Burkhardt / September 30, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu