One South Sider is using his second chance to help others with theirs
Since his release from federal prison three years ago, South Side native Aaron Smith has dedicated his time to sharing stories of convicts-turned-entrepreneurs in an effort to change the narrative around formerly incarcerated people.
Nicholas Clark spent nearly nine years in a federal prison in Minnesota for conspiracy to sell drugs. When he was released in January 2020, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do — but then came a chance to better himself when in February he was hired as a truck driver for U Turn Transport.
“Driving is something I like to do, it gives me the ability to be out and a chance to be responsible for myself,” said Clark, 33. “I have become more of an adult and make the decisions that are best for me and my life that … give me strength to overcome challenges.”
Clark was given that second chance by U Turn Transport owner Aaron Smith; the two met while both were incarcerated. Smith told Clark then that he wanted to create new opportunities for ex-convicts once they get out of prison.
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“Aaron was quiet, reserved (in prison),” Clark said. “That allowed me to see that he’s not one to just use his words loosely. He knew what he wanted to do when he was released, and that was very admirable.”
Smith grew up in the South Shore and Bronzeville neighborhoods as the youngest of five. As a young adult, Smith said he led a drug operation that raked in over $15,000 each day. Then in 2009, he got caught and sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for distribution of heroin and fentanyl resulting in death.
It was during his time in prison that Smith realized he could be doing a lot more. After serving nearly 10 years in prison, he returned home three years ago and soon began using his second chance to help others with theirs.
“After I was arrested I just kind of saw things differently,” said Smith, 40. “I realized I’d sold myself short. I went to Columbia College (Chicago) and had a business degree. When I went to prison, that was when I really had the chance to sit down and be around other people that had a change in mindset and lifestyle, too. I got back to the essence of who I was.”
That essence, Smith said, was being a creative entrepreneur — he’d just gone into the wrong industry. So he’s dedicated the last few years to not only changing his life but changing others’ in an effort to fight high recidivism rates.
Reports indicate the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other country each year, despite the hundreds of thousands also released each year. Two out of three formerly incarcerated individuals will be rearrested within three years of release, and more than 50% are re-incarcerated.
In April 2017, Prison Fellowship led a nationwide effort to raise awareness about recidivism and re-entry barriers for people with a criminal record. Now, April is considered Second Chance Month.
It’s the idea of second chances that keeps pushing Smith forward. Four years into his sentence, the idea for Escaping the Odds hit him.
“I was most free when I was incarcerated,” he said. “I had so many ideas, my mind was racing. I was starting over, and I wasn’t distracted by the streets.”
Smith enrolled in a program in prison that encouraged him to think of how he’d get involved in his community once released. He began to realize the inspirational stories that were around him, what he called “the talent behind the wall.”
“I was spending time around these men that were either aspiring entrepreneurs, or they were white-collar offenders who had ran afoul of the law, but nevertheless, they still had the skill set,” Smith said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, society has no idea that these men exist.’”
But he knew the stigma of incarceration would follow the men once they were released. He also knew there were minimal barriers for creating a podcast, and sharing real success stories could help change the narrative.
So in December 2019, he launched Escaping the Odds. The podcast is now in its third season, with more than 60 episodes highlighting the stories of ex-convicts turned successful entrepreneurs. Two episodes even won the 2021 Media for a Just Society Award, which has also been awarded to creatives like filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernay in the past.
Part of what makes the podcast so powerful, Smith added, is he features people who are transparent about their past. If people aren’t willing to talk about their incarceration and how they changed their life, it’s not worth a conversation – especially since his podcast isn’t scripted.
“It’s about authenticity, so people can actually feel like, ‘I see myself in that person,’” he said.
But Smith isn’t stopping there. His website also offers resources for discovering mentors, financial tips and other re-entry help. He started U Turn Transport freight shipping in July. Clark is Smith’s only driver, but he plans to hire more in June and expand the company’s routes.
Smith is also the community liaison for the Safety Justice Challenge of Cook County, a nationwide initiative working to reduce over-incarceration and fight racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice systems. And he recently partnered with Stretch Finance, a banking institution that enables formerly incarcerated people to open checking accounts. His partnership provides online training for aspiring truck drivers and owners.
He’s now documenting stories from Escaping the Odds in a book and hopes to create a documentary next.
“I just want people to look at me [and] my peers different,” Smith said. “They come from incarceration, but I want us to be looked at as business leaders in the community, like an inspiring story. You can bounce back from anything.”