The valedictorian wore sneakers, a shoe choice frowned upon by the vice principal, who, truth be told, may have had less of a problem with the footwear than with what the valedictorian was about to tell his graduating class.
Just before he was supposed to take the stage to address Fresno’s Bullard High School’s class of 1997, Brady Heiner was confronted by the vice principal, who ordered a physical education teacher to detain him unless Heiner could switch to heeled shoes.
Brady Heiner is the director of Project Rebound, which helps former inmates get a college degree once they’re out of prison. Brady is one of our Most Influential people of 2017 and is photographed in the Titan Student Union at Cal State Fullerton in Fullerton on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Brady Heiner is the director of Project Rebound, which helps former inmates get a college degree once they’re out of prison. Brady is one of our Most Influential people of 2017 and is photographed outside the Humanites Building at Cal State Fullerton in Fullerton on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Brady Heiner is the director of Project Rebound, which helps former inmates get a college degree once they’re out of prison. Brady is one of our Most Influential people of 2017 and is photographed inside the Humanites Building at Cal State Fullerton in Fullerton on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Brady Heiner is the director of Project Rebound, which helps former inmates get a college degree once they’re out of prison. Brady is one of our Most Influential people of 2017 and is photographed outside the Titan Student Union at Cal State Fullerton in Fullerton on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Heiner had to think quickly. He could scream and fight about the silly and selective enforcement of the rules — and miss giving his speech — or he could find different shoes.
That’s when he remembered he and his dad were the same shoe size.
Heiner, now 38, sat in his office at Cal State Fullerton recently, recalling the night he tried to wear the controversial shoes 20 years ago. These days, Heiner is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of Project Rebound, which ushers formerly incarcerated people through the rigors of a college education.
“I wore my dad’s loafers, and he wore my Adidas,” said Heiner, who lives in Long Beach. He recalls that he also gave a fiery speech about racial injustice, segregation in his school and in Fresno, and about reconciliation.
But he didn’t tell the story because of the shoes.
He told the story because of the P.E. teacher.
Heiner was raised in California’s central valley, which has been called “Prison Alley.”
Over a 15-year period starting in 1980, 20 prisons were built in the Central Valley, each promising a boom to the local economies. Prison spending between 1980 and 2012 increased 436 percent in California; even as state spending on higher education decreased by 13 percent.
Heiner (among others) calls it the “Prison Industrial Complex.”
“We’re talking about building cages,” Heiner said of the building boom. “We’re caging human beings.”
It wasn’t the only influence on his thinking. Heiner says he had an encounter with police while he was in high school, and that it has influenced his work for the rest of his life.
Heiner was riding in a car with some other people when one of the other passengers threw lit firecrackers out the window.
The police swooped in, he said, with guns drawn. Heiner counted nine police cars and a helicopter.
“This is what I would call a disproportionate response,” he said.
Heiner, who is white, got out of it unscathed.
“I walked away from that encounter with my life and a clean record because society does not view my body as intrinsically threatening or criminal,” Heiner said. “That’s a privilege I enjoy that many others don’t.
“(But) it shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be a dignity that we extend to every person,” he added.
“My work developing Project Rebound stems from that commitment.”
Heiner attended Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island, “because it was far away.”
At Brown, he studied under Dr. Joy James who headed a project in which she was publishing the works of incarcerated authors. As part of that, Heiner corresponded with prisoners around the country, searching for literary talent.
He encountered untapped, even stifled, potential.
“I learned how much aptitude, intelligence and creativity was confined in U.S. prisons.”
Project Rebound started 50 years ago at San Francisco State University. It was founded by ex-prisoner, John Irwin, who had robbed a gas station, served five years in prison, got his degree, and eventually became a sociology professor.
When Heiner took a teaching job at Cal State Fullerton, in 2011, one goal was to launch a branch of Project Rebound. In 2016, after five years of laying the groundwork — and after securing funding from nine educational foundations — Heiner helped Cal State Fullerton do just that.
Project Rebound identifies inmates who want to continue their college studies when they are released from prison. Heiner and his staff monitor admissions, counseling, financial aid, food plans, transportation, housing and job training for newly freed students. There are 13 students currently attending classes at CSUF as part of the Project Rebound program, and 19 prisoners in the pipeline, ready to start studying when they are released.
In 2017, Omar Chavez, who had been convicted for selling drugs, became the first Project Rebound graduate.
At his graduation ceremony, Chavez wore a sash that read: “Rebound Scholar.”
“The blemish of incarceration was gone,” said Romarilyn Ralston, the Project Rebound program coordinator. “He wasn’t in prison blues anymore. He had transitioned from prison to scholar.”
Heiner looked in the audience as Chavez received his diploma.
“You could just see the joy in his family’s faces,” Heiner said. “It was special. I felt a sense of continuity and accomplishment. This had been something a number of folks had been working toward.”
This year was a particularly good for Heiner beyond Project Rebound. He won the University Leadership, the Outstanding Untenured Faculty and the Faculty Scholarly Achievement awards. He also received tenure and a promotion.
“He is smart and committed to proving this pathway,” Ralston said of Heiner.
“He’s an abolitionist. He’s working toward balancing the scales.”
Back on his high school graduation day, 20 years ago, when Heiner wore the controversial shoes, he learned something that drives him to this day.
As he’d been requested to do, the P.E. teacher detained Heiner, the valedictorian, until he swapped shoes with his dad.
But after the speech, the P.E. teacher approached Heiner.
He told me, “It was the most meaningful speech he had ever heard,” Heiner said.
Minds, Heiner learned, can change.
Brady Heiner, 38, Long Beach
Project Rebound, a program launched locally by Heiner to help former convicts get their college degrees, generated its first graduate in June. At least 13 more Project Rebound students are attending Cal State Fullerton.
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