After prison: Painting a new picture After prison: Painting a new picture After prison: Painting a new picture

Through art, LeShawn Gamble recaptures the narrative. “There is active catharsis in doing something with your hands in order to heal your mind,” he says.

By Omari Amili | Photos by Meron Menghistab | December 2020

This is part of our “After Prison” series of interviews by Omari Amili. Go here to see all of the stories.

As a deployed soldier in the U.S. military, LeShawn Gamble was viciously attacked by a group of fellow soldiers. After a drawn-out tribunal process, he returned home—only to be arrested and convicted on marijuana-related charges. Now a UW Tacoma student and a painter, he finds meaning by working with youth and his community.

Omari Amili: Tell me something that you’re proud of that has nothing to do with incarceration.

LeShawn Gamble: I’m just glad I’m still alive, man. With everything that I’ve been through, I’m just happy to be alive because every day is a new adventure. And a lot of people don’t think of that as an accomplishment. Remember: Getting up out of bed, sometimes that’s harder than anything else. That’s the biggest accomplishment I got.

The first month of being in my first duty station in the military, I got attacked by a bunch of soldiers in my unit. That was just one traumatic experience after another. It was people who I thought were friends of mine. Then I had to go through this whole military tribunal. It was a horrible experience to be isolated in a place away from everybody who could have been my support system. I had this whole experience with the system and saw how it really ain’t for minoritized people. It was my first introduction to how the system not only places us against ourselves, but actually is built to grind us up.

After I got out the military and out of prison, I was still struggling to find work. I would go hang out at the bar and sit there moping. You know, just f—g miserable man. I just didn’t want to be in the house, but I didn’t really want to be present in life. And so I’m sitting drinking a beer, waiting to get on a pool table, and this lady sits down next to me. And she’s like, “What’s going on with you? Why are you sitting here looking like that?” She delivered it to me straight. She said, “If you wanted to be like that, you should just stay home. You should be happy to be alive and that you have the ability to be here.” I never had nobody give it to me straight like that in a very long time.

That's the root of everything that I do: to heal the mind through action.

LeShawn Gamble

Amili: With that intersection between you being a Black man, and you also having a criminal history, how did how did those aspects of your identity impact your decisions?

Gamble: Initially when I went to Tacoma Community College, I wanted to go into medicine. The Veteran’s Administration (VA) pays for my school. The VA advisor at the time was like, “That’s noble, but we don’t know how your licensure process is going to go.” I stayed focused on the medical stuff for about four quarters, and developed a plan in my mind. I was like, “I’m going as far as I’m gonna go, and it ain’t gonna be an AA. You’re gonna pay for my doctorate.” That was in my mindset the whole time.

This is the one instance where I was using having a record to my advantage. I was telling her I’m not gonna be competitive in the job market with an AA and a felony. She said, “Let’s push towards a bachelor’s.” So I pushed past the AA, I got that there. But I ended up changing my major from medicine to a degree in psychology. The social sciences were a bit more forgiving when it comes to licensing, for sure. I transferred to UW. It’s an opportunity to get an education through a system that had habitually disenfranchised me.

Amili: Life is a journey and our perspective of what our purpose is can change over time. Have you begun to identify what that is?

Gamble: My endgame is to be self-reliant, self-sufficient, and help people who are disenfranchised. I don’t care to have a title or work for some company. If that comes, that’s cool, but my goal is not to get a job because if my goal is to get a job, I’ll never fulfill my actual purpose. And so that purpose is up to me.

Initially, my purpose was just to keep the lights on and keep my stomach from growling. Then once I had a kid, it was like, I gotta make sure he stays fed and the lights stay on for him. And that’s survival, that’s not purpose. That’s not anything other than primal animal instinct. And that’s all a lot of us have. Now, I’m at the point where I’m eating good, but I want to make sure that the people around me start eating for sure. You have to get out of the mindset of, “I’m doing it, so damn everybody else.” It’s got to be the idea of Sankofa: looking back and bringing knowledge forward. You help those around you, the idea of umoja, which is unity. Despite the fact that I’m not African, that doesn’t mean I can’t instill these principles in my life and help those around me. I found my purpose by going into the community and keeping the model I read in a book by Dr. Georgia Gross: “How are the children? Because if the children aren’t good, nobody’s good.”

Amili: Tell me about that about your organization, Renaissance 21, and the work that you do.

Gamble: It was from prison that this thing was birthed. The goal has always been to take art and use it as a tool to share a different narrative of minoritized peoples, and to also show entrepreneurship and community in action. When I sell art at the events I do, the proceeds go into providing a space where children can create. And they use that creation to focus on challenging narratives, pulling these things out of their subconscious sometimes and processing it. There is active catharsis in doing something with your hands in order to heal your mind. And that’s the root of everything that I do, to heal the mind through action.