The graduation ceremony didn’t include any robes or mortarboards, and no members of President Biden’s Cabinet showed up to accept an honorary Ivy League degree.
But the 12 men and women who graduated from Garden Time’s Green Reentry job training program made it clear that the education they’d just received changed their lives -- lives that have been marred by criminal convictions and incarceration, but that now include some new skills, employment, and hope.
Plus, they heard from state Representative Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat who was convicted of a drug felony before graduating from Brown University and being elected to the House last year.
Cruz noted that the state court system had just announced that it had expunged more than 23,000 marijuana possession charges as part of legislation passed last year that legalized recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.
She emphasized the importance of programs such as Green Reentry, saying, “We see the power and the impact. It goes well beyond the individual, but to the family, the community, and our whole state.”
Cruz congratulated the graduates, saying, “You all took that first step. Own it. Be proud. And keep continuing on that journey.”
Garden Time, a Providence nonprofit that has been growing gardens with inmates in the ACI for 12 years, launched the Green Reentry program in 2021, preparing formerly incarcerated men and women for entry-level careers in tree service and other plant-based industries. The June 9 graduation ceremony took place at the group’s new training space on Harris Avenue in Providence.
Zaira Lozada, 33, of Providence, attended the graduation ceremony wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor her movements as part of her house arrest.
”For me, this was life changing,” she said. “It has opened a lot of doors. It has given me structure. I was home, depressed. I went through a lot of crap by myself. And I’m doing all of this for my kids.”
Lozada, who has faced drug and weapons charges, said, “I saw ‘reentry’ and I’m like, ‘This is what I need.’“
As part of the Green Reentry program, she said she received Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifications, and she learned a lot about trees and the environment. She said it made her realize the need for more trees in low-income neighborhoods.
”This showed me that I’m capable of way more,” Lozada said. “There’s so much more that I can show, so much that I can do, so much that I can help.”
This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, links to interesting stories, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.