Post by Jessica Hunt
You name it; Rhonda Seraaj has probably seen it or been through it.
Rhonda, raised in Minneapolis, has been incarcerated twice in her life. In 1988, the first time, she was charged with attempted murder, which was later dropped to assault in the first degree. She ultimately spent 24 months at Oregon Women’s Correctional Facility.
Four years later, she was charged with assault in the second degree and malicious punishment toward one of her children. She was then sent to Minnesota Correctional Facility—Shakopee.
During this time, the devastation of losing custody of her children and a lack of visitors led her to attempt suicide while in prison.
“Basically I was just giving up on my life,” she said. “I felt like everybody else had given up on me, including society.”
As she transitioned back into society, housing posed the biggest barrier and she remained homeless from 1996 to 2006. Throughout this time, Rhonda learned to survive in different ways- whether that meant sleeping under a bridge, living with friends off and on, or staying in various homeless shelters during the winter.
“Nobody wanted anybody with assault and attempted murder (convictions) living in their apartment building,” she said.
To overcome negative thinking and the challenges of homelessness, Rhonda became active with several organizations after her second release in 1996: the Council on Crime and Justice, Students against Homelessness and Hunger (SAHH), and Parenting with Positive Discipline, the ICCM Life Skills Center street team, and the House of Charity Food Center.
“If you want to be able to change the people around you, you have to change the type of people around you,” she said.
Her grandmother, who passed away in 2007, was a fundamental mentor and resource for Rhonda and always stressed the importance of education.
“She always taught me you will never get anywhere in life if you don’t get your education,” Rhonda said. “I overcame many obstacles in order to do that.”
Dedicated to living the life her grandmother wanted for her, Rhonda began to attend Minneapolis Community Technical College (MCTC) in 2009 and in December obtained her bachelor’s degree in social services.
“That was my fuel, my fire to keep me going … to know that just because I am an African American woman, just because I was incarcerated, just because I was homeless does not mean I do not have value. My life has a value.”
As part of her schooling, Rhonda interned at Amicus with Reconnect services. Having experienced prison herself ultimately drew her to Amicus.
“I get such an inner joy,” she said. “If I can help at least one person to not go down the same road that I took at the age that I started out… then I know I didn’t live my life in vain.”
At Amicus, Rhonda said she discovered more about herself and the importance of becoming more patient and tolerant. Yet she is also reminded that she does not want to return to prison, and knows how the stigma of living with a criminal background will continue to make her life challenging. As she continues to looking into job leads, this is something she will have to face and overcome.
“Whatever my crimes may be, whatever people’s opinions are of me, you have to learn to let that go, in order for you to be able to be a whole person and be a creative person in society with your own ideas, your own thoughts, your own feelings,” she said.
Rhonda’s immediate plans are to take more business courses, building her skillset to work toward establishing a multi-faceted organization that will assist a variety of people in need. She envisions a hub where people have all the services they need in one location. She also dreams of expanding such services globally and, more locally, she wants to find ways to aid youth in North Minneapolis.
Rhonda particularly wants to help people learn to express the things that many others would be afraid to express.
“Do not be ashamed, do not be afraid,” she said. “Everybody’s voice means something.”