Johnny Valdepena, a 46-year-old Richmond resident who has spent more of his life in prison than out of it, will vote for the first time next week. It wouldn’t have happened, he says, without a lot of help and encouragement – and now he and his fellow Safe Return Project members want to spread that encouragement to others.
On a recent Saturday morning at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, volunteers from the Safe Return Project and CLOUD, CCISCO’s group of undocumented youth community activists, gathered for the “Let My People Vote” canvassing effort. The aim of the day? To encourage Richmond’s infrequent voters to show up to the polls on Nov. 6.
Valdepena’s path to participating in the democratic process was not an easy one. His first arrest came at 15, he said, and the next 30 years of his life were spent in and out of the prison system, a revolving door of six-month stints partnered with brief moments back on the street. His gang affiliation and involvement in selling drugs inevitably placed him back behind bars, and at one point Valdepena served 11 years straight for armed robbery.
After doing time at Folsom, Solano, San Quentin and Lancaster, by the end of 2008 Valdepena said that he had had enough.
He called his brother.
“I want to clean up,” he said. “I’m over this. I want to put it behind me and move forward.”
After detoxing on his brother’s couch, Valdepena found salvation and faith at church services. But his time in prison was not yet through.
“Me and my brother were watching Smackdown on a Friday night and the gang unit knocked on the door,” he said. Valdepena had violated his parole when he failed to make an appearance at the parole office upon his most recent release from prison. The officers took him back to San Quentin, but this time, for the first time, Valdepena asked the prison for help. He received counseling services and participated in a detox program. He was ready for a second chance.
Adam Kruggel, executive director of CCISCO, said he sees the impact that Valdepena can have on those who have been through similar circumstances, which is why the group is focusing its canvassing efforts on neighborhoods where voter turnout is low and many residents have had their own experiences with law enforcement.
“We think that there is a growing movement across the state and county where voters are saying we need to invest in alternatives to incarceration—invest in restoration and healing,” Kruggel said. “And Johnny is a powerful symbol of that movement.”
Since his release in 2009, Valdepena has taken the helping hand he was given in prison and extended it to Richmond and the neighborhood where he was once a criminal. He said his opportunity for a second chance has inspired him to help others realize their own ability to create change.
“I go back in and try to pull the people out of darkness,” he said. “The hurt, the lost, the gang members.” He said he tells them, “You remember when I was right there with you. Look at me now.”
Valdepena preaches a message of hope and change, something he said draws him to support President Obama. Many people in Richmond’s neighborhoods complain about needed improvements, he said, but nobody goes out and votes. Who better to teach them about the importance of exercising that power than a formerly incarcerated man, he said.
Come Election Day, as he casts his first ballot, Valdepena will have overcome some tough challenges — something he also appreciates about the president, he said.
“Adversity is something I respect,” he said. “I truly believe when people tell you you can’t do something, you need to use it as a stepping stone to show them you can.”
These days, Valdepena lives in constant appreciation of his faith, family and freedom — and his vote.
“It does make a difference,” he said, “and my voice does need to be heard.”