This inspiring interview is with JD Stier. JD was the first convicted felon to work in the White House. As you can tell, this interview is a little different than our normal interviews.
First off, if you want to know how JD navigates the world you need to listen to his story at 1:02:10 about showering in prison after the first time lifting weights. It’s amazing.
I’ve known JD since middle school. His story is one that just has to be told. He’s done some amazing things since college. He worked at the White House under Obama. Led campaigns to stop corruption in the Congo. And now has become an expert on leading campaigns to end crises around the world through his organization Stier Forward. He’s also a regular contributor to Politico, Huffington Post, and is a recurring guest on MSNBC.
He had some rough years growing up including spending over 2 years in prison after a few stints in juvenile detention. We’ll talk about his rough years and how he turned them around.
JD makes you want to get things done.
Here are some other things we talk about:
JD the professional:
-What did you do after prison?
-How did you get to work at the White House?
-What was your biggest lesson learned while working at the White House?
-How did you get involved with social campaigns in the Congo?
-How do you make change happen in places like the Congo?
JD growing up:
-What’s the first thing you did that was illegal? I still remember coming to 8th grade and seeing tire tracks in the school’s lawn. Guess who made those tire tracks?
-How did you end up in Juvi? How old were you?
-Why did you start dealing drugs?
-Did you ever think how it hurt others?
-Did you do things that you still regret today? How do you deal with that?
-How was Juvi compared to prison? I was surprised by the answer.
-JD talks about the rape culture in prison and the rest of the world.
-How did you turn your life around? Who helped you?
David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we have JD Stier with us. And JD is a little different from our usual guest. I’ve known JD since at least middle school and he has a story that just has to be told and he has done some amazing things since college, like work with the White House, produce multiple films on serious issues in African and has become a leading expert on leading campaigns and crisis around the world. He is also a regular contributor to political, Huffington Post and is a recurring guest on MSNBC.
So that’s the JDs theory you guys all know about, but I know a definitely different JD Stier and so that’s JD the professional. But before as a professional JD had rough years, including spending around two years in prison which JD can correct and so we’ll talk about those years and then we’ll talk about how he turned his life around. So I’m curious how his overzealous youth years kind of helped him later on. But one thing always I know growing up is that JD was always a super nice guy. So JD, thanks for coming in on the show today.
JD Stier: Great to be on Dave. Thanks for having me.
David Kruse: Definitely. And so I think what maybe we’ll talk about what you have done a little bit since college and then before that then we’ll talk more about growing up and your youth years.
JD Stier: Sounds good.
David Kruse: Yeah, can you – after college, you know can you give us a little bit about what you did and eventually you got involved with the Obama campaign, but what did you do before then?
JD Stier: Yeah, so when I was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I had a part time internship working with councilors, working with teams there in the Madison community that involved with gangs and drug activity. It’s a prevention and treatment center. When I graduated from UW in 2004 I got into law school and that had been my plan all along. I wanted to be a legal advocate, you know fighting for youth, fighting for humanitarian causes and the King Center offered me a full time job and I was still pretty young and a lot of street credit with the youth and felt like I was really making some traction, connecting with them and trying to prevent a handful of them from winding up behind bars, which is where a lot of them were heading. So I followed my heart and took the full time job and differed law school and ended up then spending all of my 20s counseling gang and drug affected youth in the Madison area. And that job which didn’t feel like work to me, it just really felt like living a very connected life, sharing values and getting involved in peoples’ lives and their families lives. By doing that work I became increasingly collected with Wisconsin’s politicians and kind of naturally segwayed into becoming more of an advocate for these youth. Wisconsin’s present population is of the most racially disproportionate to the country. It’s also grown the fastest per capita for many years during their tough on crime mass incarceration ramp-up and so by advocating for the teams and forming some of these relationships I got to know Senator Russ Feingold and a handful of other Wisconsin politicians and through that relationship when Barack Obama was running for President, I was talking a lot about how much I was excited for his candidacy and what it meant for the country and me and I’m just speaking up about it a lot. One of Russ Feingold’s top staff spoke to him about it and they got behind making introduction to the Obama campaign for me and its I think pretty extreme move on their half to have a convicted felon, drug dealer working on a presidential campaign, but that really cemented my belief in the campaign and ultimately President Obama’s values and people around him that they are really looking for new voices, looking for opportunities to build relationships to really build meaningful traction on processor reform. So boom, that was it. I got the campaign job and lead to a lot of great stuff, including ultimately an Obama presidency and a position for me inside the White House.
David Kruse: All right, so you have a lot of question probably just on that. That could be a whole podcast right there, but – so going back to your attorney, you could have been JD Stier or JD which would have been pretty cool if you got – if you became an attorney, that’s just a side note, but. So when you are counseling the youth, what would be kind of a, I don’t know if a typical case or how would you. Somebody would come in when they are in trouble, how would you kind of walk them through getting back to – getting out of trouble I guess?
JD Stier: I mean I can relate with some common threads that a lot of youths that are facing, gang and drug troubles and temptations you can face. Now everybody has their own very unique and individual human experience and their struggles and their challenges are very unique and special to them, yet there is a lot we can connect on and a lot that I can emphasis with and so, to say there is a typical teams, just say someone is coming in and they’ve gotten suspended from an athletic team because of drinking or getting caught with drugs at school and so you often times have handful of positive engagements going in their life right now, a sports team, a club and association, maybe a relationship with a family member to be stable and healthy and professional and so they come in at a time when they are really at crossroads. They are starting to challenge authority, they are starting to engage in high earth behavior and yet their whole future is open. Their future is bright with a handful of right decision, they can be valedictorian and shooting off the university and engaging in any life that they choose. And so really the only standard in that process is you know getting to know someone, building some trust so we could open up and really be real about where we are coming from, what our struggles are and then really just facilitating the self-reflection process, our views and realize on their own what their decisions are leading to, what options to the feature they are closing with certain high risk behavior and then really supporting and enhancing better decision making. And I think for me it was helping youth connect to their passions, connect and discover new passions. Something we innovated when I was at Madison’s Connections Counseling with the incredible Shelly Dutch is you know speaking towards nature programs. I’m an average rock climber, and camper and hiker and so why not once Saturday a month take all the youth out on a rock climbing trip at Devils Lake or on a big hike and ultimately with the speakers tour, kids that had gotten 90 days clean where they hadn’t done alcohol or drugs for 90 days. We bring them around to the schools for them to share their story with the Madison public schools and as soon as they start to realize that their experiences, their struggles, their story can have a positive impact a long they are living a positive life, that’s where you really start to see some exponential growth. So I really looked at myself as a tour guide. You know helping youth start to reflect, but then also starting to connect them to some other opportunities and then really celebrating and amplifying those good decisions and now all these years later those are handful of youth that went through that program that I’ve you know met up in New York or DC or LA and they are doing incredible things with their lives.
David Kruse: Oh really wow! That must be great, that must be a nice feeling. I mean do you think because of your – do they mainly hire people with a checkered background like you had, so that you can relate what they are going through and the kids will probably listen to you better knowing that you can relate?
JD Stier: I think it’s rather common in substance of the use treatment to have therapist with either addiction in their family or addiction in their own personal background, but its surprisingly rare and not just in Wisconsin, but around the country that has individuals who have been involved in a legal systems, you know come out of jail or come out of prison, working with the youth and I think that’s something at the policy level we really got to get creative and try to solve, because some of our greatest assets of being able to connect with youth, empathize with the youth and truly help youth kick start a new life are men and woman coming out of prison after serving time for non-violence drug offences and you know our country has gotten millions of these individuals coming with resiliency and skill and ready to start a new life. And for me getting welcomed back to the Connections Counseling, that was the foundation, the base of the place that I could plant my feet and feel connected with the community exists. It has everything to do with the rest of my post prison life, having that base to return and feel connected to like that team center. So I think we are missing a huge resource pool in our country to help our youth with all the extreme restrictions we place on individuals when they get out.
David Kruse: No, that makes sense. And so why policies? Why did you – what prompted you to move form, because it sounds like you enjoyed the counseling a lot. What prompted you to make your nest move and start helping the – you know got to know the Feingold folks and then Obama campaign?
JD Stier: Yeah, so I don’t like politics and I typically don’t like politicians and I’m not a political party guy. Really having worked on the campaigns and in the White House, I am not a fan and look the whole systems, it’s so corrupt with ridiculous money, with ridiculous influence from some ridiculous lousy groups that just keep so many of us, working class, entrepreneur, students, you know woman and children at a disadvantage because of the status quo. So our political system is a mess. I’m not a fan of it and wasn’t in any way like drawn to politics. Quite the opposite; it was through, you know very personal interactions I had with individuals, so many connections where I realize human beings are being held down you know all across the country and that the government is engaging with individuals around certain behaviors and making the situation much worse. If there was really a way to respond at that personal level from my own experiences, but the experiences of the youth in Madison, Wisconsin that led me to start speaking out against the political system and challenging politicians to do better and it was in that vein of activism that I started to connect with some reformers that held office. So Russ Feingold I consider to be one of a more dedicated humanist reformer politician. You know he really boxed the status quo and so I formed very few relationships with politicians because I think there is very few politicians that are serving the public, but it’s through those relationships that I formed some alliances and was able to be a part of a political process where then the hard work comes in and that is a long and slow struggle. If you are dedicated to change on an issue, you got to be in it for the long haul, because you know you can take a look at healthcare and a lot of people on the system is come out of that and they look at Obama care as a complete failure. Well, tens of millions of more Americans now have access to healthcare and nobody with diabetes is going to be denied healthcare ever again. So you got to look through those more incremental wins. I don’t think 30 million Americans have healthcare and you know never again being able to deny someone because of a pre-existing condition; it’s incremental. I think those were huge victories. So I think that realigns my activism to look at what the real win is, what level or degree of progress is possible. Since I am in it for the long haul, but I think I’ve let go of a lot of my childhood, Madison, Wisconsin you know idealistic, utopian views of how the whole world has got to change and all these sectors and all these administrations, that just isn’t going to happen overnight. So got into politics making specific changes and I am just a few years in out of what’s going to be a lifelong struggle.
David Kruse: Oh, that’s great. And do you remember that – have you ever seen a video back in the Obama campaign, you know that was eight years ago and I have seen a video of you like kind of getting everyone pumped up. Do you remember the first event that you kind of led and were you nervous for it, because…
JD Stier: Oh man, what a question. So there is some back story here. At the time Wisconsin’s Governor was the honorable Jim Doyle. Someone I think most of Wisconsin, but especially teachers and public employees really miss. And so Governor Doyle was going to come to our Madison Obama headquarters grand opening and I think this is the first weekend in July of 2008. Now a little bit of background. I had spent two years in prison in the state of Wisconsin and the Governor is the Chief Executive for its state, and so it’s ultimately the Governor that would entertain a plea for executive clemency or a pardon, but it’s also the Governor that you would petition for early release. Now I served my time and I got out and I was going about living my life as the kid and increasingly as a political activist. But here I was you know less than eight years out of prison, a full time staff on the Obama campaign and we’re going to be launching this event and I was going to be standing side by side by Wisconsin’s Governor. So nervous, nervous also because I knew at that time that he had heard of my story and heard about me coming from prison and getting involved in the political movement and really advocating for youths, low gangs and drugs. So nervous? Yes. I wanted the event to go very well. I was also nervous to meet him. He ultimately pardoned me, wiped away my felony record. I am no longer a convicted felon, thanks to Governor Jim Doyle and who was his I think experience working – seeing me work on the Obama campaign and ultimately going off to Washington in the Whitehouse that coupled with letters of support from the sentencing judge, the district attorney and my lawyer as well. All got behind a plea to have Governor Doyle issue that pardon. But yeah, that first event, I guess a lot hung on that, a lot more than I even knew at that time. But that relationship ended up going really well. I think for me too it all came back to focus on the job, focus on what you have to do that day, really focus on what’s at hand and me and my past and pardons and the like really didn’t – it wasn’t in the cards that day. It was all about organizing a good event and inviting you know many hundreds of potential volunteers for the Madison area, introducing them to the campaigning team and the event went really well. It was a cordial meeting of Governor Doyle and we had a very successful few months ahead of us to elect Barack Obama.
David Kruse: Nice. Yeah, I remember in the video seeing that you were a – you definitely got people pumped up, which I could see, so your good at that.
JD Stier: Maybe two months later, Barack Obama was planning to come to Madison. Bruce Springsteen was going to open up. We were going to block off West Wash for him and so we – the video that you’re referring to was we had at least 500 volunteers, really engaged volunteers down to the High Noon Saloon and these 500 volunteers were going to staff the Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen as done on West Washington Avenue. And so we had around 500 people packed into a volunteer train. That’s not an exciting meeting and so my role in that meeting was to get up there and get everyone pumped up and excited about the work that we were about to do. So I had a little charge of you know ‘Obama ’08, be a part of something great’ and got everyone yelling. That’s what I like to do and I got to do that in the high noon. Unfortunately Barack Obama’s grandmother passed away the week of the event and so he had to cancel the event literally at the last minute to head out to Hawaii there in October 2008. But the meeting and pumping up the volunteers lasts.
David Kruse: That’s still there. We should try and put a link to that if I can track it down.
JD Stier: I think I could find that for you, yeah.
David Kruse: I know we still have to talk about your youth, which is more the juicy part, but yeah I still have some more professional questions. At some point we should segway into your youth, but I am curious, how was it working at the Whitehouse and what did you do there?
JD Stier: I wish I could write myself a letter today. Back in 2009 I was walking on Langdon Street. I had already been hired back by Barack Obama for the healthcare push. So Obama from there had the Presidential campaign turn into organizing for America and organizing a project of the VNC. So I was working for the VNC in Wisconsin, organizing. At that time we had five of eight congressional representatives from the democratic. My job was to get all five of the Wisconsin democrats to convince publicly to supporting healthcare. If we could get all the democrats onboard and onboard with single pair and the like, we would have the confidence to push ahead to the House of Senate and Obama would sign healthcare in the law. I get a phone call walking up Langdon Street from a blocked number. It goes to voicemail. I listen to it a minute later and it’s the Whitehouse. It’s the acting Chief of Staff for the Whitehouse Drug Policy Office who says, ‘we have your resume here and we’d love to talk to you about a position. Give me a call at your convenience.’ That’s just a moment where you know everything stops and I just couldn’t comprehend and what I didn’t know at that time was never in the American history had anyone gone from the jailhouse to the Whitehouse. A convicted felon has never been cleared to work in the Whitehouse and so I didn’t even know how impossible this was. But I called back, I shaved, I put on a suite. I drove up to DC. I walked into the Whitehouse. I was sitting under the Presidential ceiling waiting to get called in. I get called in. I have an interview of what the brand new drugs are. Gil Kerlikowske who just came at the Seattle Police Chief, the day he was appointed the headlines was ‘No More War on Drugs’ and this is really what the Obama Whitehouse has done for these eight years, is to just do away with the language and to start to chip away at the policy that looks at drug users and those who posses drugs as criminals. It really tipped the scaled back to training and it’s a public health crisis that is and responding with prevention and intervention and treatment instead of law enforcement. So I am on all levels, I had been to prison and you know I’ve struggled on this issue for the better part of my life and here I am setting what the drugs are. And he says, I see on paper you had a lot of good stuff here, but tell me who you are and so I opened up to big Gill. I shared him my story and what I was working on and they thought it to be a good fit to have me at the Whitehouse. So they have all this background that say what ended up happening is the Secret Service no. Like ‘No way Obama.’ It’s like, ‘you guys can’t start to fill in the Whitehouse with felons, no’ and so the FBI decided to send a field agent out to Madison to interview family, friends, ex-girlfriends, ex-coworkers, ex-bosses to just find out yeah, okay, this guy is not trustworthy, he is not safe. There you go Secret Service. Now you got something to back up your plan, because there is a political battle between Obama and his staff and the administration you know. The FBI is there, the Secret Service is there all the time. They have a job to keep the President safe, even against his own wishes sometimes you know, so they said no onto my hire. But after meeting about 40 people that I know of, all family, friends, co-workers and the like, the FBI came back out with a report that says, you got to let this guy in. He is the real deal, he is trustworthy. He really has turned his life around and he really is the one to talk about these issues. So the FBI kind of turned into an advocate and the Secret Service eventually approved me and I was started in the Whitehouse in August 2009, a few months later. And then what I’d say while working in there is that I wish I could write myself a letter to say you know, you don’t need to fight every battle every day. You can take a longer term view on some of these battles. I came into the Whitehouse from hippy activist Madison, Wisconsin, with a really extreme progressive ideology and the system doesn’t work that way, but even inside the Whitehouse, a good Whitehouse is going to have a lot of different points of view represented at the policy table and so I immediately alienated myself you know speaking up in the first senior level policy retreat where the drugs are and says, ‘okay, I’ve got all the smartest people in the room. Some countries are starting to legalize, some places are starting to de-criminalize. I want to get a pulse in the room.’ The Head of the Office of supply reduction. So the man who is in charge two-thirds of the $15 billion budget waging corporate operations from Afghanistan, all the way through to the Andes in Peru and Columbia says, you know law enforcement is the way. You know keeping it illegal is the way. We’ve got to blah, blah, blah, and I rose my hand and I said, ‘you know there’s a lot of individuals when they see a police officer rolling up to their house that do not think that help is on the way. The police are synonymous with breaking up homes, breaking up families and jail time.’ I said, ‘something worth considering is that we as a people couldn’t respond to those struggling with drugs with sending out a case worker, a social worker, you know someone to open up in a dialogue. You get to learn a bit better the individuals situation, the family’s situation and then you start to suggest community interventions, you know wrap around services.’ Prison is so expensive and it often just turns people into criminals. And so you know by speaking out so boldly and right away every day, I didn’t play the political game. I didn’t build the long term relationships that would if I ever went back, back into the belly of the beast. And so I had a whole lot of fights. I was a little extreme and I think by the time I left the Whitehouse I learned a lot of lessons by doing things that I think are in the wrong way at a lot of instances. My key takeaway for working at the Whitehouse though is that policy change happens when the more risk averse in an institution. So if you are trying to change policy at Apple computers. You don’t like what they are doing with labor in Africa or minerals in the Congo; if you are trying to change a U.S. law, there are going to be risk averse policy makers around that board room or around that policy table and your job isn’t to appeal to those that you agree with at the policy table. You are not trying to identify you know in my case one or two less than progressives and then you have won the argument and then the change will come. No, you have to build an argument and create a pathway to progress that involves and includes and empowers the risk averse, and so the way the risk averse inside the Whitehouse tend to come around in the benefits of certain policy changes, you know a lot of consistent narrative in the media, a lot of media around if you have an issue; influential groups speaking out about a specific type of change on a given issue. Students have the stereotype of not being politically involved, you know the collectivist generation millennials. And so if you can show organized groups of youths around college campuses around the country, you know a celebrity influencers like our own Aaron Rodgers and others start speaking out on behalf of an issue and if the students and the celebrities, the influencers and the thought leaders through academia and NGOs are all starting to speak in Unison around a given issue, then at that point in time I saw some of the most risk adverse advisors say, ‘Ouff, this is a real political issue. I think we should examine making this change.’ And so my takeaway was you know fighting a little headstrong for myself and so learning how to be a little bit more diplomatic, but then the big takeaway is how change really happens in America and some of that critical mass, we as activists have to build up before you can think that or expect that that change is going to come.
David Kruse: No, that is interesting. Its well put and right, you can’t just dive in there and start spieling a bunch of words. You have to lay the foundation, get to know other people and how they think and yeah, no that’s interesting. So yeah, so let’s – so after the Whitehouse, I mean that’s kind of what you’re doing – you’ve been doing. Can you tell us a little about what work you’ve done with the Congo and then after that we’ll get into your youth. But yeah, what have you been doing since the Whitehouse?
JD Stier: Yeah, so when I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, coincidentally my roommate Kou Ayuen and it was what the U.S. media refers to as one of the Lost Boys of South Sudan. Tens of thousands of youth were fleeing from South Sudan. There was a raging war and this is before the Genocide and Darfur. This is between the north and the south of that vast country and youth were fleeing because youth were getting swallowed in to the pipe as child soldiers. And so if a mother wanted to keep her young boy from becoming a child soldier, she just looked him in the eyes and said walk east and they literally you know fighting off lions and drought and dehydration and having to do some things that human beings shouldn’t have to do to survive and doing this long trek into refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Kou Ayuen was then adopted by an American family and he and I met in college and were introduced to a teacher that said, ‘okay, you’re both coming from some different walks of life. You guys should at least know each other.’ So that’s how I met Kou. I was fresh out of prison. He was coming to UW from his adopted family in North Dakota and he invited me to Africa when he became a U.S. citizen, the spring of our sophomore year. The same month I got off parole and could apply for a passport. So we applied for passports together. We went to Africa; my first time leaving the country. Another war raging on and I am meeting with his family members who are all refugees who fled South Sudan into neighboring Kenya and for the next 10 years of my life I continued visiting Africa, of course getting more invested Kou’s family and struggles and the larger political issues, but feeling quite impotent; I mean what can I do. And I see soo many instances, especially white American attempts at saving the Africans that really disturbed me and disgusted me. There is a whole lot of development I didn’t want to be a part of, but it was coming out of the Whitehouse and having acknowledged the linkages of Western political corruption and western economic interests that is playing a huge role in devastating Central Africa, in particular the east of the democratic republic of Congo, and I realized that if Apple and Intel and some of the world’s major tech companies and Glenn Corp and ENRC and some of the World’s major mining companies cleaned up their act, cleaned up their supply chains, got serious about where their minerals are coming from and kicked the armed groups out of the supply chain. Armed groups were profiting hundreds of millions of dollars a year and using rape as a weapon of war to secure mining sites from local communities. But if Apple and Intel and Glenn Corp and ENRC got serious about corporate social responsibility, the world would be a better place. And so when I left the Whitehouse, I took a job leading me enough projects to race out for the Congo campaign for the next three years and that’s how I got to meet you know Aaron Rodgers and Robin Wright and Emmanuelle Chriqui and Wamba and soo many incredibly inspiring individuals that wanted to lend their name and their platform to progress. I got to organize a campus movement around North America and dipping into Europe and we ultimately had success. Petitioning Apple to address their supply chain and Congo’s Conflict Minerals and its supply chain. I set up an event at the Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest tech conference in January 2013 where Robin Wright went to Congo just a few years earlier joined Brian Krzanich, Intel’s CEO, the world’s largest chip manufacturer on stage to make a public statement that every chip Intel ships from here on out will be Congo conflict free and his company has invested millions. They took big strides to clean up their supply chain. So I had started this to realize the fruits of our labor. That this model of working with students, finding people who are highly influential to society and hammering a very consistent, yet positive forward looking narrative in the media can have results; and so that led to in 2014 leaving you know a project to start a new start up and for us to launch a flagship campaign called Stand with Congo. We are now having secured commitments from the world’s major tech companies. We are going on to the world’s major mining companies which you know just opposed to you know San Francisco based tech companies which have some very naturally less moving humanitarian oriented CEOs. Let’s just say I’m starting to deal with the world’s real James Bond villains now and I think I got my work cut out for me.
David Kruse: Oh! Man, I think you are making us all fell a little inadequate about what we do on a daily basis.
JD Stier: I hope not man. Anyone can do this, but I’m just saying, I refused to give up.
David Kruse: Anybody can do it, but you are doing it. No, that’s awesome. And then you also have, which I like this name, is Forward Stier – Oh wait, Stier Forward.
JD Stier: Stier Forward I guess.
David Kruse: Stier Forward, yeah, yeah and so that is you can – you kind of you help any type of, well in general crises that somebody if they want to, you can help them to set up campaigns and you know help ameliorate the situation. Is that essentially what Stier Forward does?
JD Stier: Yes, what Stier Forward is all about is you know humanize, organize, politicize you know. Sorry, sorry, let me start over again. What’s Stier Forward is all about is humanize, organize, politicize. What’s happening in Africa, the Great Lakes and Congo, but what’s also happening right here in America and even in Wisconsin in our own prison systems is individuals read a lot of news about prison, prison overcrowding. They read a lot of news about African war, but they are not making this human connection. They are not putting a face to the issue and so at Stier Forward we start out any public engagement with a film, a film series where we can put a face and bring humanity back to the center of the conversation. So we like to humanize the saturation first. One of our first project was to work with New York based PCI media impact and Paul G. Allen out of Seattle. His family foundation funded the ISurvivedEbola campaign. So what we had in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea really horrific outbreaks. Thousands of people coming out and dying with Ebola and the later on in the infections, the more contagious the individual becomes. We saw a spread at a horrific rate throughout West Africa and of course everyone in the world in late 2014 was worried about Ebola jumping to other countries. And so what Stier Forward did was to hire up and recruit some of our best film makers that we worked in Africa with and dispatch them out to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to interview Ebola survivors. Who it acquired? Who were the heroes? Who was the lone survivor in their community? What did they do? What steps did they take? So by humanizing the situation we produce a 30 part documentary series, 10 parts in each of those three countries, where everyday country men and women from that country just shared their own very personal story about when they experienced symptoms, how they were felling, they went to the Ebola treatment unit, they received treatment from the doctors. They are scary. They work within spacesuits, but we received treatment, I lived and now I’m back home. And so disseminating the critical public health message, reducing stigma around Ebola survivors were our goal and by humanizing the situation we were able to organize the community. Ebola survivors began forming associations, working together in part of as a result of the campaign and the file, but then really maintain that engagement at the state level to politicize the moment, to advocate for increased services, increased access to healthcare so you can politicize the things that individuals are advocating for, which is what we are all about. And so in the context of Congo or US Mass incarceration, we went to humanize, we went to organize the various key demographics or constituency students, you know celebrities, athletics and the like who can make a big different in public speaking and raising awareness around an issue and then politicize. You know it all comes down to pushing for that ultimate change in the world, so we are not just standing around talking about something. You know we are demanding a very specific and concrete change. And in the course of Congo right now and our stand with Congo campaign, we are demanding that the western mining companies cease signing secretive deals paying billion dollar bribes to Congo’s President Kabila and instead enter in to mining contracts in transparency and in public light and allow the Congolese people to enter into the conversation about how Congo’s resources should be divided up and spent for Congolese people.
David Kruse: Interesting. And so if anybody had an issue they wanted to work on, I mean could they hire Stier Forward to work on it anywhere in the world?
JD Stier: Absolutely, yes. Stier Forward has worked with groups on public health in African. We are working on with a group on preserving tigers in South Asia and shutting down the Chinese Tiger market. We worked on some conservation projects. We are working on, right now looking at a project in Afghanistan to boost their judicial sector. So yeah, we are involved in a lot of different issues, got a lot of great talented people that all kind of fit into this model of humanize, organize, politicize which you know very simply means making experts films, planning you know robust, engaging targeted campaigns and ultimately you know through the media creating those shifts in policies to solve those issues. So yeah, we work with a lot of folks as long our values align.
David Kruse: I like it, and can – 20 years ago could you have imagined that what you are doing now?
JD Stier: I thought I was more in the Pablo Escobar track. So instead of being dead, you know having a little start up and working on some of these issues, I’m a very happy man.
David Kruse: I bet and so yes, so I spent – we spent a lot more time in your professional life, it’s just because it’s so interesting, but let’s talk about your youth days a little bit and plus I didn’t know much about your professional life. I may have known about some, but I probably know a little bit more about your youth days at least and yeah, so just for the audience you know JD was – I probably stated – I was at sixth or seventh grade probably when I met you and JD was always kind of one of the rough bad kids, but obviously like super nice. Like he was always a little edgy, but always very nice, like. And so – but then I just kept I think escalating a little bit and – but yeah, so. Yeah I mean do you remember one of the first times that you did something that was pretty illegal, beyond like I said in the notes, beyond jail walking.
JD Stier: Yeah. You know everyone in the middle school years are awkward you know and my parents went through a divorce and my month had some really scary health issues, so I lost it. I freaked out. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel happy or safe at home and I started sneaking out at night and I’ve always wondered you know what was I looking for, what was I trying to do. I would convince a couple of friends to meet up at our elementary school down near the playground at midnight, on a school night and that’s where I felt a sense of belonging and you know we are sneaking out, we are sneaking out every night and eventually that got a little old, so we started running around the neighborhood and one thing led to the other. At the time we were watching movies and listening to music, they were all about thug life and want to be tough and so we started sneaking in some open garages, and eventually one night I opened up a car door that was parked in the street and was looking in the car. We didn’t need money, we were really just bring vandals and then being ridiculous and disrespectful to people and their property and here are the car keys hanging out of the ignition. So I think that was the major step-up in our ridiculous crime spree was I mean me and a couple of buddies, I found the keys in this car and I snatched the keys and we ran down the block and had a little team meeting. And our infinite wisdom decided that I would go up, put the car in neutral and we try to get the car away from the house quietly. So we did it, we stole that car and five minutes into our joy ride past midnight on the sleepy west side of Madison Wisconsin, Madison police officer all of a sudden is behind us as we are driving down Gammon road very late on a weeknight. So our joy ride didn’t last long. The cop wasn’t paying any special attention to us luckily, but we still turned as quick as we could, made a couple of quick turns and ditched the car you know less than a mile from where we took it, horrified of seeing the cop. We got away with it, noting happened that day, but you know as the summer went on and we stole a few more cars and broke into few more house, you know shit hit the fan and we ended up getting sent away to juvi for the better part of the year for stealing cars and a string of burglaries.
David Kruse: Yes, and some of those friends you were with, we probably could have them on the podcast too, but we won’t.
JD Stier: I’m not sure they want me to say any of that.
David Kruse: We’ll keep that part of it.
JD Stier: Everyone has gone on to being like lawyers and bankers and they are like, ‘dude, don’t talk about those years.’
David Kruse: Yeah, your crew – I mean I don’t know, maybe your entire crew, but a lot of your crew has been gone to do some pretty interesting stuff, which is, that’s just what is – that’s why sometimes the rebellious kids do the most interesting things, but…
JD Stier: It is. And one of our best buddies has gone on to build jet engines for NASA in the Boulder area and everyone has gone on to do some pretty interesting stuff.
David Kruse: Yes, exactly. I mean yeah. Anyways so yeah and I remember one time vividly that coming into middle school, it’s probably like eighth grade and seeing all these tracks, these tier tracks in the grass and they are like who did this, like this is ridiculous and then, but we – but then the word got around that it was probably JD and that was my first time when I was like, Wow! They are really escalating this to another level.
JD Stier: Yeah, we couldn’t have been bigger dumb assess in like you know the school there to try to create a space for youth and for us to be you know pissing off the school and damaging the schools lawn and me mouthing off the teachers, like that’s my biggest regret from my youth; is you know it’s challenging in any way the school and bad mouthing the teachers who are living a very taintless life, already dealing with very difficult parents as they are trying to play positive roles in youths lives and that’s my biggest regret, is all these really stupid things I did to act out against authority, but my authority at that time was school and we were real dumbasses.
David Kruse: And what year did you go to juvi for a year?
JD Stier: So spring break in my session year high school I got sent away for the burglaries and stealing cars. Now I was gone 10.5 months and when I got back they didn’t want me back in my high school so I went to the downtown high school for the rest of my high school years.
David Kruse: Okay, that’s right and yeah, so when you – you probably weren’t, but like committing the robberies because I still remember MAS and we still have some burglaries but it’s all like. And I always say, I bet it’s just a bunch of high school kids. Its lot of a garage break-ins and car break-ins and I’m like I knew a bunch of stupid kids who did that too and it’s not like necessarily a super dangerous folks, but – so did you ever think about impact like the people – you are probably freaking out people. They were just burglarized and here it is just some kids. Did you ever think about the people you robed?
JD Stier: Yeah, and that’s really my major regret is you know the feeling that I led a family to feel. They’d wake up and realize that something is missing from the car, something is missing from the garage; in our stupidest of moments actually going into someone’s home. Again, young kids. We were sober. I wasn’t against drugs and alcohol at that time. I had never touched the stuff. We were just young, knuckle head kids who just want to be destructive. You know there is no goal, there is no specific intent. We just want to be destructive and so here we are going into people’s garages and homes and what I didn’t realize at that time was just that feeling of insecurity and venerability, exposure and victimization that we spread around our home community and that’s what I feel like, for many years I owe that debt to society and wanted to pay back as a form of restitution, working with families, working with youth, working with the police, working with the local community for many years to feel like I have began to pay back debt by putting all my efforts into preventing it from happening again, working with youth in a similar situation, because yeah, it’s not cool, it’s so disrespectful. A lot of people, it included like the differentiates, the murders and the rapists, you know the aggravated assaults from our non violence first time offenders and like talk about the prison population is housing millions on non-violence individuals. It’s not to say that non-violent crimes shouldn’t be addressed, it’s just to say non-violent crime is different in nature and it poses a different threat to safety that violent crime does. Its s still crime, it’s still creates victims, it still is the loss of security and so I have put in tireless effort over the now 16 years that I’ve been out of prison to appeal, to heal communities, to help families feel as I try to prevent non-violent crime and its consequences since.
David Kruse: Yeah, I mean you have done some amazing stuff, so you can definitely forgive yourself. I think – yeah, you could have gone a different direction, that’s for sure and you didn’t and so how did you get caught in your freshman. I mean besides everyone knowing what you’re doing but…
JD Stier: Yeah, I think if you take a peek a year forward, we are pretty good at just humble sizing what we were up telling out story. I was the same way as a teenager, you know pounding my chest, hey you the man, driving around stolen cars, you want a ride at lunch time. Yeah, I made a lot of noise about whatever I was ever doing, which meant certain doom very, very quickly in the criminal affairs. So it’s funny though, me and two buddies Jim and Brody were driving down Yellowstone Drive in that first stole car I was telling you about. This was a few weeks later we went back and got it from the place we ditched it that night and we moved it to another parking lot and we were taking this car out every once in a while. We were driving the car down Yellowstone drive and unknown to us, our recent Cub Scout leader saw us driving the car and called the police and said, ‘that’s JD Stier in the car. I know he is only 14 shouldn’t be driving.’ So Madison police were driving down Yellowstone and we passed them head on and they were looking into us and we were looking into the police car and I looked in the rear view and the police car did a super quick 180 and turned on its lights. And so we thought we had just gotten recognized for whatever reason or the car got recognized, but I got into a little bit of a high speed chase, looked at my companion and said ‘all right, we are going to jump out of the car and the car is going to keep going the cops are going to have to stay with the car and we are going to run off and be safe.’ So I slowed the car down the next turn and I looked over at Jim and Rody and I said, ‘all right guys, three, two, one and all the doors opened up.’ We ran off in different direction never to see each other again. We all spread like cockroaches. The car continued on, took out a couple of trees before it came to a stop. But the cops were waiting for me when I got home, because they knew who I was before they even found us, because…
David Kruse: Because of the…
JD Stier: Yeah. So that’s how I got arrested at age 14.
David Kruse: Oh man! That was like Hollywood.
JD Stier: It was quite a day. It was quite a vivid day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget any of the moments of that day.
David Kruse: And did the other guys get in trouble at all?
JD Stier: I was hoping not and I took – it’s like I took responsibility, so I was like yeah, I was driving, I stole the car, I did this, I did that, but they didn’t let go. You know like they really wanted to know who we were with and who else was involved and so I took all the blame that I could, but my bothers still got into a little bit of trouble. No one got locked up, no one got in that serious of trouble, but they got a little slap on their list too.
David Kruse: Nice, okay. All right, and so how was juvi. Was it pretty fun?
JD Stier: Juvi was a good time. Lots of Netflix, lots of paint ball, really fun activity. Juvi – this is the thing people don’t know, juvi is way worse than prison.
David Kruse: Really?
JD Stier: Juvi is way more violent. Like picture prison and then take away age, experience and maturity. The same group of guys and they are all raging hormones with an adolescent male mind. A tag for when I was in Wisconsin, probably in a lot of states Gladiator School. Everybody is so insecure, so young, so hormonal, everyone is constantly testing each other, beating each other up, challenging each other physiologically. Juvi if anything prepared me to be a model prison inmate than in my adult years. Juvi was super aggressive, super prejudice, super violent. Yeah, Juvi sucks.
David Kruse: Wow! So did you fear for your safety on a regular basis or how…
JD Stier: I feared for my safety a ton in juvi, but then I did even more so in adult prison. Because in adult prison all of a sudden I’m sharing the showers and I’m you know sharing very scary dark concrete rooms with men who do rape, with men who have murdered and men who have you know aggravated and beaten and assaulted a whole lot of people for very little reasons. And so having watched shawshank and having the same experience of prison is any American going into it and I was terrified and seeing some fights and seeing some sexual violence you know firsthand in prison, you know it only heightened my awareness and my fear. So the years I spent in adult prison were yeah, some of the most insecure and fearful on my life and I think as much as a male can in this country, having some empathy around rape culture and what it feels like to walk down an ally or a street or go into a certain room and worry that someone else is going to walk in there and rape me and living with the constant threat or fear of sexual violence and/or just violence, that feeling, that constant pressure, that constant awareness that you are in an unsafe place where unsafe things happen, that I think has formed a lot of my kind of deeper values around advocacy, around you know sexual violence in Congo, but addressing mass incarceration here in the states. To feel venerably sexually, to feel a threat, because rape is real and rape is happening in that environment is something that’s far too many millions of Americans, especially woman on U.S. college campuses feel every day.
David Kruse: Interesting and do you think about prison on a regular basis, just like that feeling that you’ve had, that you have.
JD Stier: Yeah, you can take a man out of prison, but you can’t take a prison out of the man. Yeah even watching making a murderer in our great home theater Wisconsin upholding examples of some of the best in criminal law enforcement, that was sarcastic and watching all of the many shows and films from Wondrous Middle Black to some of the amazing documentaries out right now. It’s hard, I mean it’s hard to watch. There’s a lot of moments in watching these films and these shows and something that feels so matter of fact and is shared as just a little quick fact in the film kicks me in the resume, because I realize that’s it’s because humans beings in the criminal justice systems aren’t seen as human being. That society is not treating individuals as human beings, that’s the stuff that really hits me. That’s the stuff that hurts in effects and it’s not the stuff that jumps out in a film or in a show when people are talking about prison. People just think it’s a matter fact that you know prisoners are less than human, they are other than us. That’s where the humanize comes in for the work that we and yeah, that what makes watching and reading about prison so difficult. It’s just our inherent prejudice against prisoners.
David Kruse: Interesting and so – no that makes sense. So after juvi, what did you do or what – you know you got back into it? How did you start getting back into it and what did you do as far as the…
JD Stier: So I went to juvi twice. I went to juvi when I was 14 for stealing a couple of cars and breaking into a few houses. When I was in juvi, that’s the first time I learned about marijuana, learned about selling drugs and learned about that whole side of the criminal underworld. We were just young punks and we were quite scared of drugs and alcohol ourselves at age 14. When I got out at 15 I had earned a bachelor in drug dealing and had made some connections out of the Chicago lands for some pretty amazing deals and so I really learned like a new trade when I was going to juvi. I was really immature taking direction from all the wrong people and so when I go out of juvi I very immediately started smoking marijuana for the first time and selling it there at the Madison schools to kids my age and within about six months I got arrested for marijuana, because I was up at Play Park in Madison’s near Westside with a lot of marijuana and smoking marijuana outside in the public and we were shooting a BD gun at public signs. It didn’t take long for the cops to get called, so there I go again and when I got sent away to juvi for marijuana, I went away for a big chunk of my junior and senior year again, and then when I go out quite a cool wrapped up school, I realized if I didn’t get some grades and get some good grades quick I wasn’t going to graduate and that didn’t seem cool. So I graduated but very soon after graduation, a few things happened. My parents were exhausted. They are like, you are like 18, you are out of here. You are no long our worry, our problem. The court also completely let go of me. There was no after care, there was no follow-up plan. I as released from the juvenile system. So at 18 I had rented a cheap apartment with a couple of friends and the courts and my parents had all washed their hands of me. So I got back in, I got back in way deeper with way bigger connections that are way higher volumes and as a very, very short amount of time. I watched Johnny Depp in the movie in Blow and that really reminders me of just how quick and easy it is for someone to get in way too deep and I think I got some natural abilities around organizing and bring an entrepreneur and building networks that with my skill set you know marijuana, it was just going to be a big disaster almost overnight. So in less than a year I was living in La Fiel in the penthouse downtown Madison and the narcotics task force served a search warrant and found seven pounds of marijuana, $10,000 cash. And the thing that really screwed me that I had no idea was the two guys who had came up from Chicago to sell me the weed that were in my apartment for the raid, they had a loaded gun on them, and so when I went off to court, when I went off to prison, I was in prison under the understanding of an armed drug sale, when I myself had never had a weapon and never have been in a fight and really avoid the physical and threats of arms at every extent possible, so you know what I was trying to be was a peaceful weed dealer and those guys having a guy made everything much worse. So instead of getting a change at a minimal security prison, I was right into the big house with the worst of guys and so it made my prison experience much harsher, because those guys from Chicago ended up having a gun.
David Kruse: Oh my goodness! Interesting. Well, and so did you every deal anything else besides marijuana?
JD Stier: Yeah, I did a whole lot of experimenting, but didn’t get too into anything. The worst, I think the worst mindset a youth can have is I’ll try everything once. That’s the most destructive mindset to have when it comes to crime and drugs, because it only takes trying something once if you got a pre-disposition to addition or pre-disposition to taking risks and trying new things that can one time can very easily lead to the 1000th time. I’m lucky and fortunate that I didn’t get too heavy in anything else and was able to live a drug and alcohol fee life when I got out of prison and focus on my health and live a healthy life. But there is a whole lot of people when they experiment with some of the other stuff, that becomes a lifelong struggle for me.
David Kruse: Interesting and you said your parents had enough of you, which I can understand that. And so at what point did you think about your parents, like man, I should probably stop this because this is super harm to my family and parents and well society too, but at what point did that kind of resonate with you?
JD Stier: Yeah, it was October of 1998. I go sentenced to go to prison and there was an article in the Wisconsin paper about it and I just felt the sense of shame that I had never felt before. I’m no longer a juvenile. I’m 19 years old, so my name, my photo its right there in the state newspapers. So of course parents, everyone you work with, everyone you built relationships with over their lives, you know it’s just a deeper sense of shame that I brought on the family. And so when I got get sent to prison and just felt horrible for the effect I had on everyone else, I wrote three letters my first day in prison. I wrote a letter to my father and said first off, I’m not asking for money, I’m not asking for anything, I’m not asking you to bail me out or anything. I need my father in my life and I just want to know that you and I could have a relationship. I sent a similar letter to my month and I sent a letter to Shelly Dutch, the woman who founded and owns Connections Counseling that teams and I have gone through before I went to court and asked the same to Shelly Dutch. Shelly Dutch invited me to have a volunteer internship when I first got out of prison, again this is something that completely saved my life. It connected me to the community, allowed me to start building some positive relationships and it allowed me to make sense of shame and the stigma I carried from my past and turn it into something positive and that’s the transformative process we’ve got to figure out as a society. How do we help people deal with that shame, deal with the stigma that they are enduring and help them reconnect to society in a positive way and my mother and my father thankfully and luckily welcomed me back in and visited me when I was gone and were standing there with open arms when I got out of prison and we’ve had excellent relationships every since.
David Kruse: Interesting. Yeah, so it sounds like a big part of – because I was curious. Like we talked about you could have gone one way or other, but was it a big part of the relationships that you had when you got out; was that the big difference do you think compared to the smaller folks what they have?
JD Stier: Everybody needs – I really think that you know maybe one in a billion can do this whole life thing on their own. But I really think as human beings we need an ally, like we just need one anchor. We don’t have to have an army of supporters; we don’t have to have a team standing behind us, but we really need an allay and as things start falling apart at home and/or your mother or your father are part of the problem and you need that teacher, you need that coach, you need that friends parents to step in and just look you in your eyes and say, you know what I believe in you. You’re supposed to be here and you got a life worth living. You really think that we need one allay and so to have a couple of those for me when I first got out of prison that made all the difference in the world.
David Kruse: That makes sense, all right. So we are almost done here at the interview. I got a couple of quick questions. One is just on the prison, do you have any stories that you every shared with let’s say the youth to essentially, I don’t know to scare them is the right word, but just say like prison is real and you don’t want to go there and this is why. So you have any stories that you can share over the air like that?
JD Stier: You bet. So it’s really a story about resilience, but it’s also I think it highlights the insecurity, the threat and the fear and it has the happy ending, but it very well could have gone another way and it definitely goes another way for a lot of people in prison. So I went into to prison and I’m about five foot ten inches. I’m about 170 pounds today. When I went into prison same height, was 129 pounds and was the skinniest, burn out hippy pot dealer you would have ever seen, skin and bones and I wind up in maximum security prison. A whole lot of murders and rapist and I thought to myself what I’ve got to do to is get big and rich. This is what I told myself. This was my brilliant plan to survive prison, but to get big and muscular, that’s how I am going to put it. So the very first time I went to the gym, there was a whole lot about prison politics I didn’t know and what I didn’t know is you know the races don’t mix. I grew up having a lot of friends who were you know African American, Asian, Indian, Latino. We didn’t think much about race there when we were growing up and you know we never heard racial slurs. Like we just lived in a nice little bubble where people loved each other, regardless of the color of their skin, and it is a little bubble. A whole of the world and a whole lot of the rest of Wisconsin is living and breathing trumpisms and the racial slurs and the like. I was new to that world, so I didn’t know how divided it was and I just went right up to the weight machines where all the black guys were working out, no white guys allowed. I didn’t know any better. They looked at me like, what is this little guy doing here? And I just worked out the whole hour, you know lifting barely the weight of the bar. Like a 45 pound weight bar, push, push, push, push. Yeah, doing all my little workout, doing the arm curls. Again, the skinniest and most pathetic looking guy in prison. When you haven’t worked out, you haven’t worked out in a while or in my case ever and get done with a really intense workout, your arms are like rubber, you could barely hold a pencil to sign your name. So here I am first time in prison working out, going into the showers with all the big dudes for the very first time. I got my bar of soap in my hand and I’m soaping by body then in the showers surrounded by some of the biggest, most intimidating dudes out there and with those rubbery arms moving I’m the soap around my body the soap bar projects out of my hand up into the air big whole arc and a really loud dramatic splash as the soap hits the floor far away from me in the showers. Everybody in the prison showers looks at the soap, looks at me and I’m thinking to myself ‘Dave, okay I’m in prison are they looking at me, because it’s a prison joke, it’s a cliché. I just dripped the soap in the shower and so it’s a cliché or are they looking at me because I’m prison and I dropped the soap and I’m about to get it.’ I had no way of knowing. That scaredest moment of my life with no near competition and so what I did right then and there when everyone is looking at me and I’m looking at the soap and like it was the time for me to say or do something or something was going to be said or done to me and I moved my hands in a big sweeping arch up in front of my body and around to the back and I cupped my butt hole, I bent over a little bit the knees to kind of cover my but hole and I wiggled sideways over to pick up the soap. And everybody was laughing so hard that no one did anything and the next time I got to the gym they were patting me on the back because they think I’m funny. And so I think there is a whole lot of situations in prison that could have gone a different way, but everyone of those situations I just got a little stroke of luck.
David Kruse: Wow. Well, yeah stroke of luck and just kind of – I mean that’s why you are good at what you do now, you know how to…
JD Stier: Yeah, I know how to drop the soap.
David Kruse: You know how to drop the soap, that’s a good way to put it. That should be in your business card, ‘I know how to drop the soap.’ All right, well that’s a pretty good way to end. This is awesome and I obviously didn’t know – I knew some of it, but not a lot of it and so for me of course it was personally fascinating and just what you have done since college is like I said, we all feel a little smaller when compared to what you are working on, but in a good way. I mean what you are doing is pretty important. So I definitely appreciate it JD.
JD Stier: Really, thank you for showing an interest and giving me the opportunity to take about some of the stuff we are working on today in U.S. prisons, over in African, and always great to reconnect to friends from school. So thanks a lot Dave.
David Kruse: Definitely. And thanks JD and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs and hopefully made it through the entire. So I know it’s a little longer, but definitely well worth the listen. So thanks everyone. Bye.