After receiving a prison sentence of 25 years to life under California’s three-strikes law for possessing a firearm, Kenyatta Leal says he blamed pretty much everyone but himself.
During an impassioned keynote address Wednesday at the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast event at Contra Costa College, Leal recalled blaming the homeboy who snitched on him after a robbery, his dad for abandoning him, and also the judge and district attorney who decided to lock him up and essentially throw away the key for a nonviolent offense.
But there was one person Leal forgot to blame — and he wouldn’t discover that person until about five years into his life prison sentence.
“I remember calling one of my homies and I was like, ‘They did this to me, they did that to me,'” Leal said. “And he said, ‘Hold on a minute…. They didn’t put you in jail. You put yourself in jail because of the choices you made.'”
That was hard for Leal to hear initially, but then it dawned on him.
“When I realized that I was the problem, I also realized that I was the solution,” he said.
On Wednesday, Leal wowed a packed crowd in Contra Costa College’s Fireside building with his incredible story of transformation from prison inmate to an educated, pioneering member of the The Last Mile, a six-month business and entrepreneurship program for inmates.
When California’s three-strikes rule was changed in 2012 to allow nonviolent cases to be reevaluated, Leal was able to show the judge immense progress. So prepared was he for re-entry into society that just two weeks after his release, Leal began an internship at RocketSpace, the San Francisco-based technology accelerator where he is now manager of campus services.
His story of success fit well with the new mission by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce of placing a larger focus on education and career pathways.
President and CEO James Lee held Wednesday’s event — which was sponsored by Chevron Richmond — at Contra Costa College specifically to connect the local business and education communities. His aim is to build a workforce for local businesses by having Chamber members work directly with college staff on preparing students for jobs.
Prior to Leal’s keynote address, Kelly Schelin, Contra Costa College director of economic and workforce development, pitched multiple ways her staff can work with businesses to prepare students, including customizing skills training based upon a business’ particular needs.
Before Schelin spoke, CCC student Brandy Corona presented about his pursuit of a business degree, as well as his business plan to operate a one-of-a-kind automotive services company.
“I had no academic career path out of high school; I was juggling work and school,” he said.
The resources he found at Contra Costa College has provided hope and direction, Corona added.
Leal says the willingness to ask for help makes all the difference.
“The single most important thing I did while incarcerated was to learn to ask for help,” Leal said. “When I reached out for help, it came from all different directions. It came from counselors. It came from family members. It came from other incarcerated people…because believe it or not, there are good people in prison. Good people who made bad choices.”