LaShanna Alfred: Turning Adversity into a Strength

2014112795161105Often at Career 2.0, we write of women who have left one successful career to start a new one or perhaps launch a creative enterprise midway through a career.

This story is a little different.

LaShanna Alfred’s first “career” involved running and selling drugs and time spent in jail. She didn’t leave a successful career in order to find fulfillment, she left a life filled with tragedy and hardship, a life that many of us would have been unable to find a way out of. But Alfred did find a way.

Alfred was only two years old when her mother was murdered. Her mother was, as Alfred puts it, “basically in the wrong place with the wrong people.” About four years later, when she was in second grade, her father was in a fight and stabbed to death. An only child, Alfred went to live with her grandmother and uncles. When she was 12 or 13 her grandmother moved out, leaving Alfred with her uncles. “They turned the house into a drug house,” she recalls matter-of-factly. “They began selling drugs out of the house, having house parties. Even as a young girl I knew that I didn’t want to live like that. But most of the time I didn’t see anyone around me that I wanted to be like.”

The people that Alfred did feel she could look up to were her teachers. And so she thought that one day she too would like to be a teacher. She wanted to go to college but had little support in her home. She had her first child at age 18. “I thought if I had a child, I would feel love.” After high school, she managed to begin college with the intention of getting her degree, but the distractions at home proved too daunting.

“I ended up doing exactly what I had always said I didn’t want to do. I started selling drugs.”

While selling drugs, she managed to become certified as a nail technician and this became her vocation. In 1999, though, while in her early thirties, one of her cousins introduced her to a man from Guyana, who suggested she traffic drugs between Guyana and Toronto, Canada. She agreed to do it. Alfred says, “It wasn’t that I wanted the money or the lifestyle, but I saw it as a way out of an abusive personal relationship that I was in at that time.”

By now she had two children, and while the arrangements were being made for her to travel first to Guyana and then Toronto, Alfred discovered that she was pregnant for a third time. She desperately wanted to back out of the agreement but was unable to do so.

“When it finally came time for us to leave for Toronto, I had morning sickness. We had a layover in Trinidad, and I got caught in customs. So I was thrown into prison in20141225_170645Trinidad.”

Soon after her arrival, she got into a fight with an officer and was put into isolation for nearly two weeks. It was there – in the Hole – as it is not-so-affectionately known, that she had an epiphany. “At that moment, I was like, ‘ok, something has to change’. I was angry.” She rang in the new year in that Trinidadian jail and, in June of 2000, had her baby, also while still imprisoned. But about this time she started going to the prison church, and that is one of the things she credits with turning her life around.

In 2001, Alfred was moved to the Women’s Detention Center in Miami, Florida. She was released on parole in 2002, and thus began her new life. Her parole officer suggested  she might make a good social worker. She recalls with a laugh, “I didn’t even know what a social worker was, though once he explained it I thought, ‘Man, I needed a social worker when I was coming up.’” But the idea sounded right to her and it took hold. “From the moment I was released, my life was changed. I went back to living with my grandmother, along with my three children, but now I was so focused and determined not to allow everything that happened to me to be in vain.”

20150112_131918She persevered. Since her release, her accomplishments – both personal and professional – have grown. She received a Master’s in social work and became a licensed independent social worker supervisor, meaning she works directly with clients and also supervises a group of 15 other social workers. Alfred is currently the clinical director at a drug, alcohol, and mental health facility and an adjunct professor in social work at her alma mater, the University of Toledo. On top of all that, she has written two books: Behind Bars, A Chance to Change and Ladies, Take Your M.A.N Back: Mature Assertive Nature. In 2008, she got married and had her fourth child.
When asked whether she believes she would be as effective as a social worker if she had not been through her own life experiences, Alfred is thoughtful. “I only share my experiences if I believe it is going to help someone. But I’m effective because I have compassion. If you have the compassion and care for the people you are working with, they will be able to sense that, and they’ll respect and respond to that. People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” She laughs. “But I tell my younger social workers, ‘don’t go out and get into some kind of trouble because you think you’ll be a better social worker.”

20150112_131932“On the other hand,” she continues, “if I hadn’t been through all the stuff I’ve been through, I don’t know that I would have gone this route at all. Once I got on parole and the officer told me about social work, I went back to school and met a professor who became my mentor. I wouldn’t have had any of that. I would have been on my own. I would have known what I was doing wasn’t right, but I wouldn’t have known which way to go.”

Much of what Alfred’s accomplished has been to make sure that her struggles mean something. She has touched many lives through her counseling and encouraged others to do the same through her teaching. With her books, she hopes to broaden her audience. But she isn’t done. In the future, she sees herself traveling and speaking to groups about her experience in the hope of empowering and motivating others to reach their goals.

The 42-year-old Alfred sums things up this way: “No matter what the hardships, no matter what difficulties, what challenges, we have it in us to survive. We are built to survive.”

And LaShanna Alfred is living proof of her own words.

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