Everyone Has Potential & Something to Give 

I'm the poster child for, if she can do it, I can do it because I dropped out of school really young. I didn't graduate. I got my GED. I was a teen mother. I went to community college. Then I went to university, and then I went to law school. I had to take the bar exam three times to pass it; it wasn't easy for me.

Being a part of recovery, you have people from all walks of life. So you might have lawyers, judges, CEOs and business owners. And then you also might have people that are just getting out of jail and prison. You have all these people in the same room. We're able to engage each other and relate to each other around our humanness, our humanity. Everybody has something of value to share with other people. And I think that's amazing, because everybody needs that love, everybody needs that sense of community, everybody needs that sense of acceptance.

The Impact of Childhood Trauma

My name is Sarai Cook and I'm enrolled in a federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma called the Muskogee Creek Nation. I now live in Seattle. I am a mother. I am a tribal member. I am a community advocate. I'm an attorney. I'm formerly incarcerated myself.

I had my first drink when I was around 10 years old. I started buying joints with my lunch money in seventh grade. I believe the roots of addiction are early childhood trauma. For me, it was having a mother that was addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was in situations where there was a lot of violence. So I went in and out of foster homes. I went in and out of group homes. When I was 15, I was shot twice in a drive by after that, I started to sell drugs.

So I sold drugs just on the streets, for a long time. That's ultimately what led to my incarceration. While in prison, I went to different twelve step program meetings, I went to church, I did yoga behind bars, I was a welder, I worked for the commissary. I really worked on myself. I was given the opportunity to go to an early release program, which was six months of intensive treatment inside the prison.

Therapy & A Turning Point

One of the huge turning points in my life was through cognitive behavioral therapy. It was the first time in my life that I realized that not everything that I think is true. Up until that point, I thought that every thought I had was the truth. Recognizing that not everything I thought or felt reflected reality helped me process through life in healthier ways.

When I got out, I went to NARA - the Native American Recovery Association. I was able to get into low-income housing and I was able to get custody of my daughter back. I had a supportive community.

I felt like, you know, identifying with my tribe and inter-tribe community gave me a purpose to try to continue my education and serve others. But, I really think it's, it's the resources that helped me. It was the resource of low-income housing, food stamps, medical coverage, and just those basic human needs that were met.

Pursuing Education & My Passions

I found online the University of Portland entrepreneurship program, and I really wanted to be in that program because I wanted to learn about business. And I'm over here living in the housing project, being a single mom, rushing from class to go attend my daughter's soccer practice or basketball practice and then make dinner. So it was a very, very challenging environment. I am so happy that I got through it and didn't quit.

A criminal record can be a life sentence because there's 47,000 collateral consequences from having a criminal record. I assisted an organization in writing a grant for a reentry legal aid project. We help people with their civil legal needs. It started out with support groups for people coming out of prison that didn't necessarily identify as having a substance abuse problem, but they still needed that support. They still needed to get in a room with other people that had been incarcerated and talk about the challenges that they face upon release from prison.

Reducing Barriers to Restoration 

They're always hounded by their criminal record, and that ends up causing them issues with housing, employment education, and in so many ways. And that, you know, that morphed into developing educational programs around re-entry. It developed into system impact changes. I can see the cracks. I can see the cracks in the policies that are create that have and can continue to affect me personally.

I'm so, so grateful that I can live a life. It may not be the best life and it may not be the worst life, but you know what, it's my life. And I have choices. I think the things that I need to think, and I forgive the people that I need to forgive. If I just try and keep trying and don't let barriers stop me, then I can do it too. And so that's important to me, to be that person for people.


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