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Ex-inmate's mission: Keep others from going back to prison

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James Badu stands for a portrait with his two daughters.
James Badue-El stands for a portrait with his two daughters in St. Paul on March 14, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On a Wednesday in March, Sammy's Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis was packed. Tables were filled with people gathering for meetings, food or both. Among them was James Badue-El, a slight man with a booming voice and large smile. 

"It's a place where everybody who's somebody goes, meets, congregates," said Badue-El on the way into the building. He's the prison outreach chair for the Minneapolis NAACP.

After a quick hello, Badue-El introduced Andre Dukes, pastor at Shiloh Temple Industries, and made his way to the cashier to buy his wife Leslie a chicken salad sandwich.

"This brother has the most powerful messages on Sundays," Badue-El said. 

"We're just excited about the work that he's doing and how his life is really unfolding," said Duke of Badue-El.

James Badue-El, the NAACP chair for the state of Minnesota.
James Badue-El speaks to a large crowd during a rally outside the 4th Precinct in north Minneapolis on June 24, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Badue-El is a part of the fabric of the north Minneapolis. However, there was a time when he didn't feel accepted. On Sept. 29, 2014, the now 25-year-old was released from prison. He served two years for aggravated robbery.

Badue-El said his release was chaotic. He actually wanted to go back to prison. There, he knew what was expected of him. 

"You come back to a community that does not accept you, that is poverty stricken, that is a food desert," he said. "And people who don't want to work with you still because you have a criminal record."

He uses that experience to fuel his work. His goal is to reduce recidivism. Rather than focusing on the inmate, he works with the community. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, offenders designated as "high risk" when released from prison were 61 percent more likely to re-offend within three years. The overall recidivism rate for Minnesota is 35 percent.

James Badue-El keeps an eye on his two daughters during a meeting.
James Badue-El keeps an eye on his two daughters while meeting with Jamil Jackson, right, inside of Sammy's Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis on March 14, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I'm here to say that it's not because the person wasn't ready to come back, it's because the community wasn't ready to receive them," he said. 

Badue-El spends his days traversing Minneapolis and ensuring that neighbors have what they need, whether that be groceries or getting their parking tickets paid. He often has his daughters with him, 2-year-old Aria and 1-year-old Anarah. 

This day in March was no different. 

He loaded up the car and took his children to his wife Leslie, who is president of the Minneapolis NAACP. They married in January of this year after years of friendship. He brought her lunch and dropped off his daughters. Aria cried, but he knew she'd quiet down after he left and that she'd cry again when he picked her up.

Leslie Badue-El and her husband James trade off care of their daughters.
Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Badue-El and her husband James trade off taking care of their two daughters during the workday in St. Paul on March 14, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

After that, he attempted to get some work done. But the hour was punctuated by calls, texts and emails, all of which he answered. Then, another car ride. He picked up his daughters and was back at Sammy's for a meeting. Joining him was Jamil Jackson, who runs a youth leadership program called Run & Shoot, and Badue-El's colleague, Bella Dawson, who is the head of the NAACP's Youth Committee. 

Badue-El was quiet and attentive as Jackson and Dawson discussed how their respective organizations could work together and pool resources. He took notes and attended to his girls. They sat by his side, the constant reminder of why Badue-El works so hard.

Correction (July 20, 2018): A caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Badue-El's role in the NAACP.