If Kevin Gay had closed his eyes and dreamed up what he called the perfect “poster boy” for his work, which transforms the lives of ex-offenders, he said the result would have been Khalil Osiris.
That the two men — Gay, the founder of Operation New Hope, and Osiris, who served 20 years in a Massachusetts prison for robbery and went on to become an international speaker and author — would both live in Jacksonville in 2019, be introduced by mutual friends and form a partnership over their shared passion for restorative justice was kismet. Their connection led them to visit South Africa and will bring Nelson Mandela’s human-rights activist daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, to Jacksonville to celebrate her late father’s 101st birthday and benefit Gay’s nonprofit.
“I would have never in a million years thought my life would connect ... with the Mandelas,” Gay said. “Of all the cities in the world [that are celebrating Mandela’s birthday], she is coming to Jacksonville.
“This is a pretty great example of affirmation,” he said.
The inaugural Nelson Mandela International Day Jax is actually three days, July 17-19, beginning with a gala dinner at TIAA Bank Field. Two more Mandela Day events are planned here in 2020 and 2021, and Makaziwe Mandela plans to attend them as well.
The annual birthday celebrations “are a way for people to recognize their power to change the world,” she said. “My father once said, ‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and embraces the freedom of others.’ It is for that reason that ... we will honor the exemplary work of social justice organization Operation New Hope.”
She has also asked Gay to join the board of the House of Mandela Family Foundation that she co-founded, and the two organizations are looking at “co-branding” possibilities. The foundation continues her father’s work toward unity and compassion across races, religions and genders worldwide.
“It’s is going to be an opportunity for this to not just be a moment, but be a movement ... To keep up the momentum,” Gay said.
On July 18 Jacksonville University also will award its 2019 Presidential Global Citizen Award to Mandela. As the eldest daughter, she studied in South Africa before earning a master’s degree in sociology and doctorate in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She has served in senior positions at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Industrial Development Group in South Africa.
Twenty years ago, as Gay founded Operation New Hope, Osiris was being released from prison.
He first went to prison at age 17 and came out at 21 a bitter, angry and hardened man. He returned three years later.
But during his second stint in prison, Osiris transformed himself.
“I began to realize that my thoughts and values were the sources of my incarceration long before I was arrested,” he said. “But I also began to realize that while I was imprisoned long before I found myself behind bars, I could also become free long before those bars were finally behind me.”
Osiris refocused and spent his time in prison reading, studying and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University. He wrote the manuscript for his first book, “The Psychology of Incarceration: A Distortion of the State of Belonging,” which has been developed into a university course and a DVD series taught in prisons throughout America.
“What he was able to do in prison made him so different when he came out,” Osiris said. “He went in a very angry man ... He came out with reconciliation. It takes heavy lifting to be self-reflective.”
While incarcerated, Osiris became pen pals with Makaziwe Mandela. He promised her and her father that after his release he would go to South Africa and work in its prisons and schools.
In 2011, he moved to Johannesburg and launched several educational and social reform initiatives. Among them was a prisoner re-entry program, Get Out and Stay Out Africa, which had its first graduating class of 120 men in 2013, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Africa, which was designed to improve behavioral outcomes for students in every grade. Also, he hosted an award-winning South African TV show, “Each One Teach One.”
In a life full of transformative experiences, connecting with the Mandelas had the “most impactful resonance, in terms of my personal journey,” he said. Nelson Mandela died in 2013
After seven years in South Africa, Osiris returned to the United States. At a speaking engagement at Rollins College in Winter Park, he met Jacksonville residents who invited him to speak here as well. When he visited, he was intrigued by not only the city as a whole but its many neighborhoods that were building their own identities.
“Everything about the city was inspiring,” he said. “So many interesting things were happening. ... I fell in love.”
Earlier this year he settled in San Marco. He offers his speaker services, course and his books through Reflecting Freedom LLC, a social enterprise organization he founded with Ortega residents Michael and Pamela Oates. In schools, prisons and in the community, he wants to share the concept of restorative justice, which focuses on accountability and addressing causes of criminal behavior, rather than punishment.
“The reality is that we can no longer blame things on a broken justice system. We need to work to fix our damaged values and our self-defeating beliefs,” he said.
It’s about changing hearts and minds as well, he said.
“Drill down to the human level,” he said. Instead of “taking a knee, take a stand. Move on.”
Osiris met community and business leaders here who shared his “desire for true systemic change” and one of them was Gay. The two men were stunned to find that over the past 20 years their lives had a “parallel trajectory,” he said. Also, they had the same hero, Nelson Mandela.
“He’s my brother from another mother,” Osiris said, with a laugh.“We have been doing very, very similar work. We came together and started talking.”
The result is a 14 percent recidivism rate, less than half the state rate, which improves public safety and reduces local, state, and federal incarceration budgets.
“They are doing amazingly well,” Osiris said.
He and Gay recently visited South Africa together to meet with Makaziwe Mandela. Like Osiris, she was impressed with Operation New Hope.
“She really embraced this work and wanted to lift it up as a legacy of her father,” Gay said.