He's called Big Outreach because he wants to help Clevelanders stay out of prison
I get together with Carlos Elliott at the Cleveland Metroparks Fishing Marina off East 55th Street. We’re joined mostly by seagulls, swooping and soaring over a choppy Lake Erie — a place I’ve never been before.
"You have a lot of family gatherings and picnics and everything," Elliott said.
The space and openness are almost the exact opposite of what Elliott experienced during his 12 years in prison. Even his nickname sounds vast.
"They call me Big Outreach. I like to touch the people," Elliott explained.
Elliott does outreach for a living, working for two different organizations. He’s the outreach chair for Building Freedom Ohio, a statewide nonprofit that provides counseling, meetings and lobbying on behalf of people who are formerly incarcerated or have felonies on their records. He’s also a program coordinator for Environmental Health Watch, where he works on a program called Lead Safe Cleveland. One of his tasks there is to let people know that if they’re renting, their landlords have to make their homes lead-free.
It was a long road getting to this point. Elliott had some tough years growing up in the 1990s on Cleveland’s East Side.
"As a juvenile, man. What can I say that ain't already been said about most of the juveniles in our city?" Elliott said. "I was lost at one point. I didn't have any real structure, though my parents gave me the best advice that they could. I had to learn for myself. Violent robbing, stealing, selling drugs, doing whatever we had to do to survive, then went to prison."
When I asked him if things changed for him while he was inside, he said a shift had actually started right before he was incarcerated. He became a father, was going to school and working to support his family.
"I always had intention of going that way. I just never was able to be focused enough or be able to block the things out that was distracting me from being able to stay on the path," he explained.
A pivotal call
When he got out of prison in 2017, he got a phone call from Fred Ward, the statewide director of Building Freedom Ohio, who’d heard about him from mutual friends.
"He said, ‘Listen, man, I know you just getting home. I know you got to get yourself situated. But I need you,'" Elliott recalled.
He didn’t take heed of Ward at first. Elliott got back into some of the same activities that had landed him in prison.
"I'm still trying to chase the money and live a certain quality of life. You know, that American dream," Elliott said. "And it wasn't until I almost had my door kicked in that [I realized], ‘Oh, you throwing rocks at the penitentiary. Boom, boom.’"
That’s when Elliott changed course and reached back out to Fred Ward.
"He invited me to a couple of places, a couple of conversations, actually, and he invested in me," Elliott said.
Deciding to get out of trouble, he got into helping others. That’s what Elliott wrote about in a poem. Here are the first few lines.
I needed power.
I told my story out loud and found a family.
Fighting hand to hand, side by side to gain power.
"What I want you to take away from hearing that poem is that we can't do this alone. We need to build power. You're part of that power structure, whether you know it or not," Elliott said.
At the marina, we walked past a popular fishing spot and Elliott revealed he's never gone fishing in his life. Neither have I.
"You know what you need to do?" Elliott asked.
"Just me and you go fishing?" I responded.
"Yeah. Create a fishing club," Elliott said.
"Listen here, all the people that caught fish that I know of, it can't be that hard," I laughed.
Elliott reminds me that power doesn’t always have to look like starting nonprofits and holding rallies in the streets. It can start with friendships, support groups and just being in beautiful places.
Elliott let me know that power isn’t power unless you share it.