When Dieter Cantu was sitting in a Texas juvenile detention center as a high schooler, he was tired. He was serving a 41-month term after committing a robbery, and life behind bars was bleak.
“What do I need to do to mentally prepare myself and grow when I’m released?” he asked himself, a then-16-year-old boy who feared never escaping from a cycle of crime and incarceration, void of healing for his troubled upbringing in Illinois and Texas. Growing up, Cantu’s home life was disturbed by his parent’s abusive relationship and their drug use, which eventually led him to be put into foster care.
Being incarcerated among people who have committed a range of crimes and were hardened by life in a system pitted against them was both difficult and enlightening for Cantu. It would have been easy for him to continue a life of crime, as he saw so many around him – mostly men of color, like him – do so.
“I told myself that what I’m doing, what I’ve been through, isn’t getting me anywhere, not where I want to be,” he said. “I looked at people who were in a position of power … and said, ‘How can I get there?'”
That was all it took to motivate Cantu to start anew once he was released from jail at age 20. He realized later that going to jail as a juvenile “is really your second chance to get it right,” he said.
“Once you get out (of jail) you have to (go) 100 mph, so I took that time to prepare myself for that release.”
Cantu, who lives in San Antonio full time, earned his GED behind bars, and upon exiting the facility he applied for financial aid and enrolled in San Antonio College. He took remedial classes, working hard to make up for the years of education lost while locked up. The transition from jail to college wasn’t easy, Cantu said. Sometimes, simply getting to school – which took hours on public transit – was the hardest part.
Cantu’s cooking experience in jail inspired him to gain his associates degree in culinary arts from St. Philip’s College, and last December, he graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) with a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a minor in nonprofit management.
Life for Cantu was looking up. He had friends, a job, an education, but he wanted more. He thought back on his time incarcerated, how he overcame it all, and realized he wanted the same for others who were disadvantaged, like him.
Cantu reflected on the opportunities so many of those in the justice system have while still incarcerated and how they’re hardly ever made aware of them. He would’ve taken advantage of earning college credit while behind bars, for example, had he known he could.
Cantu created his organization, Position of Power, as a way to bring those opportunities to light. The nonprofit, which was established in 2013, is “dedicated to promoting prosperity, longevity, equality, and integrity, achieving victory over poverty through advocacy, education, and rehabilitation.”
Through Position of Power, Cantu shares his own experiences with those who are disadvantaged so that they may relate to him and draw inspiration to overcome their challenges.
But his work is much more than motivational speaking. A large part of it involves working with policy makers and various organizations to enact prison reform, break the cycle of recidivism, and provide education to inmates or those in underserved communities.
“I work on providing resources, to (addressing) the school to prison pipeline, to community based alternatives, to not even just so much prison reform, but beyond that,” Cantu said. “How can we prevent (people) from going (to prison) altogether?”
Today, it is more likely for a black man, especially one without a high school diploma, to be incarcerated than a white man, according to the Washington Post. This fact isn’t new and researchers have come to notice the relationship between incarceration rates and wage and education disparities between the same communities.
Cantu believes that another one of the biggest problems facing communities of color is “a misunderstanding or disconnect between people in these environments and the people representing them, a disconnect between these people and the people that govern them, protect them or serve them.”
This disconnect is especially dangerous when it comes to juveniles in the justice system, Cantu said. Many of them do not know their rights or aren’t aware of their options or resources once they’ve been arrested.
“A lot of these kids are so scared or so unaware. They just get caught up in the system and once they grow up in the system, they’re growing and maturing and soaking up what’s around them,” Cantu said. “A lot of them have this mentally that it’s better in jail, and once they’re released they have that prison mentality where they’re saying, ‘it’s too hard out here.'”
Cantu is one of many working with city and state leaders to reduce the recidivism rate among communities of color, but through Position of Power, he works firsthand with the community. Cantu’s speaking engagements take him out to prisons and detention centers, along with churches, middle and high schools, halfway houses, and other community centers throughout the region to share his story with at-risk youth and adults and let them know of the variety of resources available to them to avoid incarceration and to overcome systemic barriers.
Along with low-income minority demographics, Cantu speaks to college students and other groups, men and women. Position of Power pushes other initiatives as well, including campaigns focused on respecting women and sexual assault rehabilitation.
Cantu’s work connecting with adults who have been in and out of prison for years can be a big challenge since “they’ve heard it all before,” Cantu said.
“I have to really show them my results and be very compassionate and genuine,” he said, adding that he gives out his direct phone number so that inmates can call him for help when they finish their sentences. Many of those who have reached out to Cantu, he said, have successfully hit the reset buttons on their lives are now his friends.
And that’s the point of Position of Power. It is more than just a nonprofit, Cantu said, it also is a movement to help each person help themselves and be successful in the face of negative stereotypes and self-doubt.
Sometimes, having the smallest bit of support and positivity can push someone in the right direction, and inspire them to lend a hand to someone else.
“That’s what I want – to put people in a position of power where they can help others, being able to help the next person help themselves,” he said. “And hopefully they pay it forward, because that’s ultimately the goal.”
Top image: Dieter Cantu works with many different communities, including those on the Eastside of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.