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ASU student’s successful rise from incarceration to higher education to MLK award

Cordero Holmes will receive Phoenix’s ‘Living the Dream Award' at annual King breakfast

ASU student Cordero Holmes is pictured looking down, wearing an ASU hat and sweatshirt, in an outdoor setting.

The city of Phoenix will honor ASU student Cordero Holmes with its 2022 MLK Living the Dream Award on Jan. 13. Photo courtesy Cordero Holmes

January 12, 2023

Needless to say, people in solitary confinement have plenty of time. They have time to think, to gaze inside themselves, to recall what brought them to a small prison cell where they spend 23 hours a day.

For some, however, it can be a time to dare to look ahead and dream about what a better life might be like outside. Then, it can be the time to take the first of many difficult steps on a long road to acquire that life.

Cordero Holmes spent three of 10 years of incarceration in solitary, where he said he began to rebuild his life in just that way. His successful journey will be honored on Friday, when the city of Phoenix will present the Arizona State University junior with one of four Martin Luther King Jr. Living the Dream awards at the city’s 37th annual Arizona MLK Awards Breakfast at the Phoenix Convention Center.

“I’m asked all the time, ‘When did you change? When did your transformation occur?’” said Holmes, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy from the School of Public Affairs at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, expecting to graduate in May 2024. He is also enrolled in Barrett, The Honors College.

“It was in solitary confinement where I had the chance to reflect on my choices, on who I wanted to be in life,” said, Holmes, 34, of Phoenix. “I developed a passion for learning, reading books about individuals who came up through a similar environment as me, who thought of doing something else other than crime.”

Doors opening through higher education

Born in Fort Carson, Colorado, to parents in the military, Holmes grew up in southwest Phoenix, in public housing near 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road, where he became involved with gangs in the late 1990s. He spent time in and out of juvenile detention facilities before ultimately experiencing incarceration as an adult.

He started to read, filling what he called an “information gap” in his life, and learned about doors that would open up for him if he was able to pursue higher education.

“Just like in life, one door opens, it leads to another door, to another door. That’s just what’s been happening,” he said. “I began to have access to people and places I never dreamed of.”

When his incarceration ended, Holmes said he went to a day labor center next to a laundromat where as a youth he sold drugs. This time, he went there to look for work. He began working at a tough, outdoor job at a Glendale plant that made stucco for construction. It’s hot, sweaty work involving packaging and lifting concrete. The lime mixed with the stucco often causes painful skin rashes.

But Holmes stayed with it, he said, as he had a family to support, and he enjoyed the work culture the job provided. He gained custody of his two children.

In 2018, Holmes started going to school and began earning scholarships. Last May, he earned two associate degrees from Rio Salado College, which named him and another Rio Salado student part of the 2022 All-Arizona Academic Teama list honoring 78 community college students statewide.

Although he was an online student at first, he has begun taking ASU classes in person. He said he enjoys his “amazing” professors and the experience of talking and learning from other students, who, because he’s in his mid-30s, often mistake him for a professor.

Keon McGuire, associate professor of higher and postsecondary education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and a faculty affiliate with the School of Social Transformation, said he met Holmes in the fall through a program and research project focused on Black masculinities.

“In the short time of knowing and interacting with him, I could tell he was special,” McGuire said. “He is confident, yet humble. He has presence, but it is inviting and leaves room for others. And he is warm and brings joy to the room. But most importantly, if he says he cares about something, you get the sense that it is not an empty thought or gesture. It is purposeful.”

Holmes said he learned he was to receive the Living the Dream Award in a phone call from the city’s Martin Luther King committee co-chair just as he was about to enter his public policy class.

“I was so honored and so humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as Dr. Martin Luther King. I am really living a dream,” Holmes said.

He said he shares his story at juvenile detention facilities and spends time advocating for people experiencing incarceration. Sometimes, he said, he is paid for his speaking appearances, which helps to pay the bills, but he said he’d do the work even if there was no pay.

Community service, spot on PBS program

Holmes also serves on many community boards and councils. Last year, he traveled the country in a recreational vehicle with other individuals who formerly experienced incarceration to share their experiences in “Roadtrip Nation’s” Aug. 1 story, “Being Free” on PBS.

Holmes said he would tell anyone leaving incarceration that education is the path to a productive and enjoyable life beyond prison. But the important thing, he said, is to pick a path and never depart from it.

“Education is the key,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a formal education. It depends on what you want to do. I wouldn’t tell them to model themselves after (my specific choices). Know what you want to do and pursue it.”

Obstacles will present themselves, he said, but ultimately the only thing preventing someone from succeeding is making the choice to give up and revert back to former self-destructive habits.

“Don’t give up!” he said. “You’ll get knocked down sometimes, and if you need to take a break, by all means take one. But whatever you do, do not give up. Get up and continue to move towards your dreams!” 

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