For College of Law alumnus Desmond Meade JD ’14, life is all about compassion, love and giving people a shot at redemption.
It’s what guides him as an advocate and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). For his work, Meade has been named one of TIME magazine’s 2019 “100 Most Influential People.” He is counted among the world’s top thought leaders, artists and pioneers, including Pope Francis, President Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Lebron James and Lady Gaga.
Meade said he was “blown away, humbled and honored” to make the list, especially after seeing who else is on it. “You’re talking about some very powerful and influential people, and so to be in that company was definitely surreal.”
Meade led the FRRC in an effort that rallied Florida voters in favor of Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated Floridians. The amendment passed in November 2018 with 5.1 million votes and allows Floridians convicted of felonies (except for murder and sexual offenses) to vote again once they have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.
“It was an amazing feeling, because we were able to expand democracy significantly,” Meade said. But what moved him the most, he added, was to know that “those votes were not based on hate and fear, but rather based on love, forgiveness and redemption.”
His motivation? Meade himself was once homeless, addicted to drugs and suicidal, with a felony record.
“I was at the lowest of lows. I thought I was a nobody and I didn’t have any positive impact in this world. But in the process of turning my life around, I rediscovered love and its power.” Meade said. He was inspired by the people who worked for his addiction treatment center and the homeless shelter, because they had a “dedication to their fellow man.”
“Just knowing that somebody does care for you really gives you hope,” Meade said. It’s how he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to public service. “When it feels good to you, you know it will feel good to someone else.”
In 10 years’ time, he’d defied the odds and completed a bachelor’s degree at Miami Dade College in public safety management with a concentration in criminal justice and a law degree from FIU.
But without the right to vote, Meade could not even vote for his own wife, Sheena Meade, when she was a candidate for the state legislature, said his biography in TIME.
In March 2014, the NAACP flew Meade to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the Human Rights Committee at the United Nations about his experience as a felon stripped of his civil rights.
“To watch Desmond testify very openly and engage one on one with these incredible leaders from all over the world was just incredible,” Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and its senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, told FIU Magazine.
In recognition of his successes, Meade has also recently been inducted into the Miami Dade College Hall of Fame and was named “Floridian of the Year” by the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service.
He said his achievements, despite his past, show that anybody has the opportunity to turn their life around and make a difference in the community.
“If a regular guy like me could make that list, then there’s so many of us that could. But I think what it’s going to take is really a dedication to service, to giving back to communities and to being guided by love. What I hope is that people realize they, too, can overcome any obstacle in life, and they can get to a level of being in a publication with the Pope and the President.”
Antony Page, dean of the College of Law, said, “Mr. Meade is a stirring example of how access to an excellent and affordable legal education can change not only the trajectory of a person’s life but of many people’s lives. Law school offers its students an opportunity to catalyze positive change in the world. Mr. Meade grasped that opportunity, and, thanks to his resilience and commitment to justice, has applied his FIU education to deliver to the disenfranchised what is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of a democratic society: the right to vote.”
Meade is proud of his FIU education. He knew it was the right place for him from the moment he met with a staff member at the College of Law to discuss applying for the program.
“It was like a family there,” he said. “I was welcomed with open arms. I was treated with dignity and that my past was not a hindrance to anyone. I was treated like every other student, loved and respected like every other student, and so it was an amazing experience.”
UPDATE: In 2021, Meade was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which provides a $625,000 stipend to talented individuals who show extraordinary originality, exceptional creativity and the potential to lead important future advances. The fellowship is a "no-strings-attached" award, allowing fellows to use the stipened in whichever way they believe will benefit their work. The award is designed to invest in the potential of these individuals. Learn more.