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Jobless, homeless, convict … but now she's an award-winner

Mary Baxter, a homeless and unemployed mother, recently won the $20,000 Right to Return Fellowship for formerly incarcerated artists.

Van Jones with Mary Baxter at the “We Rise” tour in Philadelphia on Aug. 3.
Van Jones with Mary Baxter at the “We Rise” tour in Philadelphia on Aug. 3.Read moreCourtesy Mary Baxter

Mary Baxter, a single mother, is homeless, jobless, $40,000 in debt, and a convicted criminal.

But, at age 35, she is also a burgeoning artist, accepted by the New York University Tisch Film School, the Art of Institute of Chicago, and the Moore College of Art; one of the faces of Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren's Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act; and recipient of a $20,000 Right to Return Fellowship for her musical and film work.

Her journey has been as incredible as her turnabout.

"I've interviewed tons of homeless college students and I have yet to see this level of success despite insane hardship," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor of higher education policy and sociology, and one of Baxter's mentors. "I don't usually find stories that are anywhere near like this."

"I think it all came out of trying to give a voice to what I was experiencing," said Baxter, who recalled growing up in a "tumultuous and unstable" home in North Philadelphia and being passed among relatives. "That's how I fell in love with the arts; it was my safe space, my refuge."

By Baxter's account, it was a near-death incident as she was about to enter eighth grade that gave her new life.

A once-star pupil, she had begun drawing at age 8 and writing poetry by age 10, she said, but conditions at home spurred her to act out. Then came her life-changing moment. Baxter said her mother forced her to leave the house in the middle of the night. She hooked up with friends. They got high on marijuana and stole a car. The car crashed, seriously injuring Baxter, who ended up hospitalized. For Baxter, it was a "moment of clarity."

Over the next several years, Baxter said, she was in and out of state treatment facilities.

Baxter eventually got her life on track – or so it seemed. She graduated from high school with honors and entered Pennsylvania State University as an excited African American Studies major in the fall of 2000.

But something happened. Takkeem Morgan, a friend from one of the state facilities, joined Baxter as a Penn State student the following year. But when he arrived, he found a troubled Mary Baxter. She was on academic probation, homeless, had financial aid problems, and was unemployed.

"From my perspective, Mary was falling apart. The things that she was hopeful about when she first started out … all those things had unraveled. She's very intelligent naturally, but I don't think she had that mentoring relationship. … She was literally roaming around the streets," said Morgan, also 35.

She acknowledged that she dealt drugs in the State College area for several years, was arrested twice, became pregnant, and returned to Philadelphia.

In December 2007, Baxter was rearrested in Philadelphia for two older cases of selling marijuana. She was nine months pregnant. She was sent to the Centre County Correctional Facility, and four days later went into labor with her son, Rasir, she said.

She was sentenced for up to two years on a felony drug count and a conspiracy to commit burglary count, but was released in six months and received full custody of Rasir. The two moved to Philadelphia, where Baxter served her parole and, as she says, "basically start life from scratch."

"Mary changed as a person when Rasir was born. She was not as impulsive, she was much more willing to listen," said Morgan, who is Rasir's godfather. "I think she was able to focus her energy in a way that she hadn't been able to before."

With her criminal record, Baxter struggled to find work before finally landing a job as a volunteer coordinator at Welfare for Work at Impact Services Corp.

She was laid off four years later, and that drove her back to an avocation. Donning the stage name Isis Tha Saviour, Baxter began to create music about her experiences in Philadelphia.

"Philly is my compass; all those things shaped who I am and what I do and why I do it," said Baxter, whose music focuses on social issues and personal experiences, with songs such as "Forever on My Mind," about the accidental shooting that killed her cousin in 2013, and "Make It Out," which features Rasir in the music video.

"After a while, I got bitter about the Philadelphia hip hop scene," said Baxter, who said Philly artists cared more about creating songs for the radio than addressing issues.

Frustrated that her music wasn't taken seriously, Baxter decided to enroll in Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where she majored in art and design. She excelled, graduating with a 3.7 GPA and acceptances to Tisch, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Moore.

But then she bumped into a reality: the high costs of private colleges.

"What I didn't know was I wasn't going to be able to afford any of them, because art school is astronomically expensive," said Baxter. Aid packages fell thousands short of what she needed.

Meanwhile, the physical condition of the Germantown home where she and her son had lived for more than six years had deteriorated. Eventually a leaky ceiling and no heat forced the mother and son to become officially homeless, wandering from house to house and crashing with friends when possible.

Unsure of her next step, Baxter decided to return to CCP in the fall of 2016, this time to concentrate in human services. She volunteered at an after-school program, where a colleague suggested she apply for the Right of Return Fellowship, a brand-new program for formerly incarcerated artists. On May 30 the big news came: Among 300 applicants nationwide, she was one of seven winners. Her prize was $20,000.

"I just kept thinking, is this real?  One day you're homeless – I mean, I literally had $3.56 on my account," said Baxter, whose prize money is broken up into $10,000 for personal use and $10,000 to create an art project addressing criminal-justice reform.

The Right of Return Fellowship is part of the Soze Agency's initiatives for criminal justice reform, and is being funded by Open Philanthropy.

"Mary has the most honest and incredible way of talking about her experience as a woman who was in prison while she was pregnant," said Daveen Trentman, co-founder and production director of Soze Agency.

Fellowship officials introduced her to #cut50's Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign, which aims to raise support for a prison reform bill of the same name.

The #cut50 initiative was co-founded by CNN's Van Jones, whom Baxter had the opportunity to speak with about her experiences when he visited Philadelphia last week for his "We Rise" tour.

"The most inspiring thing about Mary is the way she is committed to trying to reach her next level of greatness despite unbearable circumstances," said Morgan. She has even made sure Rasir had a relationship with her own mother. "That's how Mary operates, she's a protector, she tries to look out for the community."

"It's just wanting more, for me and my son, for my community," said Baxter. She remains optimistic that her criminal record won't hold her back and plans to apply for a governor's pardon. "Everybody's looking for a savior, but you have to be the one you're looking for, you have to be that change you want to see."