Magis Medal Honoree Inspired to Give Back

Magis Medal Honoree Inspired to Give Back

By Rick Davis, BA'88

Charles Thomas Jr., MS’09, EdD’14, wears a three-piece suit — with a bow tie — when he first meets with students at the Fairfax County Jail in northern Virginia to teach them life skills through a nonprofit outreach program.

“It’s just to let them know that I’m credible enough and battle-tested enough to teach there,” Thomas says.

But by the third class, it’s basketball shorts and T-shirts — and exposed tattoos — as he begins to deepen the connection.

“They say, ‘You know what Dr. C? You’re just like us — minus the green jumpsuit,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve never been in jail, but I understand their journey,” Thomas says. “I know what the streets are like, but I wasn’t consumed by the streets. I’ve never claimed to be a thug, by any means. I’ve never sold drugs, but I have an appreciation of what that world is like because I grew up there.”

Thomas grew up in Flint, Mich. His best friend and high school track teammate, Akil Goodman, was shot and killed outside a Flint nightclub in 2006, at the age of 24.

At the time, Thomas had earned an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and was beginning graduate school. The news hit him hard. He would turn to alcohol for relief. Everyday life was a struggle.

But the two had a shared dream of life beyond what they knew. He couldn’t let his friend down.

He returned to school — earning an MBA from UT-San Antonio in 2007; a master’s degree in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from Creighton in 2009; and, in 2014, an Ed.D. in leadership from Creighton.

Thomas is proud of his Creighton education and considers the faculty family. He says the Ed.D. in Leadership Program “opened up a whole new world to me.”

“The people I met, the books that we read, the knowledge that I gained in the subject matter of leadership, it completely changed the nature of how I engage with other people.”  

He has been teaching the life-skills class since 2013 through Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Fairfax County, Inc. — a nonprofit restorative justice/human services organization that assists inmates so that they can rebuild their lives once they leave jail. This summer, Thomas was named the organization’s board chairman.

Thomas tries to establish a personal connection with the students.

“I know what it’s like to have friends die,” he says. “I know what it’s like to have family in jail. I get all that. So when I speak, I speak with an authority that transcends the theoretical.

“I also know what it means to achieve. I know what it means to compete. I know what it means to be resilient. I know what it means to stand in the middle of a storm and say, ‘Do your worst because when this is over, I’m going to still be here.’”

The OAR classes focus on life skills, such as communication, financial literacy, decision-making and mental health. But Thomas, who turned 35 in May, expands the curriculum beyond those pillars.

“We talk about things from Aristotle and Plato to negotiation and conflict management to what happened in Ferguson, Mo. (with the racial unrest),” he explains.

Thomas excelled in the classroom at Creighton. In 2013, he was inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. And, this year, he was named one of 100 recipients of Alpha Sigma Nu’s Magis Medal — which honors outstanding members in celebration of its centennial anniversary.

He’s also been active in his community. In addition to his work with OAR, he’s involved with the Future Fund, a local philanthropic organization, and serves as the treasurer of the board for Leadership Fairfax, a community-based leadership development organization.

The Fairfax Chamber of Commerce honored Thomas as the 2015 Emerging Influential Leader of Year in northern Virginia; The Network Journal, a quarterly publication for black professionals and business leaders, named him a national 40-under-40 honoree; and he was the keynote speaker at this year’s Ed.D. new-student orientation event at Creighton.  

He works full time as a project leader at LMI, a government consulting firm headquartered in Tysons, Va. And, in 2012, he published a memoir, titled Scars, Exile and Vindication: My Life as an Experiment. He visited some 10 states on a book-signing tour and gave talks on the book, but the best part, he says, was that it brought him closer to his dad, who was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

“We had like a three-and-a-half hour talk,” after the book came out, Thomas said. “My dad told me he loved me and was proud of me that day. I had never heard him say that before.”

One of Thomas’ favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” He also finds inspiration and motivation in the directive of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

“With whatever time we have on this planet, I think we’re obligated to give and to be the best that we can be.”