Throughout his life, Chablis Dandridge has experienced adversity beyond human comprehension, including multiple incarcerations and gunshot wounds, the latter of which eventually left him paralyzed below the waist. Despite the abundant challenges Dandridge has faced, he remains a beacon of hope, love and transformation. Building on his experience, Dandridge authored a book, organized transformation trainings and actively works in his community to share his hard-learned wisdom. Dandridge’s dedicated passion to self-actualization for himself and those around him is contagious, sending rippling waves of love to inspire everyone he touches.
Makenna Dystra: Tell me about the process of writing and publishing your book, “A Letter to my Son’s: Leaving a Legacy of Love.” What does it mean to you?
Chablis Dandridge: I had two young sons when I went to prison. They were eight and 10 years old. I was scheduled to do 13 years at the prison. I read in a magazine article about parenting that said you have 1,875 days from the time your child is born to the time they turn 18 and legally become an adult. What will your child remember about their life with you? I realized I wouldn’t be there for the important things in their lives that they’ll remember. People die in prison and I asked myself how my kids would remember me if I died. I assessed my life and my reputation until that point. Your reputation becomes your legacy. My children could only know me through what people close to them told them, what people outside of our household say and what the world says. That becomes my permanent record. I want that permanent record to reflect who I became, not who I was. The only way that I could make that happen was to write that book. It became the process by which I lived and governed my activities while I was incarcerated. That book is about who I am and how I want to be remembered in case we could never be together.
Makenna Dystra: That’s beautiful. I’m assuming family means a lot to you.
Chablis Dandridge: Family is everything. I grew up in a single-parent household, but my dad was very much present. In my family experience, we all stay in family, no matter what relationships worked or didn’t work. That was an example I kept as an adult. Even though my children had different moms and my relationships didn’t work, we were still family. Their siblings by other people were still their siblings. They were still my kids. Our separate experiences became a collective family journey. Whether or not it was biological, we were still a family.
Makenna Dystra: I love that. What has been the biggest inspiration and the biggest obstacle on your journey to transformation?
Chablis Dandridge: The concept of “possibility” has been the most inspiring. Problems are going to occur. When you lose hope, possibility no longer exists. You become relegated to the bleakness of your condition. My kids were instrumental in my sense of possibility. Even though the circumstances were not what we wanted them to be, I excelled in spite of and still sought possibility. I still have passion and desire. That was the most inspirational part of the process.
The most challenging thing is not guilting myself and getting past the burden of shame or embarrassment. It happens. These things show up. You have to decide how you’re going to show up in spite of these negative emotions. That determines the content of your character, as Dr. King said. It’s inspiring to watch people achieve and believe in possibility, even though the odds were stacked against them. It’s the most inspiring and the most challenging. You can’t escape the human part of responsibility and accountability.
Makenna Dystra: I love that. Is there any advice you would give to your younger self? What piece of wisdom would impart?
Chablis Dandridge: I wouldn’t tell my younger self nothing. He needed to go through it. I would tell him he was going to learn. From my experience, I would invite people to be teachable. I listened a lot, but I wasn’t applying what I was learning. If I did, my life would have been very different –– a whole lot simpler. They say experience is the best teacher. A close second is watching somebody else’s experience. Do you have to touch a hot pan when you just saw a person get burned? Be teachable and exercise wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are different. Knowledge is knowing something. Being wise is applying what you know to get the best outcome. Take everything that you know, make it applicable to your life and come out on the other end as far and as high as you can.
Makenna Dystra: I love that. Is there anything you want to do or create next? What is the legacy you want to leave?
Chablis Dandridge: When I first wrote that book, the subtitle was “Defining Manhood.” The branding specialist I was working with suggested I consider changing the title. I cared about the content, not the title. My wife suggested, “Leaving a Legacy of Love.” I started to really sit with who I wanted to be when it’s all said and done. When the last chapter in my book is written, what would I like it to say? I want to leave a legacy of love. I have become the embodiment of love, of selflessness, of service and commitment. A legacy of love looks, to me, like all men are created equal. Everybody should enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness looks different for everyone. I’m okay with that. Even if I don’t subscribe to their belief, if that’s their version of happiness and they got love in it somewhere, I’m going to support you. Leaving a legacy of love looks like being loved, helping a person step into a different level of awareness where they can evolve into a better version of themselves.
Where I focus a lot of my energy on is incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. I really believe that our system creates trauma, dysfunction, discord and disconnect. It doesn’t create a safe community for a functional person. I promote public safety, but I also promote reinvestment. I promote restoration and healing, whereas the judicial system promotes rehabilitation. You can rehabilitate somebody all you want, but if they’re not healed, rehabilitation largely doesn’t work. Leaving a legacy of love to me looks like exposing somebody to an awareness they didn’t have before. Bringing everybody into a focus where they know if you never tear a person down, you never have to put them back together.
People make mistakes. People make miscalculations. Our judgment calls are our learning experiences. They’re the curve we go around. Passion comes from experience. Adversity creates the drive for you to make a difference. You need the challenge. You need to know that you can come up from that. You can heal from that. You can become a better person. You just have to be willing and wanting to do it. That’s largely what I live for. If you ever listen to Dr. King’s eulogy speech, he talks about what he would like the world to say about him once he’s gone. He doesn’t need the world to know he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. He wants to be remembered for living a committed life. His commitment was to freedom, justice, equality and civil rights. That’s what I want said about me: that I lived a committed life. I’m in service to that greater good and higher calling.
Makenna Dystra: That is incredible. I love that perspective. What are you currently committed to? What specific passions and advocacy work are you paying your attention and efforts to?
Chablis Dandridge: I work with a nonprofit working with housing for formerly incarcerated people. The group is called Reentry Housing Alliance and we’re in the Charlotte metro area. We advocate for safe and affordable housing for formerly incarcerated people and people with criminal records. We’re looking for equity in housing. Not only equity, but protection from discrimination. We want to educate: educate the community and educate landlords. People who were incarcerated or have criminal pasts are not bad people. They’re people with challenges. They’re often good tenants because they don’t have very many options. If you reinvest in the community, and you give somebody the base of Maslow’s hierarchy –– food, clothing, and shelter ––you give them a stable platform from which to grow. My ultimate goal is the top, the pinnacle of the hierarchy: self-actualization.
In-between that process, I also work at another organization called Life Connections. We help juvenile justice-involved youth with life skills. We have about 17 programs over nine counties in Charlotte and the surrounding areas. We have about five different programs from family skill-building to mentoring programs where we help juvenile justice-involved youth and young adults. Life Connections also provides re-entry services for programming for the County Jail, helping some adults.
The other thing that I do is I work with the organization called Access to Justice. Access to Justice provides low-cost or no-cost legal representation to people who have been railroaded by the judicial system and can’t afford access to legal counsel.
I’m involved in a lot but my passion –– my real passion –– is helping people to self-actualize, to get past the mental and emotional prisons. I use experience to do transformational work from the inside out. My affinity is to those who are or have been in the justice system because most people –– speaking from experience –– deal with a lot. We deal with negative stereotypes, prejudice and barriers –– barriers to entry for school, certain professions and certain rights. A right shouldn’t be something that can be taken away. They say rights are unalienable, but then take them away. They’re really privileges. The second amendment is your privilege only until you become a convicted felon. If it was a real right, when you finish with the justice system, the right should be restored.
These are systemic issues. A person’s belief of what’s possible is also systemic and often not accounted for. A system is what it is, but you don’t have to begin or end there. You can change depending on how hard you’re willing to go for what you believe. I’m devoted to transformation. It’s the pinnacle.
Makenna Dystra: Is there anything else in your life or on your mind that you would like to share with the reader?
Chablis Dandridge: Take a hard look at yourself. Michael Jackson has a song called “Man in the Mirror.” He’s looking at this person in the mirror and asking this person to change his ways. My appeal to anyone is to look in the mirror and see who you have been. Are you happy with that person? What stories have you been told in your life? Is there a better way than you could be? Is there something that would be more gratifying and fulfilling to you? If the answer is yes, explore it. Don’t be afraid of it.
It takes the people. It’s our collective consciousness that we appeal to when we make agreements between each other. The world –– especially our nation –– is in turmoil. Everybody has their opinion about what’s right, what shouldn’t be done, what a person deserves. If we’re no further today than we were 10 years ago, maybe we should examine what we’re doing in that process. The transformation training is eye-opening. I would like everybody to have that experience. No matter how you leave the training, even if you leave with the same ideology, you’re never going to be the same. Because you’re never the same, your actions won’t be the same. You can’t unhear someone. Once you hear something, it’s in your mind. Even if you try to resist it, it’s there. A thought is the cause of it all.
Look in the mirror and say, “Are you pleased with where you are?” If not, be open to something else. Check out the workshop.
Makenna Dystra: I love that. That’s all that I have for you today. If you have any websites or social media handles that readers can find you and find more information at, why don’t you share those with readers now.
Chablis Dandridge: Okay. So, I am on Instagram, @TheRealChablis. I’m also on Facebook, Chablis Dandridge, and my website is ChablisDandridge.com. The book is “A Letter to my Sons” and it’s on Amazon. Some organizations requested signed copies. When I sign books, I generally put an inspirational message in there.