Former inmate helps King County youth unlock their potential

After a troubled start, De’Vonte’ Parson turned his life around and wants to do the same for others.

“Pro se” — Latin that means “for oneself” — is a term you’d normally only ever hear in court.

When a defendant decides they don’t want an attorney to represent them, they can make arguments on their own behalf, appearing “pro se” before the judge.

But local youth motivator and public speaker De’Vonte’ Parson, who successfully defended himself in court pro se seven years ago, found another use for the term.

Through Pro Se Potential, the youth mentoring and empowerment nonprofit he leads in the South King County area, Parson and his team want to help young people address trauma, develop workforce skills, find purpose and advocate for themselves.

In other words — take control of their own destinies, and represent themselves “pro se” in life.

Getting here, for Parson and his team, has been a journey.

Defendant in Pro-Se

At the Federal Way office of Pro Se Potential hangs a frame with two very different pictures.

On the left side is a younger Parson, wearing a bandana, pointing a handgun directly at the camera.

On the right side is Parson several years later, wearing a necklace with a pendant of Africa, a microphone in hand.

It’s a representation of the transformation Parson went through — from an environment and mindset of pain and violence to one of healing and community.

“I remember creating that persona,” Parson said of the life he once lived. “I remember going home, putting my bandana around my neck, looking in the mirror, and feeling this sense of anxiety. Like, ‘Damn, I’m really from a gang now.’ … What I didn’t know … is that by putting that mask on, it naturally will dampen your soul. Your eyes are lower, you’re sluggish. You’re reactionary, and angry and hurt and you don’t even know why.”

Born in Texas, Parson was still in the womb when his father was killed. He moved to Washington around one year old, where his grandmother could help his mom take care of Parson and his older brother.

Growing up in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace public housing development, Parson said he was exposed to a rough lifestyle at an early age.

“All there was around there was gangbanging, a lot of violence, prostitution, dope selling and whatnot. It seemed like a hopeless situation … (but) it became my norm,” he said.

In that environment, the gang family becomes another kind of family — “there’s love there,” Parson said.

“And so, you kind of have to be a part of one of the families because … (otherwise) you got no one,” Parson said. “And then that means that you’re gonna get picked on, beat up. … I wasn’t a violent (kid). I was raised with manners. My grandmother made me read books, made me read the dictionary. But I would get beat up. I got jumped. And eventually I was like, ‘Man, I can’t keep letting this happen to myself.’”

Parson picked a family that gave him the love, loyalty and respect he wanted. And the more violent he became, the more he was accepted: “It made me go even harder, and harder, and harder, until like, I was addicted to it,” he said.

In and out of jail, Parson fell deeper into that life, until in 2015, he was charged with eight counts of first-degree assault in a case involving a drive-by shooting. He faced the possibility of spending his life in prison, Parson said.

The case would change his life forever — but not how Parson thought.

Unable to pay the $750,000 bail, Parson had months in jail to think — and to do so sober, away from the drinking, weed and occasional pills that helped him avoid thinking about his actions and the pain inside.

“When you’re in that lifestyle, it’s difficult to stay sober,” he said. “You’re doing such atrocities, and it helps you get away (from your actions). You don’t think about it. And you keep doing it so you don’t have to think about it.”

He saw young men coming in and out of jail, blowing off the system, “not taking it seriously,” Parson said. Parson said he started pushing those young men to prepare for their future out of the clink — paying them Honeybuns, Top Ramen and other prison goods to make release plans for when they come out.

“That’s when I started realizing some of the influence I could have,” he said.

And it was his daughter, then 3 years old, who also challenged Parson to change his thinking. She came to visit him in jail and asked when he’d be coming home.

“She goes, ‘You’ve been to jail before. How do you know when you come home, you won’t go back again?’” Parson said.

“That broke me,” Parson said, and sent him back to his cell wondering if there was more to life than this, and if so, “how do I get it?”

From there, Parson said, he began educating himself and learning from older people in the clink. And he made the choice — which any attorney will tell you never to do — to fire his public defender and represent himself in court.

“This was a foolish decision,” he said with a laugh. “But I felt like I could do it.”

A printed court document from De’Vonte’ Parson’s 2015 assault case includes his signed signature. Photo by Alex Bruell / Sound Publishing

A printed court document from De’Vonte’ Parson’s 2015 assault case includes his signed signature. Photo by Alex Bruell / Sound Publishing

Parson visited the law library and paced his jail unit as he practiced speaking to a jury. He hand-wrote motions to the judge, convincing the court to separate his trial from two other co-defendants in 2016.

He didn’t mince words the day of the trial, Parson said: “I said, I didn’t intend to kill them. I intended to kill people who weren’t even here. So you can’t legally find me guilty of this.”

Parson proved persuasive. Ultimately, the jury did not convict him as charged.

Prosecutors later agreed to a reduced set of charges, “in light of … the conservation of resources; the case has once been tried to a jury which was unable to return a verdict on any count; the defendant’s willingness to accept responsibility and plead guilty to four violent felonies … and the defendant’s willingness to plead guilty to a second strike offense,” according to court documents.

Parson, then 23, pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree assault and a single charge of unlawful firearm possession, meaning he’d spend most of his twenties in prison.

That time changed his perspective more. He began studying, getting involved in the nationwide leadership and public speaking program Toastmasters, and continued formulating what would become Pro Se Potential. In the meantime, he studied carpentry and took classes on parenting and anger management.

“I wanted to be a totally different person when I came out,” Parson said.

Factoring in his criminal history and the roughly 13 months he’d already served in jail, Parson ended up serving about five and a half years in prison. He walked out of prison in March 2020 and finished house arrest in October, having worked with an Urban League youth shelter and working in carpentry through a staffing agency.

Parson spent the next year with the YMCA, working in youth outreach and developing leadership skills through Northwest Credible Messenger. Others in his community helped him build the structure of what would eventually become Pro Se.

Pro Se Potential

In December 2021, Parson launched Pro Se Potential, which he describes as a culturally-responsible mentorship organization for young people of color who are involved in the criminal justice system or otherwise street impacted.

Pro Se builds relationships, connects them to resources, helps them develop workforce skills and even takes young people on trips to Wild Waves, sports games and other fun places they might not otherwise get to explore.

The organization focuses on “culturally relevant mentorship,” Parson said, meeting young people where they’re at, from school to court to the community center.

“We’re relationship building,” he said. “We’re in contact, probably three to five times a week … With your permission, we’ll pull up at your house, at the school, we might take you out to lunch, dinner, breakfast.”

That also means helping a young person get away from the places where they need to carry a gun for safety, or even move whole friend groups out of an environment that’s dragging them down.

Resource navigator Adriane Karg helps Pro Se’s families and youth identify and overcome barriers to success — like affording housing, taking a driver’s license test or looking for a job. What’s great, Karg said, is when a young person can ask for help, but then do the work themselves to get what they need.

Mentor Ron Howell said he has a 24/7 policy with the 30 or 40 youth he helps — “whenever you call, I’ll do my best to be available.”

He knows they’ll make mistakes. In fact, he said, he’s done the work long enough to know that making mistakes is a key part of the process.

“It’s part of living,” Howell said. “It’s part of humanity. And they don’t want to be ridiculed or treated different because they make a mistake. They need to be lifted back up.”

If you want to show up for a young person in your life, Howell said, you have to start by listening without judgement — “listening to hear, not to respond.”

“When you build a solid relationship with someone, it helps them try harder for you,” he said.

COO Kechi Amaefule keeps the ship afloat at Pro Se by managing funds, writing grants, developing programs, managing events and marketing. She came from work in corporate healthcare on the East Coast, but came back home to Washington in 2021, wanting to give back to her community.

“The main difference I see is nobody is a number,” Amaefule said. “Everyone needs different things. … (Some people) don’t have anyone to talk to, and they’re stressed out or depressed. You can be that shoulder to cry on, or that ear to listen.”

It’s not easy for a young person in troubled waters to open up, Amaefule said, especially if they feel like no one cares about them or respects them.

Take the time to listen, she said, and you’ll meet a person with aspirations, passion and feelings: “They’re pretty cool kids,” she said.

The work can be as simple as paying young people to spent time in therapy, or to participate in workforce development. They take the young people through resume-building mock interviews and more.

Young people don’t want to shoot people, sell dope or have to carry a gun, Parson said. When he asks them if they’d rather set that life aside for an opportunity getting a job making $30 an hour, the youth say, “hell yeah,” Parson said.

The difference is simple — not everyone gets that opportunity.

“I always tell people, that the young person is not their behavior,” Parson said. “They’re people. The behavior is inspired by different traumas, and what they’re going through. … If you can help them heal that trauma, and (go) along the journey they need to go through, the behavior will stop. And you’ll get to know that real young person.”