Symbol of resilience: Local activist serves as a voice for formerly incarcerated people


Farrah Anderson

Activist James Corbin II poses for a photo on Jan. 20. Corbin aids former incarcerated people who struggle to rejoin society.

By Farrah Anderson, Assistant Investigative News and Longform Editor

When you meet with James Corbin II, you never know exactly what he might have been doing that day. 

For example, a few days ago, he took one of his clients, a formerly incarcerated person in Champaign County, to get food from the grocery store.

As a community resource navigator with First Followers, a nonprofit organization in Champaign County, Corbin works to help formerly incarcerated people re-enter the community.

Sometimes his work with First Followers involves speaking with landlords and employers. Sometimes, it’s teaching someone how to ride the bus. 

“I love the experience because it’s like a kid,” Corbin said. “(One man) was almost 50 plus and he didn’t know how to put the money on the bus. Because last time he was out (was) about 20 or 30 years ago, and it was totally different.”

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James Corbin II – known as “Tiger” – grew up on the South Side of Chicago. There, he said he witnessed gang activity and gun violence. After dropping out of high school and getting his GED certificate, he was convicted of a felony for selling drugs and spent a couple of months in prison. 

He said his grandmother – who passed away from cancer on his birthday years later – did everything she could to get him a lawyer.

One week after his 24th birthday, Corbin was shot during a robbery in 1991. He spent months in the hospital recovering. Some of that time was in a coma. 

While unconscious, he couldn’t communicate. But he could hear the voices of his family calling out his name: Tiger. 

Because he couldn’t speak, he started making clicking noises using his tongue. His family heard it. 

“I found a way to communicate with them by clicking,” Corbin said. “They said, ‘Click if you’re alright.’” 

When he came out of the coma, he was paralyzed and had to get used to using a wheelchair. Corbin said he was given an air cushion to make sitting more comfortable. But when he remembered that his grandmother was uncomfortable using a basic foam cushion to sit down during her battle with colon cancer, he gave her his cushion with no hesitation. 

“I was always trying to pay my grandmother back,” Corbin said. “A lot of what I do is for her.”

After he was shot, Corbin tried to go by ‘James’ instead of ‘Tiger’. But he said that ‘James’ never felt right to him.

“When you get paralyzed, you lose a big part of your identity,” Corbin said. “I had to redefine my identity.”

Instead of changing his name, Corbin said he decided to redefine it. Instead of going by Tiger, he changed the spelling to “Tygar.” 

The new name serves as an acronym for “Transform Your Goals and Reality.” 

Corbin said the new name’s meaning keeps him from falling into a victim mindset, which he said is easy to do after being paralyzed. 

As a convicted felon, Corbin said he already had trouble finding jobs that weren’t just manual labor. But once he was paralyzed, manual labor was no longer an option.

With virtually no employment options, he decided to move to Champaign-Urbana to attend Parkland College.

Eventually, he got involved in nonprofit organizations throughout the United States – which finally led him to work with First Followers in Champaign. 

Corbin knew how difficult it is to live as a formerly incarcerated person. But he said his work gives him faith that his clients will make their own path to success.

“My situation put so much pressure on me that it was either gonna make me or break me,” Corbin said. “Now, I’m able to transfer that and I tell them, ‘Relax, it’s gonna be alright.’”

Corbin also added that he’s wary of using his story to motivate or inspire the people he works with because everyone’s experience as a formerly incarcerated person is different. He said he doesn’t want them to compare themselves to his story.

“No two stories are the same,” Corbin said. “Every story is different. Everybody has different motives (and) different support.”

Because he has experienced so much throughout his life, Charles Davidson, another member of First Followers, said James is “the go-to guy.”

“Anything they get stuck on they go to James Corbin with,” Davidson said. “Whatever you can come up with, you can bet that he knows about.”

Corbin has received many awards and is very active in the community. But he sees the biggest impact in the people that the media and local citizens don’t recognize who he works for.

To him, it’s all about them. 

“I look at all the individuals you will probably never meet, and I’m coming in contact with them,” Corbin said. “And they’re doing some amazing work.”

According to James Kilgore, co-founder of First Followers, Corbin, who has a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield, could be working at a cushy, office job without the stress he has now.

“If he wanted to, he could be making like three times as much money as what he makes at First Followers,” Kilgore said. “Instead, he works.”

Alongside his work with formally incarcerated individuals, Kilgore said Corbin also helps people in the community who have been injured and left disabled – often from gun violence. 

“He’s been through that process,” Kilgore said. “So he has a great deal of empathy and gives hours and hours of time to people that are really trying to make a kind of a mental transition to the fact that they’re not able to walk.”

First Followers has grown and expanded its scope – especially with rising gun violence in Champaign County. The organization recently moved its headquarters from space at a local church to a house in Champaign. 

Kilgore also said Corbin’s work with First Follower’s clients illustrates how to bounce back from an unfortunate situation and use your experiences to connect with others. 

“He’s kind of a symbol of resilience, right?” Kilgore said. “I think everyone who comes out of prison and pulls their life back together has a sense of their own resilience.”

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