The unusual redemption story of the man who gives voice to Philly’s waterfront

How a formerly incarcerated tough guy used writing to find his way.

DRWC digital content creator Darnell Schoolfield in front of the Ben Franklin Bridge

DRWC digital content creator Darnell Schoolfield in front of the Ben Franklin Bridge

Courtesy DRWC
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Do a search for Darnell Schoolfield and the first page of Google will be filled with reports detailing his high-profile arrest.

That was nearly a decade ago. You have to scroll down to find out what he’s up to now.

As digital content creator at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, Schoolfield is the voice, and often the face, behind several of Philly’s most happening outdoor spaces. Enjoy updates from Spruce Street Harbor Park and Cherry Street Pier? Darnell is the one bringing them to life.

“My journey is crazy,” Schoolfield said last week, sitting in the United by Blue coffee shop at 2nd and Race. “I can’t even put it into words because it was just, like, so surreal.”

With no college degree, the 28-year-old holds a job that might often require one. As someone convicted of a felony, Schoolfield was rejected from a similar position at another company because of his criminal record.

At heart, he’s a writer, Schoolfield said.

After graduation, the Wynnefield native went to Cheyney University to study communications. He left after a year, overwhelmed by the expense and the 30-mile-each-way commute.

“I felt kind of discouraged because not only was I paying out of pocket [for school], I was still working,” Schoolfield said. He’d catch an hour-and-a-half-long bus from Cheyney to 69th Street, where he worked at a cell phone store, then take another bus out to King of Prussia Mall for a second job.

His love for music and writing pursuits hummed in the background. At 20, he launched a music blog, where he’d compose opinion pieces about world happenings in hip-hop.

Something else simmered in the background, too: Schoolfield’s hot temperament. At age 21, it helped earn him a 3-year prison stint at SCI Camp Hill.

A fight that changed an ‘entire life’

Schoolfield stabbed a customer inside the T-Mobile store where he worked on Nov. 13, 2012.

The details of the incident are well documented in the unforgiving annals of the internet. While interacting with a customer who came into the 69th Street store to dispute a bill, a conversation turned into an argument, which became a physical altercation that spilled outside the store. During the tussle, Schoolfield stabbed the 59-year-old.

“Get into a fight and not only taking it to the level of a fight, but actually, you know, taking it outside the lines,” Schoolfield recalled of the 2012 altercation. “It changed my entire life.”

Charged with attempted murder, Schoolfield was locked up on $1 million cash bail and began the trek through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

He was initially sentenced to one year with time served for pleading guilty to aggravated assault. But the assistant district attorney working the case appealed to have Schoolfield’s sentence reconsidered.

Without presenting new evidence, the prosecutor was able to get the judge to agree that the man on trial deserved 3 to 10 years behind bars. He served only three.

“I went into it with a thought like, ‘Yo, I’m never coming home,'” Schoolfield remembered of his decade-long sentence. “But I just felt like okay, this is supposed to happen. I had to take on that because I did what I did, and I had no excuse for it. I wasn’t glorifying it, and I know what I did was wrong.”

Back then, it was rare for someone to serve the low-end of their sentence, Schoolfield said.

In 2012, the city jails’ pervasive overcrowding triggered a lawsuit. They were designed to hold 6,500 people, but at the time, the population was more than 9,400. At the same time, nearly 51,000 people were incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons.

Philadelphia officials in 2015 started taking steps to cut the city’s jail population in half, and have received millions in grants through the MacArthur Foundation to fund the efforts. As of November 2019, the population had been slashed to just under 4,800. State prisons have seen less of a drop, with a population of close to 46k at the end of last year.

“It’s very difficult to go out in the middle of a sentence,” Schoolfield said of his experience behind bars.

But in the midst of an overcrowded prison, his calling still hummed in the background.

“During that time, I literally just dedicated myself to learning and reading so much,” Schoolfield said. “I focused on writing. I’ve never stopped writing.”

Writing for an audience of 200k

Schoolfield knows his trajectory is not the norm, especially as a Black American.

After being released, Schoolfield found a job, but was unable to move up. When he applied to managerial positions, he was rejected because of his criminal record.

“I kind of got used to it,” Schoolfield said of his rejection. “That shouldn’t be the reality of people who serve their time and literally want to do better. [But] once you’re a minority and you got an asterisk attached to you as a felon, it’s like, all bets are off.”

A little more than a year later, Schoolfield finds himself a key player in the communications and marketing department at the DRWC, where his colleagues describe him as a lot of fun, a very deep thinker, inquisitive, dedicated, focused and creative.

They learned his personality only after seeing him around working for DRWC in a different capacity. Originally, Schoolfield was brought on as part of the security and operations team.

By day, he maintained the safety of waterfront parks and attractions. By night, his writing continued.

When VP of Operations Lavelle Young discovered a music article Schoolfield had written and posted to Facebook, he brought Schoolfield to the DRWC creative team.

“[Young] actually came to me and said, ‘Hey, I have this really awesome security guard. He’s a young guy, he has a record,” DRWC Creative Director Emma Fried-Cassorla told Billy Penn. “He’s a great writer.”

Fried-Cassorla happened to need a copywriter. After Schoolfield produced a sample of radio copy in only a couple hours, he was on the team.

Schoolfield now writes the words behind the DRWC’s 16 social media accounts.

With a nose ring, knuckle tattoos that read “FR$H SIDE” and a green dollar sign tat dripping down the right side of his neck, Schoolfield admits he sometimes feels out of place. His talent, though, is right where it belongs.

“His ability to produce content is phenomenal,” said Fried-Cassorla. “His ability to just crank out stuff is amazing.”

Colleague Jarreau Freeman said Schoolfield adds empathy to the job, making sure any of the nearly 200,000 followers who interact with the DRWC social media accounts feel heard.

“He’s gone through a lot,” Freeman said. “Now he’s stepping into this new season of embracing new opportunities and developing skills that he’s always wanted to cultivate.”

In prison, Schoolfield read lots of self-help books. Some of his favorites include “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, and “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother” by Hill Harper. Reading taught him to manifest his goals, he said, and inspired him to share his zig-zagged, whirlwind life story in hopes of inspiring others.

“I’m trying to embrace being chosen,” Schoolfield said. “Because I know I’m chosen for sure.”

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