Workforce Matters recently had the opportunity to screen the documentary The Road Up and host a Q&A, moderated by Tameshia Mansfield of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with panelists Sheena Meade from Clean Slate Initiative, Esther Franco-Payne from Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA), and Kristen Robinson, co-founder of the Ecofeminist Action Institute and an alumna of the Cara program in Chicago who was featured in the film. After the Q&A, Workforce Matters had the opportunity to catch up with Tameshia and reflect on what we heard.
Q: Tameshia, the first question we asked panelists to respond to was "What does freedom mean for justice-impacted individuals, and what is the role of employment?" Can you talk a little bit about some of the themes we heard? What do you think funders should really pay attention to?
A: One of the things that stuck with me is something Sheena shared -- that often the real sentence starts for someone who was incarcerated when they leave the prison's walls. That reality is hard for those who have not been impacted by the criminal justice system to see. It is hard to fully understand how challenging it is to rebuild one’s life once out of prison, while continually encountering barriers to employment, licensing in a trade one learned inside, housing, and accessing benefits.
This is what Esther referred to as collateral consequences--the rules, regulations and policies that prevent people from doing what they need to do to live a productive life and achieve positive outcomes. I don't think most people are aware that there are over 40,000 collateral consequences on the books across the United States that prevent people from accessing work, education, housing and connection with their children.
And then there's what Kristen said -- freedom is about having a voice. A voice during arrest and conviction proceedings and a say in what happens afterward, as well as the ability to be seen as an individual, to have one's story be heard and understood.
As a funder, I feel it's important to keep these perspectives in mind. At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation we recognize the importance of creating space to hear and respond to individuals' stories and circumstances through programs and supports that give individuals and families the tools and resources they need to thrive. AND we need to respond to the systemic injustices that perpetuate racial inequities such as the incredible web of collateral consequences—and inform policy change to allow people to access the opportunities that will help them live without hindrance or restraint.
Q: Let's talk a little bit more about the collateral consequences that justice-impacted individuals face. These are things like not being able to access housing, financial aid, occupational certifications, and the like, even after individuals have completed their sentences. How do you think about the issue of collateral consequences as a workforce funder?
A: I have three main thoughts. One is, we in workforce development need to have much stronger partnerships with allies who work in legal services and support individuals and families who are justice-impacted. We need to be mindful of the data. One in three people in this country have a criminal record and roughly 50% of children have a parent with a record – and that data translates to people who are accessing workforce development services as well. It is not enough to simply think that providing someone with skills training, a resume writing workshop, and a new suit is all that is needed to help them land a job. As Esther said during the panel, legal services must be “on the menu” of services that are available to clients. Additionally, questions about a job seeker’s prior involvement in the criminal justice system should be asked early in the process, so that people can have support in understanding their options and navigating any record remediation.
Two, we need to immediately ensure that justice-impacted individuals have access to the supports and services that they are being denied. We can make philanthropic funds available to provide some of these supportive services and fund organizations sufficiently to help with them.
Three, it is imperative that we broaden our work to include systems change. How can we bring in more voices of justice-impacted individuals to shine a light on the talent we are losing and shift the narrative about who they are and the value they bring to communities? And how can we partner with groups who are working on reforms to reduce the number and impact of collateral consequences?
Q: In the film, we get a sense of how difficult and confusing it can be for individuals to navigate the criminal justice system--including how to get their records sealed. What have you learned from your support of organizations like CGLA and the Clean Slate Initiative about the ways that funders can support individuals AND change systems?
A: Kristen's experience with trying to have her record sealed was really illustrative in terms of the types of services we need to provide and fund for individuals--navigation, advice, and advocacy so individuals can understand what is happening and how they can have their records sealed. That is the kind of work we are supporting through CGLA and their Enterprise Partnership Program, where they partner directly with workforce development programs to provide legal support to individuals going through training programs.
Our support of the Clean Slate Initiative is meant to expunge criminal records at scale--by getting rid of onerous and confusing petition-based expungement and sealing processes – and making it automatic once returning citizens have completed their sentences and remain crime-free for a certain number of years. Pennsylvania, Utah, and Michigan have now passed Clean Slate laws, and more than half a dozen states including North Carolina and Louisiana have started moving toward automated expungement of criminal records. This gets me really excited, as it is potentially transformative for millions of people who will now be able to attain the freedom to move on with their lives. And for us, to allow parents to return to their families and give children the opportunity to thrive.
Tameshia Bridges Mansfield is a Program Officer on the Family Economic Security team at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.