Are we done with the marginalization of certain members of our society – like the formerly incarcerated – or are we willing to find new solutions? A friend of mine, Kenyatta Leal from Next Chapter, offers a useful analogy in understanding the double-standard we are living in -- the recycling of the plastic bottle. We are willing to find hundreds, even thousands, of ways to reuse, repurpose and reimagine the simple water bottle rather than discard it in the trash. I think I even saw that Levi Strauss has figured out how to recycle them into blue jeans. Why, then, aren’t we willing to take the same approach with people?
Some Important Stats
For the sake of grounding us in the numbers, the US represents 4.25% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. A series of law enforcement campaigns and sentencing policy changes have created dramatic growth in the numbers of people in prison over the years in America. The prison population in this country increased by tenfold due to the War on Drugs in the ‘80s. In addition, sentencing policies, implicit bias and socioeconomic inequity are all factors in racial differences in the criminal justice system.It’s why people of color comprise 37% of the US population but 67% of the prison population. While the objectives of incarceration are punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation, correctional facilities unfortunately are usually focused on punishment. However, I would argue that, by teaching people real skills, you give them a better chance at rehabilitation, which is ultimately better for society as a whole. A study conducted by the Seidman Research Institute of Arizona State University showed that incarcerated women who held jobs in prison, where they were taught and worked to hone sales skills, were almost 35% less likely (than the national average for similarly situated women) to reoffend within their first year after prison and almost 54% lower within three years of being released. In the same study, they found that additional benefits existed for the families of these same women included that their children were 11 times more likely to graduate high school than dependent children of other incarcerated mothers. Another great outcome of skill-building was gainful employment after prison, which can lead to better income and reduced barriers to healthcare.
It Isn’t What You See on Television
My last job changed my thinking on this forever. I had the opportunity to work with a very different workforce – incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women - at Televerde, the subject of the Seidman research above. My first visit to the women’s state prison (where two-thirds of our workforce lived) was like a scene right out of a movie. After giving my ID to the guard, I passed through the sally port (two giant metal doors where the one you just passed through slams closed before the next one opens). I then boarded a bus, driven by an inmate, to a building on the other side of the campus. After passing through another sally port, I turned right, and walked along a sidewalk in the open prison yard. There were about 20 women lined up in bright orange jumpsuits, waiting for the medical office to open. I scurried past them – all the while playing every prison movie cliche in my head and imagining I was going to be shanked. (Of course, it was all in my head and I was barely noticed.) When I arrived at our company’s contact center – a tattered but repurposed sewing factory – I saw another sea of orange. There, I spent the afternoon listening, watching and learning and, mostly, being in awe of the skills of these women. I sat wondering: as an HR leader, why did it take me so long to find this community of talent, and why haven’t more companies tapped into their skills? These women were articulate, smart and thirsting to learn new skills that could transform their lives. In one afternoon, my mindset was forever transformed. These were real people with talent and a drive to change their lives. When I moved on to my own next role, I vowed to bring something of this model with me.
The Next Chapter
I joined Zoom as Chief People Officer in January 2019, and soon after I learned about The Last Mile (TLM) program. TLM was established by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti at San Quentin and other prisons to teach coding to inmates. I immediately started to imagine what would be possible if Zoom could hire TLM graduates. At first, I was too nervous to pursue the idea with the company’s leadership because I was a new hire myself and wasn’t sure others would share my commitment. As a first step, I enlisted my CFO, Kelly Steckelberg, to take a trip to San Quentin with me to meet with The Last Mile community. We toured the facility with Beverly, explored the coding classrooms and spent time with students as they demonstrated their projects. It was an amazing day, and for the entire ride back we spoke about how we could bring Last Mile graduates to Zoom. I knew I had my first ally. Next, we sought broader executive sponsorship, which was readily given, and we began work with Next Chapter. Next Chapter is an initiative of the tech company Slack, in partnership with The Last Mile, the Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA that helps bring returning citizens back to work and shift perceptions around formerly incarcerated individuals. They helped us to interview and select two apprentices to start at Zoom this summer.
An Outpouring of Support
Next, we planned the announcement to the Zoom team. To be honest, I was a little nervous about this last step. The response could have been trepidation or recoil. There could have been a backlash because of the current high level of unemployment. Instead, there was intense support from the team. My mailbox was overwhelmed with an outpouring of love from employees saying things like, “I'm sincerely proud to be a part of an organization that shares my values and love being a Zoomie!” Another said: “I come from a workforce development background and wanted to personally thank you for your progressive thinking and interest in this program. Truly revelatory. I’m proud to be a Zoomie. Good stuff!” And yet another said, “This is fantastic. Giving people an opportunity to start their lives down a better path having demonstrated a willingness to change is incredible. One more reason Zoom really is a special place!” These messages speak highly to the values of the Zoom culture as well as the people who work there. We’ve taken the first small steps at Zoom to reimagine our workforce as inclusive of those who are typically marginalized, if not discarded. I ask myself: what else we can do – together -- to ensure that people aren’t forever marked with a scarlet letter for their prior bad acts? There isn’t one of us who would want to forever be known by the worst day of our lives. It is time for all of us to look beyond what someone is and see people for who they are – talented individuals desiring a second chance at life. I invite you to take your own small step … today. Learn more about Next Chapter at https://slackhq.com/next-chapter-program-expansion-dropbox-zoom