Two years after the murder of George Floyd, and the many promises of transformational change in America that followed, we have now officially entered the “year of receipts.” A time when businesses and policymakers must reveal the work they’ve done to a country fed up with constant tragedy and sputtering reforms.
That’s according to Conroy Boxhill of communications consultancy Porter Novelli, who helped kick off the American Workforce and Justice Summit (AWJS) in Atlanta on Wednesday, a gathering of more than 150 business leaders, policy experts and campaign organisations focused on how businesses can meaningfully engage in criminal justice reform.
“Businesses have to have more than a conscience,” he told the crowd at the Georgia-Pacific Center, where The Independent was reporting live as official media partner. “Businesses have to be able to take action.”
And they have to be able to prove it if they want to keep customers and employees alike.
Just what that action is, and when enough is enough, however, is anything but simple. Floyd’s murder showed that even well-known power dynamics can still provoke new, ground-breaking social change, while rumoured developments like the end of Roe v Wade demonstrate that even well-established rights can be swept away in quick succession, Mr Boxhill said.
Still, if day one of AWJS made anything clear, it’s that despite the complications of engaging in social justice work, there’s no shortage of perspectives and promising solutions. People just need to listen closely to those working on — and living out — the issues every single day.
For Mr Boxhill, incorporating justice work into corporate thinking on the now-standard goals of diversity and inclusion is a great place to start. Instead of D&I, diversity and inclusion, he likes to use a longer acronym, JEDI, to help focus his clients. It stands for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
His point is that injustice is so hard-wired into American life, from employment to housing, that tackling justice issues is the necessary first step before equity, diversity, and inclusion can enter the conversation.
Otherwise, he asked the audience, “How do you even get to the other three?”
Part of that justice work comes to shifting how US culture approaches formerly incarcerated people, according to Tomika Daniel, one of the subjects of APART, a new documentary that explores the often under-represented experiences of women who have passed through the justice system and are seeking to re-enter society.
“You don’t even realise, sometimes it gets so discouraging going to interview after interview and they shut the door on you. If you’re not a strong minded person, those doors closing could send a person all the way left, but opening them could send a person all the way right,” she told The Independent during a panel about the film.
“A lot of the time, the women that I was locked up with dealt with the mental health, addiction,” she continued. “Sometimes we have to believe in others before they start to believe in themselves, because they’ve been so broken and been in a system and a world where people are telling you you’re not anything if you’ve been to prison.”
Part of that culture shift comes down to centring the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated women, who are often left out of the public and policy conversation on criminal justice, added Daniel Forkkio, CEO of Represent Justice, during the discussion.
“Story and proximity through story is often the first step towards action. It’s how people learn, how people become motivated. It’s how people empathise with people,” he said. “We want people to understand the abundance of talent and worthiness that people returning from the justice system have.”
And in a world where there’s an estimated 47,000 collateral consequences to having a past record, in realms like housing, employment, education, government benefits, business licensing, and many more, the work of removing those barriers can happen virtually anywhere.
One place is in the hiring process, according to Keilon Ratliff of Kelly Services, a talent firm that pairs companies like Toyota with formerly incarcerated people.
“It changes lives. It really does,” he said. “Just giving a person an opportunity can mean a world of difference to a family and a lineage that embarks with a family and takes that journey with them, as they’re bringing income into a household.”
Businesses ride the tide as well.
“The results are very attractive,” Mr Ratliff told The Independent. “We helped employers increase their pipeline of candidates, where people are actually struggling to find a workforce today. You increase your pipeline and find that hidden talent. That hidden talent is a lot more reliable. They’re hungry. They want to go to work, and so we’ve seen turnover decrease as well.”
There are also the countless official policies that put justice-impacted people on a path that leads away from redemption, from lengthy mandatory minimum sentences that do little to take context into account, to counter-productive parole conditions, to housing and permitting laws that allow open discrimination against people with records.
Malika Kidd, another of the subjects of APART, was given a 14-year mandatory minimum sentence when police found her then-boyfriend’s drugs in a car she was riding in. After getting out, she then faced years more of legal supervision, and had to check in constantly with the parole office as she began working and then traveling to speak out about criminal justice issues.
“You have to wait for hours in a parole office just to get that paper. You’re missing work,” she said during the panel. “What about those jobs that are not OK with you sitting at the parole office, just waiting on them?”
As Ms Kidd climbed the ranks at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, an Ohio-based nonprofit that offers employment training and support for current and formerly incarcerated women, she would find that these sorts of policies were hard-wired into a variety of unexpected places.
The organisation recently purchased a food truck, part of its long-running work using food service training as a way to get women in the system into good jobs, but found some cities wouldn’t let formerly incarcerated women even get a permit to operate.
“We went to apply for one of the city permits, and they said you cannot have a conviction — and the conviction can be for parking tickets — but you can’t operate a food truck in this city,” she said. “Who thought of that, to put that in place?”
It turns out, the city in question didn’t even know they had such a policy on the books.
Things are far more blatant in the world of housing, where in many places it’s perfectly legal to ask about one’s prior criminal history on applications, or bar justice-impacted people from even trying to apply.
“We talk about diversity and inclusion, the fact that it is legal to discriminate against someone with a criminal record just blows my mind,” said fellow panelist Michelle Cirocco of Televerde, a marketing and customer care company which employs and trains currently and formerly incarcerated women around the country. “It’s legal to tell someone you can’t live here because you have a criminal record. We have a housing laws around discrimination, but they don’t apply.”
This pile-up of barriers — at work, at home, in court — makes it imperative that states implement “clean slate” laws, according to Sheena Meade of the Clean Slate Initiative. These policies automatically clear the records of those who’ve met certain conditions and avoided further contact with the police. Such legislation has already been passed in Utah, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and is on the docket in multiple other states.
“70 to 100 million people have some type of record, who have been touched by the legal system,” she told The Independent. “So 1 in 3 Americans have some type of record. That means a lot of people are impacted by this issue. Background checks, having a record, serves as a barrier to people trying to get their life on track, trying to get employment, housing, education, even the things people don’t even think about like volunteering at your child’s school…Something that happened 10, 15 years ago, should not be a lifelong barrier to living a fruitful life.”
Perhaps the overarching conclusion of day one of AWJS was that though there are indeed numerous barriers facing incarcerated women, those barriers were erected by humans, and can be taken down with enough effort across sectors.
There may be a schools-to-prison pipeline, a poverty-to-prison-pipeline, a racism-to-prison pipeline, but we can build something better in their place.
“From a business standpoint, I would challenge business leaders to think about how you literally create your own prison to workforce pipelines,” said Ms Cirocco. “There is amazing talent that exists inside those walls.”
People in power just need to start listening to them.
The American Workforce and Justice Summit 2022 is a two-day gathering of more than 150 business leaders, policy experts and campaign organizations focused on how corporations can meaningfully engage in justice issues and create change in the workplace and beyond. AWJ 2022, a project of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, is taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 and 5 May. The Independent will be reporting from AWJ 2022 as media partner.
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