The Broad Center values volunteering and encourages our team to do so through paid time off for individual or group volunteer days. Earlier this year, as part of my role on the Talent and Operations team, I had the opportunity to help coordinate and participate in a volunteer day with Defy Ventures at the California City Correctional Facility. Defy Ventures is a nonprofit that operates in 8 states with the primary goal of reducing recidivism by supporting participants with a wide range of programming focused on building skills and connections to help achieve economic independence. Defy Ventures’ participants, known as Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs), include currently incarcerated individuals who are offered supports, such as: leadership development, small business incubation, career coaching, post-incarceration job search assistance and a refresher on the soft skills they’ll need for a successful reentry to society. Together with the Defy Ventures’ team, we focused on providing career and business coaching for approximately 50 EITs that day.
We began the day on a high note by engaging in some icebreakers. We set intentions, danced and shared fun facts like our favorite foods and sports teams. While this was a great deal of fun, it more importantly paved the way for us to have honest and productive conversations regarding the EITs’ resumes, personal statements and business ideas. It established a safe space for everyone to be vulnerable, authentic and connect in the incredibly powerful empathy building exercises that ensued. As we reflected at the end, there was an overwhelming consensus in the room that the discussions and activities pushed us to break down barriers and set aside preconceived notions. We all heard themes regarding the experiences and life circumstances that these individuals faced, which were far too common than they should be.
The general understanding of why someone is incarcerated has been heavily influenced by what we’ve seen, heard and read in mainstream media for decades. We have been bombarded by distorted images of people of color involved in violent crimes, drug trade, addiction and gang affiliation. Looking at the heightened association of people of color as potential threats to society coupled with heavy policing in their communities, it is no coincidence that they make up nearly 67% of our country’s current prison population. After hearing many of the EITs’ stories, we learned that our life experiences were more common than we might have imagined. Many of us in the room, both volunteer and EIT, knew what it was like to grow up in poverty, not know one or both parents, have no place to call home, manage a great deal of trauma with little to no support and so much more. All of this was powerful in bridging the gap and building empathy for one another, but it also brought to the forefront an unfortunate reality many of us have long been aware of – mass incarceration has not impacted all communities equally. I left and could not help but ask how the lives of the EITs we met that day could have played out differently. Perhaps a teacher, coach, counselor, family member or strong sense of community could have been the difference for many of them.
Following our experience with Defy Ventures, we came away with an even stronger commitment to collectively build up our most vulnerable communities and prevent future generations from following suit through our work in education. We left feeling inspired to spread Defy Ventures’ work and advocate for the EITs in the program. It’s been almost three months since our experience, but we are well aware that many existing inequities are being exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of May 20, there have been almost 30,000 cases of prisoners testing positive for coronavirus; people kept in overcrowded facilities where social distancing is almost impossible and access to adequate hygiene supplies are severely limited. This is an opportunity to rethink the approach to criminal justice, among many other facets of society, and we fully intend to use our experience with Defy Ventures to inform and anchor our own work moving forward.