Justice and Mobility Fund Senior Directors, Le’Ann Duran and Scott Nolen, discuss how creating pathways to economic mobility upon reentry can transform life trajectories
Le’Ann Duran and Scott Nolen from the Justice and Mobility Fund sat down to talk about the importance of creating economic mobility for justice-impacted individuals, including how the collaboration’s recent scale-readiness investments are working to meet returning citizens where they are and forging pathways to opportunity in order to enable the realization of dreams for life after prison.
Scott: Le’Ann, I am really looking forward to talking about our Justice and Mobility efforts and latest investments. Though we work closely together, I don’t think I have ever heard your “why.” So, to dive in, can you share what brought you to the Justice and Mobility Fund?
Le’Ann: I’ve been working in reentry for a little over 20 years. I was living in Michigan and ended up running the first office of reentry for the state as part of their strategy to try to stem the cycle of people coming home from prison only to return. The years I spent in that work helped me appreciate the tremendous number of barriers – structural barriers as well as personal, family, and community challenges – that exist as someone is trying to make their way back home.
What I saw that continues to be a significant barrier today, is the lack of access to pathways to economic opportunity. Coming home after incarceration is often a time where people are really excited about the fresh start they have and are genuinely trying to reset their lives. Unfortunately, current US workforce services and programs – the ways we lay the foundation to help people get on track to start their careers – are inadequate to support these returning citizens. Repeatedly watching the impacts of these barriers left me deeply frustrated and really helped me appreciate the importance of increasing economic mobility. That’s a theme that I’ve followed throughout my career.
What about you?
Scott: I have both a professional and a personal track around the notion of justice and economic mobility. I grew up in a small town in the South at a time when factories were relocating or closing, and I watched one of my best friend leave town because there were no job opportunities for the adults in his family. I think, without recognizing it in that moment, that goodbye was my first understanding of the tie between job opportunity and sustainability. Then, coming of age as a teenager, I saw kids who I knew were talented and smart enter the juvenile justice system at 13 to 15 years old. They would return home completely different. I didn’t recognize them anymore: their personality, how they held themselves, and what their priorities were had changed. It’s hard to describe how much just a relatively short time in juvenile detention changed the trajectory of their lives, but even as a young person I could identify it.
Later in life, I got into psychology. I was drawn towards child psychology, and I began my career doing various types of behavioral interventions with children. The clear majority of the children I interacted with were black and brown, and mostly Black boys. In that work, I saw the pattern of those kids getting pushed out of school – likely because the schools did not have the capability of meeting them where they were with support and learning or behavioral assistance. They were pushed out of their community and into the juvenile justice system. The detention centers they entered were even more oppressive and disruptive than that of my home state, and again I witnessed the change they went through. But I retained hope with one driving belief: there has to be a better way of supporting people. That’s what drew me to this intersection of youth development, mental health, and justice system involvement. When you see it in real time, you understand that behavioral health, mental health, criminal justice system involvement, and economic mobility are all tied together. If you’re just addressing one, you’re leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. My career path has taken me from the behavioral sciences closer and closer to creating support for people who have engaged with the justice system.
Le’Ann: Scott, I love your story and how it shaped your understanding. It becomes so clear that there are structural inequities around who has or doesn’t have opportunity, and those can be based on the trauma you’ve experienced in your life, the place that you’re born, or the resources your family has.
As you know, I’m also from a small town in the South. When you were speaking about your upbringing and as I reflect on mine, I am reminded of what Lewis King from OIC of America – a Justice and Mobility investee – often says: “The real challenge is to bring these solutions to forgotten people in forgotten places.” In joining Blue Meridian and the Justice and Mobility Fund almost two years ago, I was excited to examine those structural barriers as we invest in the growth of strategies that can provide pathways to overcome challenges: systemic, personal, and within communities – even small, ‘forgotten’ communities.
Scott: Absolutely, Le’Ann. Opportunity is the answer. I really appreciate the focus on economic mobility in our investments.
Throughout my career I’ve noticed the implicit or explicit expectation of, “Get yourself together upon reentry, and then you will have access to resources,” when in reality, returning citizens need those resources right away in order to rebuild their lives. It can feel like an intimidatingly high bar.
We do know there are programs and strategies that provide immediate, wraparound assistance without this expectation and do so really well. And I remember us asking ourselves – a little over a year ago – if an organization providing support is having real impact in one city or state, how do we help them prepare to reach more people or influence other organizations across the country that are doing similar work? Our recent scale-readiness initiative was the answer.
Le’Ann: I could not agree more, and it’s been so exciting and enriching to partner with you in that thinking and in building the initiative. In fact, what I like so much about the organizations we’ve selected for investment is that they are designed to meet the individual where they are.
One thing that I found particularly helpful as we tried to answer that question is that other leaders at Blue Meridian had already tackled it. Rather than starting from scratch, we were able to use the template that The Studio @ Blue Meridian has designed. What we both appreciated about the approach is that it’s deliberate in giving participating organizations the needed support and space for tough deliberation, wrestling, and reckoning with what aspects of their program are essential, and then taking those essential components and identifying a channel for scale.
Scott: Exactly, and through the process thus far, we’ve heard leaders say that they don’t typically get this kind of space to evaluate and plan before jumping into scaling. A beautiful aspect of The Studio model is that each investee team has time with consultants who specialize in specific areas, like performance management, to talk through their ideas and really try them on. They get to connect with and discuss challenges with peer organizations facing similar issues as well as work hand in hand with me, you, and others within the Justice and Mobility Fund to formulate plans that will help them prepare for transformative growth.
Le’Ann: Scott, your mention of connectivity and planning support reminds me of the Impact Lab we hosted together – with our Justice and Mobility Fund team – early in our process. Like they do within The Studio, we wanted to be intentional about creating a space that felt safe so that the investee leaders and their teams could truly be vulnerable and dig into core issues and then outline that plan that will ultimately prepare them to scale. At the lab, every team chose a mascot, something that symbolized them as an organization. In their choices, we saw a theme of ‘small but mighty.’ A hummingbird or an ant, for example. There was a collective sense that at the intersection of justice and economic mobility, our solution sets have had to be mighty because in the face of challenges that are so big and so intrinsic in historically biased systems, a single organization – even one doing incredible work – can often feel small.
Scott: I loved that time together. I loved the playlist we curated from the leaders’ favorite pump-up songs. Remember that? And I love that through the initial planning process, the investee leaders were able to land in a place where they actually said to us, “We’ve got a vision to reach tens of thousands of returning citizens and still be who we are as an organization.”
Le’Ann: That’s really what we want these organizations to get from this process! On that note, Scott, when we talked about what we were looking for in organizations focused on opportunity after incarceration to invite into this scale-readiness initiative, I remember an early conversation you and I had about how it’s hard to segment out a returning citizen’s workforce needs from the needs of the whole person and their families. As you’ve gotten to know these organizations and these leaders, are there any examples of organizations that you see meeting that whole person really well?
Scott: One that comes to mind is A New Way of Life (ANWOL). This is an organization that mostly serves justice-impacted women. This is critical because, even though there are fewer justice impacted women, this population has different needs than men returning home from prison. ANWOL leans into those needs: housing, parenting, and safety – which can have very specific meaning for this female population. Their model is individualized. Some of the women who are residents in their facilities – an aspect of their model – might be there for a few months, where others might be there for a couple years. The focus is: “What do you need to be able to get back into your community and live the life that you’re dreaming of?”
Another example is Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). As part of their model, they focus on building community because they recognize that folks can get into criminal behavior through their social networks. When returning citizens decide to join a workforce-development program, they may disconnect from their social network, even intentionally so. ARC gives participants and their families an opportunity to meet other families who have been through the reentry process and create a new community. They even meet at the beach in Los Angeles, at times. When you’re thinking about a reentry or workforce-development program, this type of community-centric support might not immediately come to mind. But I know you and I agree that this is an example of an essential component of ARC’s model, which we want them to hold onto as they scale.
The current US economic system tends to prohibit justice-impacted people from the chance to dream and dream big in regard to the life they want to lead. The US has policies in place, such as collateral sanctions and other barriers to economic mobility, which limit opportunity after incarceration and constantly narrow that window of dreaming. All of the organizations in this initiative are thinking about how to create the widest perspective for returning citizens to dream in ways that – if they are like some of the kids I grew up with – they were otherwise closed off from before having an opportunity to truly know themselves.
Le’Ann: Great examples! The fact that A New Way of Life and Anti-Recidivism Coalition have features that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a classic workforce program is on purpose. Also, both of those organizations are led by people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. Their teams, their staff, their whole approach to the work is centered on the experiences of people returning home after incarceration. I think that’s why we see a different kind of program intervention: because it is built for and designed by people who’ve lived it.
Scott, I often come back to the fact that the US has about 550,000 people coming home from incarceration every year. That’s more than a half-million people annually. The question that drives our Justice and Mobility Fund work is: What would happen if these best-in-class organizations could actually meet the needs of every single person coming home? And for this initiative specifically: what if we could offer support for returning citizens to start their careers? What would our communities and our families be like if we could do that at scale? The preparation for growth within this initiative is the start of rounding out our Justice and Mobility solution set that can collectively meet scale of the problem with a right-sized solution.
Scott: That’s right, Le’Ann, and as these organizations are moving in the direction that you just described – preparing to meet scale with scale – we see several of them also working with partners, such as other organizations or even public offices, etc. They’re creating blueprints, and they’re sharing those blueprints. In a state like California, it’s probably difficult for one organization to reach every person coming home from prison. But if one organization can figure out what works, share that with others, and partner and support each other, they can make a significant impact. ARC, for example, has been in conversations with state officials regarding what the reentry-funding needs are in California. Then, when they unlock that funding, it’s not just for them.
We should be super excited about our recent investees’ ability to build community and bring other organizations together to learn from each other.
Le’Ann: So true, Scott. I’m very excited.
It’s about time to wrap up, but I do want to say: based on their early progress, by the time we get to 2025, we’re going to have a set of organizations that are truly ready to execute on the roadmaps they created which can bring their solutions to transformative scale. This could mean reaching returning citizens or creating influence nationally or making a profound impact in a targeted region. There is potential for the Justice and Mobility Fund to help power that scale, but I’m also really looking forward to seeing how other funders, both philanthropic funders and public-sector funders, can come together and take these solutions to the next level.