Each year, more than 3,000 Bostonians return home from prison or jail. Almost immediately, many returning citizens face barriers to employment, housing, family reintegration, and many systemic factors (such as institutional racism, lack of opportunities, insufficient mental health support, etc.) that led to their incarceration to begin with.
Earlier this year, Mayor Walsh launched the Office of Returning Citizens (ORC) to support folks on their re-entry journey. Kevin Sibley, the office’s director, and Bob Turner, the team’s case manager, have been doing an amazing job there: serving around 200 returning citizens by connecting them with employment opportunities, health resources, and housing.
I was grateful to jump on board this summer to help ORC consider and test ways to grow and deepen their impact. The two questions we asked were: (1) how can we cultivate a returning citizens community and leadership team? And (2) can city government play a role in reshaping the image of this constituency?
One of our answers to these questions was inspired by Baltimore’s Turnaround Tuesday program, where returning citizens gather each week to share stories, develop leaders, and generate the visibility to get Johns Hopkins Hospital to hire over 300 returning citizens thus far.
Learning from their experience, we piloted our very own convening, Rebuilding Together, at the ORC office on Thursday July 26th. Our fundamental question for this event was: Would our returning citizen clients want to engage with each other, and with the office, in this way?
The answer: yes! Over 50 returning citizens braved a Boston rainstorm and showed up thanks to the great outreach by Bob Turner and other returning citizen leaders. The night was filled with large group testimonies, stations where people could provide feedback to the office and tips for each other, and a session for mingling and networking. We were able to provide delicious food from Haley House Bakery & Cafe, including jerk chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens.
Folks were grateful for a group that could understand, celebrate, and be inspired by each other. One woman reflected:
“Our stories and the injustice needs to be told. We suffered –and experienced trauma.”
Another young man said: “I don’t normally hang out with other [returning citizens] but this is different and special.”
During one of the testimonies, the group erupted with applause and cheers when a returning citizen shared that he finally found housing on Christmas Day last year.
I hesitate to call Rebuilding Together just an event because of how much power the office has generated since. I would categorize the power generated from Rebuilding Together in three ways: the power of community, the power of visibility, and the power of capacity building.
- The power of community: Having a space to realize they were not alone helped folks develop resilience to the challenges of coming home. Returning citizens networked with each other, exchanging contact information, resources, and tips such as which employers were truly CORI-friendly.
- The power of visibility: On the other hand, the convening has allowed us to build visibility externally with the public and institutions. Last Tuesday, we met with physicians working for a large health system about what it would take for them to hire returning citizens. Coming off the heels of the successful convening, we were able to put together some concrete proposals that all stakeholders are considering: what if human resources professionals or executives from these hospitals come to our next convening, see folks doing the work of rebuilding — and could publicly commit to a pilot hiring 10 or so ORC clients?
- The power of capacity building: But perhaps most importantly, from the convening we built capacity and leadership. We recruited 12 returning citizens to join an Advisory Committee to help steer the office. In our first two meetings, I’ve been inspired by the courage, vulnerability and commitment the group demonstrates. The group has even already introduced a healthy dose of tension – bringing their lived experiences to push the office to act faster in certain areas. I’m excited to see how they propel the office forward.
How is this a MONUM project ? And how does it fit into MONUM’s concept of “civic innovation”? In my perspective, the “innovation” is rethinking what the role of government is beyond delivering services efficiently and towards engaging constituents most impacted by the problem in more meaningful ways. Reflecting on my fellowship, I’m left with two related questions:
What might be the role of city government not just to deliver services but to also recognize the dignity and humanity of our communities? How might we create spaces to connect people together and build the visibility to push institutions to recognize their humanity?
Our prison system is in some ways a “social intervention” that lies at the end of complex systems of racism, poverty, substance abuse, inadequate mental health support, etc. For many returning citizens, a stable life may not be in reach in the near term. One advisory committee member explained, “a very complex system led to our incarceration. How do we develop a system to de-carcerate while staying patient on the day to day?”
While we must continue to provide services to help returning citizens, how might we also play the role of listeners? Or cultivators of communities that can weather circumstances and a system not built for their successful re-entry?
On a related note, how might we see the full human potential of our constituents: not just as clients of our services but as potential leaders?
At a fundamental level, many of our returning citizens do not feel that they have a voice or the ability to influence institutions that impact their lives. Many come from communities of poverty that lack a political voice and therefore lack opportunities and healthy living conditions. These days, many returning citizens come back to those same communities and find themselves tossed from agency to agency filling out forms and getting referred to services and programs that are often just not helpful.
Empowering returning citizens to be leaders will not only help ensure the office is on the right track, but it will take a step to address the fundamental problem of a lack of voice. At our kick-off meeting, an advisory committee member stated: “We have experience like nobody else. We have a voice.”
The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial graduate students interested in working in public service. During this highly selective, eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on individual projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.