What a Prison Visit Taught Me About Allyship and Ending the Enduring Stigma of Incarceration
By Kim Graham Lee, CEO, IWL Foundation
The real joy that comes from age is how open we become to understanding the joy, pain, hopes, dreams and experiences of others but in a way that moves us to action. Over the past several years, this shift has inspired me to make dramatic changes in both my professional and personal life. My career journey is much more centered today on building up others. When we reach a point where our purpose is focused on helping to stoke the fire of future leaders, that’s a really meaningful place to be. Nowhere was this feeling more apparent than during my visit to the Rockville Correctional facility in Indiana.
A Prison Partnership
My role as CEO of Integrating Women Leaders Foundation, headquartered in Indianapolis, connects me with remarkable women and men in business. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle Cirocco who is the chief social responsibility officer for Televerde, one of the leading B2B demand generation companies in the world.
I connected immediately with Michelle for two reasons. One, her honesty and willingness to share her personal story with me (which you can read about on Forbes). Two, I was completely blown away by the mission of her company.
Since 1994, Televerde has been providing sales training, education and jobs to incarcerated women to help them successfully transition to life outside of prison. They’ve had terrific success. Over the company’s 25-years in business, more than 3,000 women have been through the program with less than 5.5 percent recidivism (the rate that people relapse into criminal behavior.). In Indiana, the average recidivism rate is about 34 percent. Nationally, that number skyrockets to 68 percent. The Televerde model is a terrific example of business as a force for good. It also shows the extraordinary outcomes that can be delivered when private employers and government work in lockstep to solve societal issues.
You can bet I wanted to dig my heels in to learn more and to see how I could engage with Michelle and her team to help empower this community even further.
Panel with Purpose
At the start of the summer, I received an email from Televerde CEO Morag Lucey inviting me to join an executive women’s panel at Rockville Correctional. The aim was to help educate the 90 Rockville women who work for Televerde on how to successfully navigate obstacles and thrive in any type of business environment, regardless of their past experiences and missteps.
On September 18, I was one of six female leaders located across the country who came together to share our stories with the women at Rockville (highlights of which are available here). For more than two hours, we talked about our personal blows, lessons learned, obstacles we’ve faced (and, in some cases, still face), accomplishments, et cetera.
We also took questions from the women who attended, all of whom had this intense focus on self-improvement. They wanted to hear from us what more they could be doing and learning to ensure career opportunities once they left prison. This proactive desire to learn continuously is something I’d describe as rare in most workplaces today. But not in this one. Their desire to grow is palpable.
Afterwards, we visited the Televerde prison-run call center, which is where these women work every day. I was able to talk in small groups and in one-on-one conversations with these extraordinary ladies. They shared their stories of transformation and how Televerde’s second chance business model is changing the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their families for the better.
The entire experience was life-changing. In fact, I’d rank it as one of the top 10 experiences I’ve had in my professional career.
Embracing This Community
Those of us who visit a prison for the first time would likely acknowledge that we’re entering with a fixed narrative in our heads. If you’re like me, this narrative has been created by Hollywood images, news headlines, and stories we’ve been told over a lifetime. It paints a picture that our prisons are reserved for the worst among us. News flash: they aren’t.
The women I met with are more like me than not. For starters, they’re businesswomen in the truest sense of the word. They are savvy when it comes to sales, marketing and technology. They can hold conversations on the most technical subject matter, offering keen insight and unique perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing companies today. It’s impressive. The talent and potential sitting inside our prisons is literally one of America’s best kept secrets and business would be wise to think about how it can empower this community.
In addition to business professionals, the Rockville women are mothers, daughters, wives, partners and caregivers. We place the most negative labels on women and men in prison. When we do this, who they are at their core becomes lost. It’s important to also remember that people live up or down to the labels we ascribe to them. Kudos to Televerde for reminding these women that they are better than their worst mistake. The positive impact of this single mindset change is massive.
Eliminate the Enduring Stigma
I’ve made mistakes. Actually, I’ve made a lot of them. Nowhere on a resume or application or during an interview have I been asked to name them. This isn’t the case for individuals with a criminal background. Not only are companies asking if they’ve ever committed a felony, but when they answer that question honestly, they are immediately denied any chance of employment. This has a ripple effect. Our businesses lose out on qualified talent and the unique perspectives and experiences these women and men would no doubt bring to our workforce. And with joblessness being the No. 1 predictor of recidivism, it also accounts for the revolving prison door we’ve created that costs our country $182 billion annually.
I don’t believe one bad decision should be the defining moment in anyone’s life. I also don’t think anyone would disagree with this. Yet for some reason, the stigma of incarceration endures for a lifetime. We need to change this. But in order to do that, we need to get to know the people inside our prisons.
I had no idea that so much promise, talent and potential was in my own backyard. As a female executive who has spent the last decade empowering other women to succeed in and out of the workplace, I’ve been missing an entire population. And make no mistake: the role of unconscious bias is a key contributor to this omission. So how, as a business community, can we course correct?
We need to see it as a moral and business imperative to visit our prisons. Only when we do this can real change occur. For it is then that we see people as individuals and become interested in understanding their experiences, what led them to prison, and what support they need to change, grow and transform. This one simple act will enable us to develop a prison-to-business allyship where we can advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit these individuals as a community. This is a quid-pro-quo strategy too.
Televerde has generated $8 billion in revenue for their clients since inception. They’ve done this with a workforce that’s predominantly either currently or formerly incarcerated. From a business, social and economic perspective, the model delivers. It’s time for the rest of the business community to get on board.
The one moment during my visit to Rockville that resonated most with me came towards the end of the day when I asked a small group of the women my famous “genie” question. “If a genie could grant you one wish to make your experience here at Rockville and with Televerde even better, what would that wish be?” One woman with tears in her eyes spoke up with courage and said, “That you won’t forget about us once you leave.” That really moved me and it’s a feeling I think we can all relate to. After all, we all want to be thought about, remembered and advocated for, especially when we need it most.
I promised her that I would not forget the experience or any of them. How could I? You can’t unsee something so powerfully moving and transformative. For this reason, I intend to do a lot more in my position to help drive stronger criminal justice reform and pave a way for all to enter and succeed in the workforce. I hope you’ll join me.
Kim Graham Lee has more than 30 years of diverse business experience including c-level leadership of start-up and growth companies and account management for some of the largest corporations in the world. For the past two years, she has served as the CEO of IWL Foundation. She is also the co-founder and co-president of the Indianapolis Chapter of Conscious Capitalism.