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A. Charlene Leach on What Our Country Can’t Afford

Better Futures Minnesota, a current borrower with REDF Impact Investing Fund, works with men who were formerly incarcerated to fuel and guide their desire to rebuild their lives and create their own success stories. They also work to change costly systems and practices that produce poor results and perpetuate the chaos and cycles of dependency experienced by men who have faced incarceration. 

Since joining Better Future Minnesota just six months ago, CEO A. Charlene Leach’s strong leadership and new perspectives have helped strengthen the organization. From assessing policies and procedures to evaluating the pros and cons of their contract negotiations and programs, Ms. Leach has completed a full operational audit to ensure Better Futures is poised and prepared for growth. We sat down (virtually) with Charlene to hear more about where she’s been and where the organization is headed. 

“I wish more people could acknowledge, in regards to the men we work with, that they’ve served their time, and with appropriate levels of support there’s nothing they can’t do.”

It’s one of the salient points that A. Charlene Leach, CEO of Better Futures Minnesota, shares as we talk about the work she does in Minneapolis. 

“It’s time to give returning citizens a second chance to become what they could have been, to realize their dreams. They deserve a chance like you, me, and anyone in the community.”

A “chance” is exactly what Better Futures provides, offering holistic support and paid, on-the-job training at one of their three social enterprise businesses in deconstruction, corporate cleaning, and property maintenance. Employment social enterprise’s unique, proven approach is what initially drew Ms. Leach to the sector after holding leadership roles at a number of foundations.  

“I was leading a foundation and had done research on employment social enterprises and the impact they’re having on communities. Seeing how they’re changing outcomes for communities was the deciding factor for me to move outside of the foundation world,” shares Ms. Leach. “At Better Futures we’re not just giving them tangible training, but we are also equipping them with soft skills to ensure they’re successful. You can learn how to do a job, but if you can’t interview, or manage your time, or budget, then you’re not going to be successful.”

In addition to on-the-job and soft skills training, participants at Better Futures receive integrated, trauma-informed care through a unique four-pronged approach that includes housing stability, health and wellness, workforce development, and life coaching. 

“We’re investing in the whole of the individual because we want their complete success: at work, in their personal life, and in their community,” explains Ms. Leach. “If you know how trauma works, you know it can creep up at various times in a thousand different ways. Our men need to learn how to navigate that to be successful. We can’t just focus on one aspect of growth and development.” 

Trauma is a constant, albeit often overlooked challenge for participants and staff alike, especially as of late. Better Futures Minnesota is located just blocks away from where the murder of George Floyd took place, and about 98% of Better Futures’ participants are Black or African American men – many of whom have had contact with the former officer currently on trial. Recently Ms. Leach has had her own jarring experiences with racism – someone who assumed she “didn’t belong” in her own neighborhood called the police on her multiple times. She now carries a copy of her “proof of address” in her glove compartment.

“It’s been a challenging time to lead. We do as much as we can to ensure our clients, staff, and the community are not retraumatized by all that’s happening,” explains Ms. Leach. “The National Guard, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies have the goal of ‘keeping the peace’ but when you’re dealing with communities that have been traumatized by members of those same entities, retraumatizing should be part of the conversation and it hasn’t been.” 

Caring for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by systemic inequities continues to be a driving motivator for Ms. Leach. She’s devoted her life’s work to advancing equity for communities that have been on the outside since day one. 

“I’m proud to say I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. My family was no stranger to financial hardship and accessing systems and supports for assistance. My goal is to ensure equity for those overlooked communities. There are social dynamics in play that individuals have no control over. If we care about equity, justice, and community, how can we do anything else?” 

Despite the challenges faced, Leach and Better Futures have their eyes squarely on the what’s ahead. They’ve recently started multi-generational work, engaging both participants and their families to have a positive impact on future generations and their relationship with the justice system. There are plans to launch a for-profit social enterprise that offers long-term, stable employment for those coming out of transitional jobs. They’re expanding program offerings to ensure participants leave the program with their GED, at a minimum. Finally, Better Futures is creating financial literacy classes to help participants achieve financial equity while changing how the community at large thinks about money. 

And they see their partnership with REDF and REDF Impact Investing Fund (RIIF) as key to that future. Better Futures was part of REDF’s first Accelerator cohort in 2016. In 2018, they received a strategic grant and also joined RIIF’s national loan portfolio, and they were just selected to be in REDF’s inaugural growth portfolio. These investments, paired with specialized capacity building services, have helped Better Futures go from start-up to growth-stage. 

“Organizations have different phases and REDF has continued to acknowledge the important work we’re doing and make an investment at our different stages,” shares Ms. Leach. “They’ve continued their strong partnership with us, making connections, brokering relationships with like-minded organizations, and assisting us with organizational stability and growth. It’s hard to see how Better Futures Minnesota could have made it to this point without the level of partnership REDF provides.” 

RIIF was created to provide an important tool in the form of debt capital to accelerate the growth of the employment social enterprise field, and its crucial work to create a more inclusive economy for all. Core to its focus, RIIF is committed to increasing the percentage of borrowers led by people of color by taking a hard look at the application and underwriting processes, checking for bias, and exploring non-traditional assessment criteria that takes into account lived experience when making a credit decision. Leach hopes that our society as a whole moves toward true equity, for everyone’s sake. 

“According to the Equal Justice Initiative, one in seven adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated for more than one year, and one in 34 has had a loved one incarcerated for 10 years or more. Furthermore, one in four American adults has had a sibling incarcerated. One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison. One in eight has had a child incarcerated. To be a functional society we need to ensure that returning citizens have a successful transition back to a community. We cannot continue to discriminate against these folks – our folks – the economy and our communities can’t afford it.”  


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