“It felt like Star Wars when I got out.”
I was helping Gary create an email address at the computer lab behind my desk. Gary was a returning citizen after spending ten years in prison. When he was released, his toddlers were now teenagers and the world around him had changed drastically.
I knew then that spending my head down in numbers for the summer would be insufficient. There are some things that the numbers can’t tell you.
As a REDF Farber intern, I joined the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Oakland. CEO provides transitional employment, job training, and job placement services for people with criminal records in twenty cities across the United States. After spending my pre-business school career focusing on data analytics and data architecture for both big tech and startups, I was eager to use these business skills for good, and I got that opportunity at CEO. I was excited to dive into CEO’s data on the hard skills trainings they offer, such as construction and HAZMAT, to measure the impact of trainings on job placement and provide targeted recommendations moving forward. However, I quickly learned that measuring profit was easy when compared to measuring social outcomes and, after my conversation with Gary, the numbers were going to provide an incomplete picture.
Non-Numbers Lesson #1: The snowball effect of not making bail
During my first week of work, I was speaking with one of the participants who was also in his first week at CEO. He told me about how he was looking forward to getting back to LA. He was a successful street performer, with magic tricks and pet snakes, but after an altercation with a fellow street performer, he spent six months in jail awaiting trial. After six months, the charges were dismissed, but because he could not make bail, he had lost everything. What would have been a minor mishap had he been able to post bail had instead changed his life. Instead of being discouraged or angry for the time lost, he was determined to work hard and return to LA. CEO Gave him that opportunity.
Non-Numbers Lesson #2: Breaking down perceptual barriers
I spent an entire day with one of our transitional employment crews cleaning up trash on the side of the highway. While I might have had preconceptions about working with people who were formerly incarcerated, what I did not realize is that they also had preconceptions about working with me. While driving in the van to the cleanup site, one of the men was controlling the music. “Do you even know this song?” he turned to me. “Of course, it’s Aaliyah,” I retorted. When the next song came on, I told him I knew that one, too. He then asked me who I liked better, Taylor Swift or Adele. We both laughed. At the end of the day, he pulled me aside. “I didn’t know what to expect today, but you were cool.” It was the greatest compliment I could have received. When I saw him in the office the weeks after, he always came over to give me a fist bump and ask when I was coming back out to work with them. It’s the little things, like a fist bump or a smile, that go a long way in breaking down preconceptions and helping us recognize our common humanity.
Non-Numbers Lesson #3: The value of 10 cents
I was speaking with another CEO employee about an innovation he created when he was incarcerated, that helped greatly increase productivity in the warehouse. He proudly shared, “My supervisor’s supervisor liked it so much he gave me a 10 cents raise!” My jaw dropped. Ten cents? What kind of a raise is that? But when I pressed further I realized, ten cents is a lot of money when the hourly wage in prison barely breaks a dollar. But more to the point, for this employee, is wasn’t about the money, it was about the recognition he received for his contribution. Employees of a social enterprise feel the same way we all do about work. A job is so much more than a paycheck. It provides a sense of accomplishment, comradery, purpose. Despite movements like “Ban the Box” to encourage employment of the formerly incarcerated, the most common question I was asked when speaking to participants about job opportunities afforded through hard skills training was “But do they hire people like us?” Yes, increasingly, with the support of organizations like CEO, they do.
By the end of my summer, I had spent a lot of time in the data, helping prove that hard skills trainings does lead to higher wages and that construction jobs have the highest average starting salary. For me, as a data analyst at heart, data and numbers do have value; but I learned more from my time with the people CEO serves than the numbers could ever tell me. And I learned that, for myself, I want to spend my post-business school career using business for good to transform lives.