Next Chapter: A pilot program aiming to help formerly incarcerated individuals find work and succeed in tech

Deepti Rohatgi on working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Last Mile and John Legend’s FREEAMERICA to create opportunity and shift perceptions

“By a show of hands, how many of you in here have made a bad choice,” said Kenyatta Leal to a packed all-hands meeting at Slack HQ. The question, echoing the core of Bryan Stevenson’s moving biography Just Mercy, was met by a sea of hands raised high.

“Now, I want you to imagine just for a second what life would be like if you were judged the rest of your life for that bad decision.”

Leal speaks from experience. As a founding member of The Last Mile and a returned citizen himself, he was in the first class of a program that has, in the nine years since its inception, seen 393 students graduate.

The Last Mile, currently operating in seven prisons across the U.S., teaches students to build websites and applications, all without access to the internet. The program boasts a zero percent recidivism rate — meaning that not one of the people who graduated has reoffended. During incarceration, The Last Mile focuses on three pillars:

  • Education: The full-time program trains incarcerated students on marketable computer coding skills.
  • Experience: Through TLM Works, an in-prison workforce development program, graduates of the coding program gain work experience, earn market wage and create a portfolio of work.
  • Expansion: The coding program is designed to be easily replicated across the country.

And then comes the moment of return, and of taking those skills into the workplace. And for that, there’s a need for a fourth pillar — that of partnership with companies who can help turn those skills into a career.

A blueprint for change

“We need to tackle this issue from all different directions,” says Leal. “For folks returning back to the community, the stigma that they’re impacted by is a huge challenge. We’ve come up with thousands of ways to make sure a plastic bottle or aluminum can gets a new life, but we don’t do anything to make sure someone who gets out of prison does. We need to have that same kind of mindset when it comes to human beings, that same kind of passion and persistence.”

Enter Next Chapter: an initiative that we at Slack, in partnership with The Last Mile, the Kellogg Foundation, and FREEAMERICA, have been working on for the past two years to help bring returning citizens back to work and shift perceptions around formerly incarcerated individuals.  Through Next Chapter, we are building a year-long apprenticeship program to train and mentor three graduates from The Last Mile — and in doing so, we hope to create a blueprint that other companies will use to train and hire talented people who have been incarcerated.

At a special employee all-hands meeting last week, Leal discussed the hopes for this new program with Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer, activist and founder of FREEAMERICA John Legend, comedic actress, writer, sketch and improvisational comedian Robin Thede, and our CEO Stewart Butterfield. This conversation — and the unveiling of Next Chapter itself — was the culmination of an ongoing dialogue at Slack about criminal justice reform, in particular the opportunity to help returning citizens find jobs in tech and business.

We are grateful to Robin Thede, Kenyatta Leal, and John Legend for being our partners and launching Next Chapter with us last week.

There is a pressing need for skilled knowledge workers, one that will only increase moving forward. Coding is something that any smart, hardworking person can learn, given time — and if there was one thing The Last Mile students had a lot of, it was time. We believe that talent is equally distributed. With the right training, we hope to provide opportunities for those who would not only thrive at Slack, but also fill the massive shortage of engineering talent that the tech community needs from an often-overlooked population.  

The way forward

Along with The Last Mile and leading experts in the field, we’ve set out to devise an effort to help these returning citizens find skilled long-term employment and shift perceptions around re-entering individuals.

“This program couldn’t just be about providing training, or even job opportunities to our apprentices,” says Rodney Urquhart, a member of the Developer Relations team who has been instrumental in getting the program established at Slack. “We’ve worked hard to build a safe and special culture at Slack, where people who come from different backgrounds can thrive just as well as those who followed traditional paths.”

The power of partnership

None of this could have been done without our partners in Next Chapter. Make no mistake about it, we’re not positioning ourselves as experts in criminal justice — we make enterprise software. We are in the business of thinking about the way people work, where and how they work, and, of course, the people that do that work. We know how much we have to learn — and we’re humbled and grateful to be working with three organizations full of experts.

  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with years of experience in the criminal justice system, racial equity issues, and vulnerable communities, have helped to make this program a reality.
  • FREEAMERICA, founded by John Legend, has been working to change the national conversation about and transform America’s criminal justice system, and will help amplify our efforts and encourage other companies to consider similar programs.
  • And, of course, The Last Mile, who bring not only the talent and skill of their graduating students — our apprentices — but also the expertise of Kenyatta Leal, whom we will be hosting as our first Re-Entry Director, overseeing the apprenticeship program here at Slack HQ.

We’re just getting started. We have much to learn, but we’re committed to this, to our three apprentices this year, and to whatever comes next. If you’re interested in building a program like this at your company, or to find out more about the Next Chapter, email us at slackforgood@slack.com

Deepti Rohatgi is Slack’s Director of Slack for Good and Public Affairs.

1 The Last Mile
2 “Shadow Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System,” The Sentencing Project, August 14, 2013.
3 “Recidivism,” National Institute of Justice, June 17, 2014

 

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