This post was co-authored by Slack and our partners at The Last Mile, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA.
At Slack, we are committed to increasing the number of underrepresented individuals in the technology industry. Three years ago, as part of this effort, we began exploring how we could help bring formerly incarcerated individuals into the workforce through high-skilled engineering roles. We immediately sought out partners—people and organizations actively working toward this mission—and together with The Last Mile, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA, we co-created and piloted the Next Chapter, a yearlong apprenticeship program to train and mentor formerly incarcerated individuals.
This post shares a bit of our journey together; best practices as well as lessons learned. We’re encouraged by what we’ve learned so far, and the feedback and impact to date. We’re eager to continue these efforts and it is our hope that others will join us.
Opportunity for change
While talent is equally distributed in America, opportunity is not. About 2.5 million people are currently imprisoned in the U.S. Once released, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is nearly five times higher than that of the general population.
In 2016, Slack employees, including CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield, visited San Quentin State Prison, and engaged with The Last Mile, a nonprofit that prepares incarcerated people for successful re-entry into the community through rigorous business and technology training. During this visit, several incarcerated individuals shared that their primary need post-incarceration was to find employment in the technology sector. We realized there was a unique opportunity to help. With the tech industry likely to see an estimated 1 million U.S. engineering roles go unfilled by 2020, the private sector and companies like ours have an important responsibility to help create more pathways to high-skilled engineering opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
From The Last Mile to Next Chapter
We knew that for Next Chapter to be successful, we’d need to collaborate closely with our partners and lean on their expertise. These partnerships are essential—we could not have created or run Next Chapter without the help and guidance of The Last Mile, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA, each of which contributed specific knowledge and guidance.
We began with The Last Mile, an organization that aims to remove the wider cultural stigma around incarceration. Their work shows how, with equal opportunity, formerly incarcerated individuals can make a positive, lasting impact on their families, communities and the economy. With The Last Mile’s deep expertise, we were able to navigate the criminal justice system, educate employees and find the right partners to support the Next Chapter apprentices. They recommended three standout candidates who became the inaugural members of Next Chapter class and embarked on a year-long program at Slack. The Last Mile helped change the narrative and eliminate the stigma associated with the incarcerated by providing opportunities for Slack employees to engage with their programs, and helped us navigate housing, parole, and travel for Next Chapter apprentices.
In conjunction with The Last Mile, we also began to collaborate with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization committed to racial equity, systems change, and to create conditions for all children to grow and thrive. An essential element for healthy children, families, and communities is quality employment and financial stability. Given the overlap between the families and communities served by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and people impacted by over-incarceration, the foundation recognized an opportunity to further its mission. With Next Chapter, WKKF funded job opportunities in a high-wage, high-growth industry, and seeded momentum in the sector to provide more opportunities for justice-impacted individuals. They also worked with us to address how we could not only support the apprentices, but work internally to make Slack a welcoming environment.
We also collaborated with FREEAMERICA, a campaign founded by John Legend dedicated to amplifying the voices of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system and those who are working to change it. By challenging stereotypes, breaking down barriers and uplifting solutions, they are helping to end mass incarceration and invest in just, equitable and thriving communities across the U.S. FREEAMERICA saw Next Chapter as a way to offer deeper education around these issues. From FREEAMERICA, we gained valuable insights into how best to educate our employees and the broader public on the issues surrounding criminal justice reform. Through an hourlong session with FREEAMERICA, Slack employees’ understanding and empathy for formerly incarcerated populations grew. FREEAMERICA also worked with us on the video we’re sharing today to help change perceptions and perspectives at scale.
After eight months of rigorous training, one-on-one coaching/mentoring and successfully completing the Next Chapter program, the three apprentices in the first cohort are now full-time Slack employees. They are valuable members of the Slack team and their unique experiences have contributed to helping build a robust product and an even more inclusive culture.
Given the scope of mass incarceration in the U.S. and the projected growth of the technology sector as a significant source of employment, these efforts are just the beginning. While Next Chapter is still in its pilot phase, we are committed to further developing and scaling this program to serve more justice impacted people and help the sector seize the opportunity that this moment presents to provide more career pathways for this population. It’s complicated and challenging—there are no fast fixes or easy answers. However, recognizing and developing the talent in this population is critical and worth the time, energy and investment. We’re in it for the long haul, and we’re sharing our proposed blueprint so other companies can learn from our experiences and success.
We hope you’ll join us in this Next Chapter. For more information on Next Chapter, please reach out to Slack for Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.