Written By Helen Hope Kimbrough

“The Power to label is the power to destroy.” -Allen Frances

As the Director of Community Engagement at Next Stage, I frequently have the opportunity to sit down with people from a variety of backgrounds across our community. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of facilitating a focus group with three dynamic individuals who were formerly incarcerated. Although our time was limited, the conversation left an impression on me and got me thinking about the labels that others have placed on us, especially when we’ve done the work to intentionally change and transform.

That’s just how these individuals have felt on occasion and continue to feel. They have served their time for the crimes committed (mainly nonviolent), joined training programs to obtain education or new skills for better employment opportunities, secured internships to prove their scope of understanding and reliability on the job, and ventured into entrepreneurship. Many have had to seek creative ways to gain employment – because not everyone is willing to forgive a past transgression. This conversation brought up deeper issues, such as how an individual  is to achieve upward mobility not only through employment, but also through policies pertaining to housing, transportation, healthcare and voting once they have been inside the justice system. People who are deemed ‘justice involved’ want to live a full life and want second chance opportunities toward full citizenship – but the labels our culture puts on them frequently throw up barriers to achieving these goals.

Since the pandemic, the workforce shortage in the labor market has been a defining factor and a challenge for nearly every business – and it does not appear that it will get better anytime soon. Yet, there are women and men who are being overlooked as a part of the solution – many who are seeking reentry into the workforce.

Even through the expungement process, hurdles and barriers remain and can stifle growth for the justice-involved. But what would happen if the labor market would rethink this process? What if these citizens had the opportunity to partner with companies that would provide employment opportunities – while also solving their own employment challenges? This article shares more and examines the higher rates of criminal histories paired with racial discrimination and how “the unemployment system almost never looks at the role that criminal history plays in keeping people out of the workforce.”

When I asked this focus group about policies and training practices that companies and organization could implement to be more inclusive to support reentry, this is what they said:

What I enjoyed most about speaking with these individuals was the drive that each of them had to make a difference in the world by encouraging and guiding other formerly incarcerated individuals to not be beholden to the labels placed on them. Each acknowledged their wrongful actions while also stating that they’ve served their time and are ready to execute their plans to spend time with their families, be accountable to their current roles and positions, launch or scale their own businesses as solo entrepreneurs, and create multiple streams of income to improve their quality of life and socio-economic status.

This is why community voice is so important and critical to every project that Next Stage does. As human beings, we inevitably bring our own biases to groups of people, projects, and policies. These assumptions are often rooted in data and long-held beliefs that aren’t always meant to wound, but unveil consequences of labels that can be real and life-changing for all kinds of individuals. It’s time to remove the labels so that people can become who they were meant to be.