Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.
This week’s spotlight: all things prison.
Pamela Valera grew up in South Los Angeles, where she witnessed friends, family members, and neighbors face tremendous difficulties after they had served time in prison and attempted to reintegrate with their home communities.
Ramon Semorile grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s and knows firsthand the barriers returning citizens come up against when they leave incarceration and try to get back on their feet.
The two met in New York a few years ago through professional connections and quickly learned they were both interested in tackling the same question: how can we help people who’ve been pummeled by the correctional system come back to society feeling hopeful and whole, especially when they come up against a slew of external hurdles as soon as they’re released?
“Returning from incarceration is a nationwide issue,” says Pamela, who is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. “We currently have 700,000 people coming home annually nationwide. In the Bronx alone, thousands of people are coming home from jail and state prisons. The implications of reentry are many, and they impact everyone. If we don’t do something to make this scenario better now, future generations are going to pay for it.”
For the past three years, Ramon and Pamela—with many other colleagues and volunteers—have been growing the Bronx Reentry Working Group (BRWG), a grassroots coalition that helps returning citizens of the Bronx get social support, find jobs, stay out of jail, and work to overcome the societal stigmas associated with involvement in the criminal justice system.
“We help one person at a time,” says Ramon, who is now a Crew Supervisor at Bronx Community Solutions, an initiative of the Center for Court Innovation. “When you come home [from prison], you don’t feel secure; you’re afraid of going back. You don’t even want to cross the street, you don’t want to talk to anyone. The BRWG wants to give people confidence that they can make it. That if they commit themselves to change, they can hold their heads up. That it’s a long process, but it will happen.”
Though they describe their journey so far as mostly an “upward climb,” Pamela and Ramon have of course faced challenges.
Obstacle: Identity crisis
Since it’s founding, the coalition has won state funding for a Bronx County Reentry Task Force; hosted large community forums and support groups; and offered returning citizens services to help with basic needs, from education and employment to physical health, food, and housing. It all seems essential, but Ramon and Pamela wonder how they can better focus the BRWG.
- Solution: Agree on what you can
“We’re all volunteers—none of us work full time on this—and it can be difficult to reach consensus on our direction,” Pamela says. “But we do know we want to work more with individuals—to help more people write their resumes, help them talk about their incarceration with those on the outside. We know we want more people who have benefited from our services to come back and help others. And we know we want to spread the word—to profile successful returning citizens in the media so others know it’s possible.”
Obstacle: Lack of funding
“We’re a grassroots community group, not a nonprofit,” Pamela explains. “We don’t get any financial support besides what we ourselves put in. So that limits us in a way—limits the speed at which we can work.”
- Solution: There is an upside—focus on it
“Lots of wonderful projects have collapsed when their funding is depleted,” she says. “But we’re not tied to any external funding, so we’re not always stopping to look for more. Our people are doing this because they want to. We can’t move as fast as some other organizations, but we’re free to do what we want; we’re sustainable.”
Obstacle: Societal biases
“Not everyone who’s killed someone did it because they like to kill people,” says Ramon. “There are all kinds of circumstances. You never know what will happen. There are so many reasons and ways—truly, anybody can wind up in jail. But a lot of people who have no experience with incarceration think all ex-cons are bad. The biggest problem we face is the stigma.”
- Solution: Education
“We have to educate people so they know that helping returning citizens helps everyone,” Ramon says. “People do want to change, they don’t want to go back to prison,” says Pamela. “But there are systems in place that tell them they’re still criminals. We have to change that so people are given a true chance to change. If you’re a ‘model inmate’ inside, you should be given a chance to become a ‘model citizen’ outside.”
Their best advice: stick with it
Despite the challenges of shifting focuses, money issues, and stigmas, Ramon and Pamela say they’re in it for the long haul.
“You don’t have to have a college degree to bring people together—you just have to have a passion for the work,” says Ramon. “You have to be committed for the long term. We’ve been able to really help some people. We know they’re not going back to prison. We know it. And that helps me sleep at night.”
If you’d like to volunteer with the Bronx Reentry Working Group, or have a question for Ramon and Pamela about their experience, get in touch with them through Idealist or email email@example.com.