Cure-alls and Remedies

Entrepreneurship and Returning Citizens

(I’ve spent a good deal of the last six months working on the Pivot Program that launched last month. Pivot combines internships with college-level classes in business, entrepreneurship, the liberal arts, and humanities. Now that journalists are starting to cover it, I can share some reflections from this work!)

Washington, DC has the highest incarceration rate in the country. And this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than 8,000 people go to prison or jail from DC each year, and each year more than 5,000 come back.

That means that there are probably 67,000 “justice-involved” DC residents, and while we have fairly strong “ban the box” laws in place it’s clear that a history of incarceration still affects people’s prospects. From my work with incarcerated students at JCI developing the Prison Scholars Program and the UB Second Chance College Program, I’ve often heard from students inside that they want more training in business and entrepreneurship. They recognize that one way to avoid discrimination in the job market is to work for themselves. (There are still many other collateral consequences of a conviction that can trip them up.)

Now, most of my friends are in the liberal arts, and so we’re all just a little suspicious of business schools. The dismal science of economics as a kind of worldly philosophy makes sense to us: the myths tell us that the ancient philosopher Thales fell into a well while staring at the sky,  but his observations meant that he was also able to predict the weather and corner the market on olive oil presses. Business as a vocation (like law,  medicine, the military, or the clergy) is a modern fact that confuses traditionalists and enrages critics of capitalism.

Yet at its best, an entrepreneur is someone who looks around them and asks: what can I do to serve my fellow citizens? What can we do to improve the world? What should we do together? Many entrepreneurs do not start their own businesses: they work within existing institutions to change and improve them. Cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset is about helping participants see themselves as agents who can plan and co-create value with their customers, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Seeing oneself as efficacious and mutually responsible is thus an important element of entrepreneurship. 

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize that what I described above is also the way that we in civic studies describe citizenship. It’s an idea from Hannah Arendt, Elinor Ostrom, and Jane Mansbridge: to act as a co-creator of our shared world. I think, at its best, that entrepreneurship is a particular approach to citizenship, and not simply a matter of disrupting older industries in pursuit of profit. It’s about trying to find new ways of being of use to each other. And people with a history of incarceration are increasingly marginalized and rendered superfluous in our society–they need and deserve a way of being treated as dignified and valuable.

Obviously, we cannot ignore the issue of race and racism. Mass incarceration has been called “The New Jim Crow” because it disproportionately hurts African-Americans and their communities. There can be no doubt that incarceration in the United States is driven by white supremacy, even in cities like Washington, DC that were majority Black during the time that they incarcerated so many. (See James Forman’s work for more on this theme!)

It also disproportionately targets the poor: one study found that over the past thirty years, between 40 and 60 percent of prison inmates were below the federal poverty line at the time of their most recent arrest. More recent work suggests that incarcerated individuals have pre-incarcerated incomes 41% lower than their non-incarcerated peers. Raising returning citizens out of poverty is a moral obligation, if for no other reason than to prevent further crime and incarceration!

Those least well-served by our District’s schools are also most likely to be incarcerated. Nationally formerly incarcerated people are twice as likely as the general public to have no high school credential at all, and more than six times more likely to have a GED. I think this means that incarceration is not (just) an individual failure, and we can be sure that its costs are not just born by the incarcerated. Children of the incarcerated are massively more likely to be incarcerated themselves, and neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration are made poorer by the loss of their neighbors. Each imprisoned man or woman has talents that are lost to their communities, and the stigma of a criminal record perpetuates that loss after their release.

Sometimes the rhetoric of “human capital” hurts my heart. Prisoners and formerly imprisoned people are not just lost wages and unfounded startups: they’re our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. They’re my friends and my students! But in a world dominated by profit, loss, growth, and stagnation it seems to work better to make the argument about “hidden gems in the rough.” That’s fine: if that’s what it takes to oppose mass incarceration today, that’s what we’ll do. But the United States has millions more people incarcerated than it ought to have–and we need to tackle that sooner rather than later.

We know that the Pivot Fellows can be leaders. I’ve seen this firsthand with the Friend of a Friend Program and the Alternatives to Violence Project. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who succeed in college courses develop the leadership skills that are useful both inside and outside the prison system. Imprisoned college students and graduates frequently become positive role models for younger prisoners, and have created service programs that focus on conflict resolution, youth development and other issues that are critical to personal transformation. Formerly incarcerated professionals like Dwayne Betts, Shon Hopwood, and Chris Wilson are both positive role models and reminders of that lost talent locked away in our nations’ prisons and jails. But these extraordinary men are not so unusual–there are tens of thousands more like them behind bars. I am certain that the Pivot Program will be the incubator for some who I will soon be glad to list alongside them.

Georgetown is making great strides in its Jesuit commitments to “visit the prisoner.” We’ve developed credit-bearing courses at the DC Jail, and a Paralegal Studies Program for former jailhouse lawyers in partnership with the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs. I’m incredibly proud to work with the team at the Prisons and Justice Initiative and the McDonough School of Business.