For most places in the United States, former convicts wear a scarlet letter. In all but 14 states and the District of Columbia, a felony on your record means the suspension of your voting rights, with different states erecting hurdles of varying difficulty to overcome. A far greater obstacle to reintegration with society is finding quality work. Visit any website for convict employment opportunities and you’ll find a long list of food service positions — and little else. These are the kind of jobs people need more than one of to survive.
The directors of a new program at Georgetown University want to change that, using education as their tool. The Pivot Program, launched in mid-November, is a collaboration between Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, Georgetown College, and the McDonough School of Business designed to give those returning to society from area correctional facilities a foundation in business and entrepreneurship know-how. The 10-month certificate program, funded by the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs and a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, will aim to reduce recidivism while tapping into a heretofore overlooked — or worse, wasted — well of human capital.
“Recidivism is one element, for sure. But I think our goals are much broader and more important, frankly,” says Marc Howard, executive director of the Pivot Program and head of the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative. “I think we want to change the perception of people with criminal records, from being purely negative to being one that draws a line which looks at their potential future contributions. Not just to be defined by their past. So that really involves changing the public perception, the public narrative.
“So in other words, our goals are, at the broadest level, helping contribute to a change in society, and how people with criminal records are perceived. And how we can support them to take advantage of a genuine second chance.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF CRIME AND INCARCERATION
Howard and Alyssa Lovegrove, academic director of the Pivot Program, say that of the 5,000 individuals released from D.C. correctional facilities each year, fewer than half find sustainable employment. The crushing reality of the “scarlet letter” perpetuates a cycle of crime and incarceration and devastates families, communities, and local and regional economies. But what if “returning citizens,” as Howard and Lovegrove call them, were given training in business fundamentals upon their release? What if they were instructed in how to become entrepreneurs?
The Pivot Program will do that and more, Howard and Lovegrove say, preparing between 15 and 20 participants in each cohort for positions as both entrepreneurial leaders and productive employees. They will get in-class academic studies and on-the-job training, as well as instruction in literature, economics, philosophy, and civic engagement. They will also learn professional and life skills: personal finance, career planning, business communications, business etiquette, public speaking, self-advocacy, and conflict resolution. Classes will be taught by faculty from the McDonough School of Business and Georgetown College.
“The curriculum is a mix of a few different things,” Lovegrove tells Poets&Quants. “It’s a combination of liberal arts classes, some of the things you would expect: economics, literature, history, government, theology, philosophy. And that’s intended to develop critical thinking and logic skills and communication skills — open your mind. Another focus is fundamentals of business — a lot of the things they teach in our undergraduate business administration degree are baked into this, like marketing strategy, high-end accounting. They certainly will learn what they would need to successfully own and operate a business, including developing the entrepreneurial mindset. What does it take to not just operate a business, but to identify and evaluate potential opportunities, and to exceed in executing on those opportunities?”
The final piece, she says, is professional development — a combination of professional and life skills, including personal financial management.
“One of our goals for the first semester is that they develop a greater level of financial security,” says Lovegrove, a professor of entrepreneurship at McDonough who is also administrator of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative. “So we want them to understand what that looks like and start building toward that from the time they graduate the program.”
OVERCOMING THE SCARLET LETTER
Howard’s journey to the Pivot Program was punctuated by epiphanies. He began working in prisons after a childhood friend was wrongfully convicted. Then he began teaching in them. And that’s when he realized that there are a lot of very talented people “who have gone astray, you might say,” he tells P&Q. “We have really severe, extreme sentencing laws in this country. And many people go away for mistakes — which of course can be really bad things in some cases — that they often made when they were a lot younger. And unfortunately in our society we have laws that are very unforgiving, that make it difficult for people to have a real second chance and to establish themselves as law-abiding, productive citizens. They’re kind of hampered by the scarlet letter of a criminal record.”
The Pivot Program already is making a difference in one life, even before anyone has graduated. George Chochos, hired as the program manager, himself served time for a violent crime — more than a decade behind bars, Lovegrove says. But Chochos earned a college degree through a prison education program, and after he was released he earned a Master in Divinity from Yale.
“It’s just a phenomenal story. His story is very inspiring too to the fellows in our program to see that he’s now at Georgetown,” Lovegrove says. “He’s such a role model to them. And you can see it in their eyes because it’s what they want to be able to achieve, which is to have a productive, successful career — one that means getting the full acceptance of society, the way George has managed to achieve.
“There are very talented people, and very good people, and ethical people with integrity who really want to succeed, want to help others, want to contribute to their community and their society. So that’s kind of the foundation of this program, which is to try to support them and try to create a different structure where they can receive some education and preparation in business and entrepreneur skills for liberal arts. Obviously our fellows are at the beginning of this journey. But the histories they come to us with are pretty incredible. It speaks to us. Given some of the traumas of all the circumstances they’ve been through, their resilience is pretty incredible.
“Still, they wonder whether they’ll ever be accepted, or what they can offer — so seeing somebody like George, who has a remarkable career now, is really empowering.”