Shannon is the Executive Director of The Community, a nonprofit he founded while incarcerated to foster the successes, humanity, and agency of people with criminal records. He is also Co-Owner of Paradigm Shyft, a new Second Chance employment consulting agency that trains incarcerated people prior to release and helps employers benefit from this untapped pool both while incarcerated and post-release.
Three days after turning 15 years old, Adam was involved in a gang-related homicide and received a life sentence. He would become the youngest inmate within the walls of Wisconsin's most violent adult prison. But over the following 23 years of incarceration, he would renounce his gang membership and work tirelessly to keep teenagers from joining gangs. Today, Adam is dedicated to providing those released with the resources needed to succeed and making our community a safer place.
What exactly does Second Chance employment mean and why should people care about it?
Shannon: So second chance employment basically just refers to helping people who have gone through the justice system get employed after that experience. So it can be anyone who was sentenced to probation, sentenced to some years in prison, or as in Adam's case life in prison. One statistic that, to me, is the only conversation that needs to really be had when it comes to, what do we do when it comes to people coming out of prison and people that have criminal records, is that 95% of people who go to prison, come back. So who do we want them to be when they return to our communities, because they're going to be coming, regardless of what a person thinks, or what anyone believes in terms of their political ideology, they're going to return. So we should at least have a process set up to incorporate the value they have as human beings and as employers and as citizens as much as possible. So second chance employment is all about how do we best do that?
Adam: Just to expound a little bit on what Shannon said, If 95% of the people that are going to prison come home, we should care about it. Because eventually, at some point, 95% of the people that have been incarcerated might be your neighbor. So do we want that neighbor to be somebody who can contribute successfully to society or do we want that somebody to be someone that feels ostracized has to go back to what they used to do because nobody will hire them? A lot of people who have gotten out of prison have children, and in no way is it an excuse to commit crimes if you can't provide food for your family, but we have to look at it realistically and understand that okay, if John Doe has served his time or her time, and they want to contribute to society, but nobody will hire them, what are they going to do? Again, no justification, but we have to really start looking at things logically.
What has been the experience of companies and people in general who have hired from the justice impacted community?
Shannon: So one thing I want to point out with that is that term is really interesting because there's a lot of debate within the advocacy groups and justice reform groups and abolition groups and all the other terms that go around this kind of word and really just comes down to people that have gone through the carceral side of the system, you've got justice impacted, system impacted justice-involved, there's a number of terms. That's one thing, I would definitely want to encourage anyone who's looking at it to not get too scared by what terms do I use or what language is appropriate? I think people would generally be very open to somebody just asking, "How do I refer to this population?" The heart is usually the most important thing. So that's one thing I want to touch on is the language can sometimes be a barrier for people when it comes to getting involved in a lot of things and the way the world is operating now with a lot of areas opening up for groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged to some degree. The numbers kind of speak for themselves, and you have the second chance business coalition has been put together and they have a number of companies, big-time companies, Kroger, Walmart, MasterCard, McDonald's, Amazon, they've all signed on as supporting this, and showing that they are really behind the value this population brings, and really trying to incorporate them. 82% of managers report that the value of Second Chance employees brings to the organization is as high as or higher than that of workers without records bring. It's something that we hear a lot too from organizations that get people jobs, and they get out. Even on work release, which we both experienced inside before we were currently in prison working at free jobs, is that there's a hunger, there's a humility, there's a desire to really show and get our life back that you get from workers that are formerly incarcerated that you don't always get from people who have been out in the world and kind of take a lot of things for granted. So both the numbers and our experience that we've seen personally and from groups that we work with, who get people jobs, shows that there's a significant value behind this population being hired not just as charity, but to help everyone grown and help out their bottom lines.
What happens if there's still discrimination based on criminal history if that's the way companies are looking at things?
Adam: I think it kind of goes back to what I was referencing earlier. What happens if that's the case? Let's say somebody with a criminal background applied for a job, they turn them down, and or continue to get turned down, what does that look like for them? So what does going dark look like? What does somebody do? So I think when you ask what happens, I feel and this is truly unfortunate, in my opinion, but I feel another victim is going to be creative because what other options are there? If they cannot work to provide that food or shelter for their family what does that look like? And so many times people just disregard that. They just kind of say, well, they shouldn't have made that mistake. But I'm a firm believer in whatever sentence you have shouldn't necessarily be deemed as a life sentence. If you're sentenced to five years in prison for whatever crime and you get out, if you can't get a job because of that record it becomes a de facto life sentence and that's unacceptable.
How can companies approach finding second chance employees?
Adam: They approach one of the many re-entry organizations that are in Milwaukee currently. Us, for instance, Partners and Hope, we are constantly bombarded by employers saying, "Look, we need workers, we just need somebody that's going to show up, day in and day out and work hard, we're willing to pay them well." One of the biggest myths I think people who have been incarcerated are told is that nobody's gonna hire them when they get out. Right now, at least in Milwaukee, in this jobs boom, it's the exact opposite. We can pretty much store our rock and find an employer willing to hire somebody. For a lot of people, whether they're in work release status, or Huber status, those are people that they know, for a fact are going to show up, unlike a lot of the other employees. So right now it's the best time in recent memory, in my opinion, for those who are with criminal records can get employed.
I would imagine on a national level, that there are resources available for that?
Shannon: There's a variety of resources. The things that I've seen, that I've encountered, that I find reliable, are kind of reaching out to some of those that can connect you to others. So Adam's organization, Partners in Hope, and mine in The Community, we very much are hubs where you can come to us we have a variety of partners. We're very deep into this space, in the city, and statewide and even nationally. The https://secondchancebusinesscoalition.org/ have a lot of little resources, a lot of advice, things for you to go to and organizations can then kind of have more of a boutique approach. So if you are trying to just get information on maybe an organization to contact or some stuff to read and get a better understanding of things. That's what stuff like Second Chance business coalition will help with or some of the other state entities, there's a lot of resource directories and so forth. But then if you really want to understand how to deal with individuals, the micro-level, that's where we would come in and be able to help incorporate and even attract, retain and train and retain talent. We have a whole pipeline of people coming out that we're connecting with to get them trained so that they will be really prepared to enter job fields and have connections with organizations and industries before they get out. So there's that loyalty concept as well. Honestly, you can reach out to us, and we probably can connect anybody in the state with where they're trying to go and what they need help with in this regard for hiring for this population.
Can you share with our listeners one of your favorite networking experiences that you've had?
Shannon: I have a number of them because when I was inside, I was immensely blessed to just have people who would allow me to make three-way phone calls. So the organization itself began because of a small donation we had from an executive director of an organization called Hudson Link in New York, and they were one of the preeminent higher education prison programs in the country at that time. So just doing that reaching out to him and staying in touch with him and then he donated to help the organization get going and donated along the way. He's just been a really powerful advocate and resource since 2013 back when I first connected with him. So that was one when I was in and when I got out, clubhouse. A friend of mine who I knew in high school, I just was talking to him about a trucking company that I had set up with a friend. At the time I didn't know what I was gonna do and he was like, "Let me connect you on clubhouse, there's this trucking guru." I didn’t know what I was doing, I just got on there and right away from that, I made so many connections nationally, in the work that we do that is really just borne fruit. It's just been really cool how the craziest things are just you go down an alley and find yourself in a palace sometimes.
Adam: For me, if I had to describe my life, and success so far be at the results of networking. For me, one of the sessions that we run here is called Building Bridges with Law Enforcement, where we invite officers all the way up from rookie to inspector within the MPD to come to humanize the badge. We give our guys that have gotten out of prison, a chance to humanize the tattoo, so to speak. We create a safe space for conversation to be held so we can look at each other as human beings. One of these sessions there was at the time, a Captain that attended and she has since been promoted to inspector. She now is the supervisor of the police academy and last year with all the George Floyd and Blake situations, there's definitely a need for better relationships between the community and the police department. So that connection led me to meet the captain at the police academy and we came to a decision on how to best combine those who have gotten out of prison with those just entering the police department. So we came up with this idea where I was introduced and went undercover at the police academy. My name was Lieutenant Smith from Detroit and I kind of just gave myself a chance to humanize myself without the preconceived biases of incarceration. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life and it all came from a session that we did here that led to one step further and one step further beyond that.
How do you stay in front of and best nurture your network?
Shannon: For me, it's just been a matter of always trying to make sure that I'm connecting people to other people or resources that I see they need. Because then that fuels them to in turn, remember me when something comes about that they would find to be valuable to the work I'm doing or any projects I have or even like in my career in general. So it's always about putting myself out there for them first, and then trusting the process that it will come back around. Even if it doesn't you're still helping people that you've, for whatever reason found a connection to, and by then helping their work, it's just helping you still, because that's the whole goal is to have a macro view of the way we're operating instead of the transactional way which is a terrible way to operate the world. It'll come back to me, even if it doesn't because you directly offer something to me, you're just doing your work and doing good by the connection I made, the resource I provided or the help I gave you is going to help us in general, because I believe in what you're doing.
Adam: For me, I would say, given the job title that I have now, community outreach specialist, networking and keeping those relationships active is paramount to the success of my role within this organization. I think it boils down to little things, just being a human being and accepting others as human beings as well. So as crazy and as simple as it sounds like I go back to those lessons I learned in the sandbox of just play nice with others, seem interested, be interested, and it might be off the topic of whatever current meeting you might be in, but I feel relationship building is a pivotal part of network building. Nobody's going to remember someone that just looks at you as a means to an end, I think you really have to look at the person as a person, which seems like an odd thing to say. I feel it's extremely important to humanize one another because I think that sticks in people's minds in the end.
We've all heard of the six degrees of separation. Who would be the one person that you'd love to connect with and do you think you can do it within the sixth degree?
Shannon: It's an interesting question because, for me, I feel that anyone that I look at it and they give me a sense of, "I wish I could talk to that person," just in my experience. Also, I'm kind of a baby, I've only been out now for eight months. But my degree is in business and I've read countless pieces of literature about how the world operates in this sense. So I feel like I'm versed enough to say this, that on the way to meeting that person through the six degrees, one of those degrees is going to be more interesting and more valuable in the person I felt like I was trying to get to. So it would be more so that I'd be wanting to reach that person with the intent of finding out who really is going to be more intriguing and more connected to or aligned with what I'm trying to do in life along the way. Again, just trusting that process. I like to explore, I think I'm just gonna find the thread and pull on it and I don't think that going for the ultimate specific person that I think is going to be who I want to talk to, is the best way to go.
Adam: To answer that, I kind of have to help you understand what it feels like to have served 23 years in prison. Prison is a very dehumanizing place so I find that even today, I sometimes struggle with anything is possible. Even though I know that consciously, sometimes I feel not, actually, I'll take a step back before I answer my own thought. Inside everything kind of looks like it's a movie so when you watch the news, or you watch a movie or TV show, it all seems foreign, you don't necessarily feel as though you're a part of society. So now that I'm out, sometimes I have to tell myself you can contact whomever you want to. There is that avenue for that and I've realized in the two and a half years that I've been released, that the six degrees of separation concept are very accurate. I can only speak to really Milwaukee at this point, but I feel that there are very few people in Milwaukee that I couldn't contact within someone in my social circle. Then taking that nationally, I feel depending on the circumstance, the same would probably apply. I feel you have to have a give or a reason to reach out to some of these individuals. But I think at the end of the day, it's possible. I don't know if I put a name on the person I want to meet, but it would definitely be a large investor because I feel if we had the funds to do what we needed to do, we could truly save some lives. So rather than approaching a person for a reason, there will probably be a foundation that has the means to help us financially and make our community a safer place.
Do either of you have any final word or advice to offer our listeners with regards to growing and supporting your network?
Shannon: I think really just if you have any interest in the field that we're in, and in hiring from this population, and connecting to the pipeline of people we are working on right now, just contact us. We have a lot of experience and connections in this space to be of value to a person if this sparked their interest.
Adam: I guess the last thing I would suggest is we get that people who have been incarcerated at the end of the day, they've heard somebody and you can't uncry those tears of that pain caused. So we get it, but at the end of the day, knowing that 95% of the people that come out, are going to in some way need to make the society a better place and so we just want to ask people, for those of you who are thinking about are contemplating hiring somebody with a criminal background, would you want to be held responsible for the worst mistake you ever made in your life, and have that held against you forever? Again, not taking away from the pain and harm that people have caused, we get it. But at some point, if we're truly invested in making our community a safer place, we have to start looking at things a little bit differently. Hopefully, at some point, everyone can give those who have made a mistake, a second chance.
Connect with Shannon & Adam
The Community: https://thecommunitynow.us/
Community Warehouse: https://www.thecommunitywarehouse.org/