Interview with Aaron Clark: Creating Opportunities for Stability

Justice Reskill aims to connect justice-involved people with the access and support they need to create a new path for themselves. Aaron Clark, founder, tells us about his mission to serve these communities.

Interview with Aaron Clark: Creating Opportunities for Stability

Justice Reskill aims to connect justice-involved people with the access and support they need to embrace a new path for themselves.  Aaron Clark, founder, tells us about his mission to serve these communities.

How did Justice Reskill come to be?

Aaron: I started Justice Reskill after being involved with a number of justice-involved organizations, and was looking for a solution that focused on building wealth for justice-involved people. But I just wanted to find a way to really build something like a 'wraparound' support.

I've seen a lot of programs that helped with support and service. As I've gotten older, I've realized what it means to find the sweet spot of what you're interested in and passionate about. Mine happens at the intersection of tech equity and justice reform.

With my background as a freelance software developer, I've worked, mentored, and volunteered in the fields of diversity, inclusion and equity in tech companies and in tech spaces. Tried to pitch in and help other black and brown folks get started in tech.

Last year, I joined an organization called /dev/color, which is a membership organization for black software engineers based in San Francisco.  It takes one specific industry- software engineering- and it asks, “What can we do to advance the careers of Black Engineers?”

In that space, I really found for the first time, the freedom to explore: ‘If I could do whatever I wanted to do, what would that look like?' Through a lot of conversations, a lot of discovery, Justice Reskill was born.

How did you gain the support to jump into forming your own organization?

One of my skills is staying connected to other people. I would say it's largely because of my networking skills, ability to connect, and then to understand what the other person or other organization needs, because everyone wants to help support something. But at the end of the day, a lot of times, there's some reason why they're doing it. So I do have an ability to understand what it is that the other, maybe company or other person wants to gain out of participating in a program.

What are some of the reasons that people are interested in partnering with Justice Reskill?

The primary reason is because they see inequity in our criminal justice system. It's hard to ignore that. People that are paying attention to our society can see that it's set up as a system of oppression, and they know it's going to take really creative solutions to tackle mass incarceration and justice reform.

The people in my particular space are 'tech startup ecosystem' folks who tend to want to support something that they believe is sustainable and can help people build skills they need for long-term success. Some of these people want to do something where they can give their expertise or their advice, not only their money.

I think people are also doing this because of the racial reckoning that we're in the middle of in 2020 and going into 2021. These folks realize that the justice system is disproportionately affecting specifically Black people, and also other BIPOC folks in America. They know that one of the ways to see commitment to equity in the justice system is to provide more opportunities for financial stability for Black and Brown folks. They want to use Justice Reskill as a vehicle to advance racial equity in the country.

What are the gaps you're addressing?

The tech industry has done a decent job in the last 5-10 years, in reducing the stigma around hiring people that are 'justice-involved'.

'Justice-involved' means anyone that has had some sort of experience or connection to the criminal justice system, be it incarceration or court diversion or something else of that nature.

But, if you look at the large company’s diversity reports that have come out in the last five or six years, we haven't tackled diversity in tech. And, we really haven't tackled the stigma around hiring diverse people that are justice-involved, in tech.

I see that as a huge opportunity. And on the other side, I see from people who are justice-involved: all they're looking for is an opportunity. A pathway towards career or financial stability. They’re looking for a community they can be a part of, to learn skills that some of us have been fortunate enough to have had handed to us.

What is the feedback you're receiving from justice-involved people?

Most specifically, it’s appreciation. When given an authentic opportunity, and the intent is really to support- not to judge-, it’s appreciation.

I talk to participants in our pilot program 2-3 times a day on Slack, text message or phone calls. One gentleman today called me today who spent 30+ years in prison. He was trying to find his password to get back into this computer, but was locked out of the laptop. He couldn't get in it to do the coursework that we assigned him.  I told him, “It's alright. Just slow down.”  I said, “You're completely fine. We're not going to leave you.” He said, “Thank you. That means so much to me” in sincerity.

Next they ask, “What can we do?”

Our community really looks at us as experts. They want to know what they have to do to get where we are.  We need to make sure we put out a good roadmap so people can use those techniques, and have the skills they need in order to be self-sustainable in a new career.

The Justice Reskill Path: 1. Justice Involvement  2. Justice Reskill (Access to cohorts) 3. Apprenticeships 4. New Career
Justice Reskill User Pathway

What is the path like for a justice-involved person finding and joining with Justice Reskill?

As of right now, our users, that we call "learners", all come to us from our community partners. Our community partners are re-entry type organizations, or city agencies, probation agencies. They have a case management system or a system to help connect formerly-incarcerated people with services.

We land in the area of 'service provider' for these agencies. They refer people to join our learning pathways through Justice Reskill. Starting in 2021, we're going to be launching some programs nationwide so that anyone can join our platform and use our services. We'll directly market out to people. Then anyone will be able to join and do the courses, while we build cohorts across the nation.

We'll have those two ways of people joining: either by coming to our website and seeing our material, or seeing a case manager they work with who refers them to our program.

Is there currently a way for people who don’t have a case manager to find you?

We will have to do some typical marketing to make sure that people know we exist. Typically, when you come out of a justice background, you're probably connected to a number of services- it's really the only way you can get access to some of the things needed to succeed.

So it's a pretty high probability that connecting with these community partners or organizations will lead us to the people we intend to connect with. We hope that as we continue to grow,- and this has already happened-, we get referrals from other justice-involved folks. One of our partners told an individual who’s currently incarcerated in a county jail about our program, and he wants to join as soon as he gets out. He's already told two other people, and they also want to join. We believe that the opportunity will spread and people will continue telling other folks about the services that we're offering.

What fields are people interested in?

We find people are interested in tech, and they didn't know they had an opportunity to learn.  Or they may have dabbled in some form of technology, prior to incarceration- or even for some folks while they're incarcerated- did some sort of programming.

Some are interested in tech as a whole, but some are not really sure what that means. It means they can access front-end or back-end development, full-stack, mobile, etc.

We also have people interested in developing general skills. We have pathways focused on helping to teach logic and problem-solving as a core discipline, for people to understand how to make good decisions.  Some might be interested in customer experience, or customer growth, or quality assurance, or technical recruiting, customer support. These are all things that, if someone learns basic tech skills, and some of the essential non-tech (what we used to call 'soft skills'), they're able to use those for other careers.

We're setting up a number of partnerships with other organizations: one is called the Mile High Workshop, in Denver. They do manufacturing jobs and training for people that are formerly incarcerated. They work very closely with people as soon as they're released from jail or prison.

We've set up partnerships with organizations like those. So if someone wants to learn our courses, but then they want to go work in manufacturing, we have partnerships that are available for them to do the kind of work they want to do.

How are you finding & assessing these pathways?

Starting off, we're using our current network of people to determine what some of those pathways are. Another is just higher education. Some of the folks we work with have a dream of getting a two or four year degree. We're setting up relationships with different schools that can help someone onboard and get on track towards an advanced education. We'll set up some of the ones we know or that we feel are easy pathways.

Our Student Experience Team is capable of finding additional resources that might help one of our students. If a path is not something that we have a core competency for, we will put in the work to go find a partner for it.

What trajectory are you hoping to see for justice-involved people?

Wealth, generation, and financial stability. Tech is a great vehicle to not only gain economic wealth, but also fulfillment in a great career. But tech is not the end-all, be-all to anything.  I want to make sure that people get a skillset, like logic and problem solving, and I want them to be able to take those skills and apply them towards a job as a software engineer, as a data analyst, as a database engineer, as a customer growth experience manager, or as a technical recruiter.

Or, I want to see them go off to be a paralegal, or work in manufacturing, maybe something completely outside of tech. For me, the goal is not to create more coders. It's to get people out of working grueling low minimum wage jobs- where it’s very hard to build wealth for their families- and into a place where they can pay off debt, have savings, get retirement, purchase a home.

The biggest goal of all is when our folks can send their kids to college. That means you’ve broken the generational trauma that the justice system puts on our families in America.

How did you find your community partners? What feedback are you getting from them?

The feedback we're getting from community partners is “This work is hard.” Yes, it is. Most of my community partners are very specific on how they work with their communities. These people are helping people out of very difficult situations. It's a lot of paying attention to detail, learning to pivot as needed to meet their current changing needs- like we have been experiencing during COVID.

What they're telling us is that they really want this to work. Because it could be an answer to the problem that they've been trying to solve: 'How do we really get people away from this system, into good paying jobs, giving back to their communities and helping them to break the cycle?’  These community partners are incredibly grateful as well, to have this new opportunity to do a program like this.

Anyone working in justice reform, (and reentry on the community side of it) - these people are the salt of the earth. These people across our country are the ones that are putting in hard work, hard hours, often under-thanked, and under-appreciated. There are high demands on what a program like this offers to their community. But, if they're willing to put in work, they're willing to learn and willing to bend over backwards when they see something that works. I've been fortunate to be connected to a few people in that space.

How is crowd-funding going?

The matching grant program with Brad Feld is huge, because it's opening up a lot of conversations. In conversations I’ve had with both small and large donors, the feedback they give us is, 'Tell us more about this program. What is the end result you're trying to accomplish? How does this support and help them?'  

And we are very clear that, 'We need the support to actually build the infrastructure to get this out.’

Before we can test out models of methodologies, we have to get it to a point where we can work with a larger group of people to start paying attention to trends.

How do you hope to see the project grow?

I have a two-fold vision for the project:

One is to be a one-stop repository for skills & training for justice-involved workers across the US. Anyone who is justice-involved can take courses for free on our skills platform.

And two, I want those to grow into cohort-directed experience programs, where you have a community partner, or maybe a couple of cities or governments who’d like to create a program specifically for the folks in their community, or their participants. Then we raise capital to teach those communities or those cohorts of people for six months at a time.  Then we can get those folks fast tracked into an apprenticeship, and then into a job role.

So we have those two branches. One is free online. The other is a directed learning experience. Hopefully, those both grow exponentially in 2021.

If everything goes really well with fundraising, what does that mean for your Justice Reskill?

It allows us to build out content, and to have the team that are working on the content, focused on the platform.

The more time and money we can put into our work, the infrastructure, and the building, the more it benefits justice-involved people. Then we do things like help lower the recidivism rate, help get people from court diversion types of programs into a study program. Then we can get folks into the career workforce.

It takes about 6-8 months to get someone into a job or a workforce program. With more fundraising, quicker and faster scaling, we can speed up that time- and time is someone's life. The urgency we feel is the longer we wait, the more precarious situations justice-involved people are in, the more drain we have on society, on public safety and on down the line. We feel an urgency to work as fast as we can.

Who can get involved and how?

There are a lot of different ways to get involved. One thing we're doing is working with a lot of affinity groups within tech companies. They're called employee resource groups, and these might be groups of people coming together for camaraderie within the company. We're reaching out to a number of tech companies, because our thought and philosophy is we want to work with people in those companies so they can help guide where this program is going.

They can be involved with it. Because someday, our justice-involved workers are hopefully going to get jobs at some of these places. If these folks are coming along for the journey with us, learning and also helping us build this program, it creates a better foundation in connection. We want to have it last for the long term. One way, definitely, is to give to our collective. If someone wants to help build content that folks can learn, they can do that as well. We're also always looking for corporate partners who want to get involved with hiring, advising, that sort of thing. They can also contact us on the website.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Full transcript available here.