Why the Ford Foundation launched a program for formerly incarcerated people—and how we did it

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In late 2015, Darren Walker approached the foundation’s Talent and Human Resources team and asked us to create a professional development program for graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). At the foundation, we’ve long supported the innovative work of BPI, which gives incarcerated men and women an opportunity to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. And we’ve highlighted our commitment to this program: how it transforms the daily realities of incarcerated people, and offers them a sense of possibility that is essential to rebuilding their lives and participating in their communities after their release from prison.

The foundation’s work with BPI also aligns with our support for fair chance hiring policies and other efforts to eliminate barriers to employment for people with conviction records. In short, we don’t believe a prior history of convictions should disqualify people from employment—especially since this is a problem that disproportionately affects people of color, whose lives have been hit hard by decades of over-criminalization.

So when Darren approached us with the idea, we were as eager as he was to figure out how we could “walk our talk” on these issues.

As a social justice foundation, we had the advantage of in-house expertise on prison education and re-entry issues. But our human resources team had limited experience working purposefully with formerly incarcerated people who were re-entering the workforce. We had a clear goal—to deliver a program that built the BPI graduates’ skills and knowledge, and prepared them for jobs that would lead to a career. But we also had lots of questions.

So we started by talking to the experts: members of our staff who work on employment, education, incarceration, and racial justice. In turn, they connected us to leaders from organizations they support, including JustLeadershipUSA, the College and Community Fellowship, A New Way of Life, and the Vera Institute of Justice. Experts from those organizations generously shared their insights into how we might structure our program and maximize its benefits for everyone involved. And of course, we also relied on the knowledge and expertise of BPI co-founder and executive director Max Kenner. Jed Tucker, BPI’s director of re-entry, was also a key partner in this effort.

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