Monthly Volunteer Spotlight: March 2017 Edition

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Just last month, Central City Concern launched the Flip the Script program with the goal of providing housing, cultural peer support, and employment specialists to support African Americans’ reentry into the community when leaving a criminal justice program. Without employment or housing, African Americans have a 36 percent chance of re-entering the system; addressing those pitfalls was crucial to their success.

But before the conversations around solutions could begin, CCC needed to identify the presenting issues, snags, and concerns facing this population.

Enter CCC volunteer, MJ.

Although much of his work was behind closed doors and in front of computer screens, the critical role MJ played in laying the foundation for the Flip the Script program was imperative to the successful launch of Flip the Script. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with MJ and ask him about the groundwork it took to assist in getting this program rolled out.

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Name and Volunteer Position: Michael Jones but I go by MJ.

And my volunteer proposition to you all was “Hey, if you’ve got some data, I would love to volunteer to analyze it.”

Because I thought you can do two things with that. I thought, one, we could help improve the program wherever that data came from so we can find some areas for improvement. And two, I thought this data could help you all tell your story about how you’re driving the impact in the community.

I do believe if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it. But I also really know that data can close deals.

It sounds like our Employment Access Center was able to take you up on your offer, specifically for their Flip the Script Program.
Coming from a business background it’s all about ROI—the return on investment—and when I thought about it you guys have probably the largest ROI in the history of the world. Seriously. If you look at what does it cost to incarcerate a person versus what does it cost when a person is a productive member of society? That’s sort of the ROI that I see.

So with that I started to dig in, and with Freda [Ceaser, CCC’s director of Employment Services), was given a project to go run with. Once I got in, like with every large organization, it turned out to be kind of complicated. We were sort at the classic starting point of not having all of the data. CCC had some data based on where individuals were housed with intake and exit interviews, but the data actually started back with the Department of Corrections.

And then as we started to dig further, it goes into the Department of Justice. I thought it was pretty amazing in the early stages of this project that Freda was able to wrangle those folks to come and get everyone in the same room. We had people driving up from Salem, from DOJ and DCJ, and we spent some time on a whiteboard and it did turn out to be very complicated. I sketched it all out and said well they have this piece and they have this piece but how do we marry those together.

It was pretty great and they sort of rallied around that this was a good idea. We did really need to keep people’s privacy and security in mind so we did talk about the cleaning of the data so it’s non-identifiable. But gosh, after a couple of months, everybody provided all of the bits and we were able to paste it together and basically what we had was 1,000 records and those represented 1,000 people.

That sounds like quite a bit of collaboration and work! Do you feel like the results were well-received?
I feel like what I presented to your team, people were really excited. They were like, “We’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve never seen the data presented in this way. We’ve never seen this much data. We’ve never heard the story told on top of it and we’ve always been looking at a small piece.” It really opened their eyes to some really healthy discussion and debate around the causation of recidivism and then a lot of thinking on how to improve it.

Recidivism is such a common thread for so many. What were some of the causes you discovered?
For instance one of the top reasons for recidivism is an individual, or a sex offender, not registering their location. But when you think about it, well, if you don’t have a home it’s kind of hard to register your location.

We uncovered some things that seem a little counterintuitive. Like how to some degree people would be less likely to recidivate if they stayed in a shelter, or if they even lived on the street, than if they went to live with friends. And that group that said they lived with friends had an incredibly high recidivism rate. But when you think about it, it makes total sense because that’s getting back to your bad habits. And so I think that helped really enlighten things.

And MJ, what made you want to get involved with Central City Concern in the first place?
I was motivated because of the homelessness situation that we’ve seen unfold in the past three years and I’m not one to just sit on the sidelines. I like to take action so I decided I wanted to volunteer locally and that seemed to be the biggest problem I could see locally.

And I was impressed [with Central City Concern]. There’s a huge number of organizations that are helping homeless populations in a variety of ways, but I really liked CCC because you guys focused on the health angle, the employment angle, and the housing angle and so I saw that as more sustainable. I guess I saw that as teaching a person to fish rather than giving them a fish.

And I love the social enterprise angle because I think that gives people real world work experience and it gives people the skills they need but it’s actually a real company and it’s about generating revenue. So I’m wild about that. We’re not just throwing cash at people but we’re teaching them life skills. It’s a bigger organization than I thought and I’d say it’s more innovative.

Is there anything you would think about doing differently if you volunteered again?
I loved it but in hindsight I was thinking my flaw in that volunteering opportunity was that these people were still numbers. And I think it would be good for me to see them as people and not numbers. And so I think being critical of my own volunteer experience, it was a very clinical and analytic sort of play where I think I could build more empathy if I got closer to the people rather than spreadsheets of numbers. Which is to say I have a couple of other things I want to work on, volunteering things, but that thinking has helped me inform my future strategy around my volunteering opportunities and wanting to be a little bit closer to it.