The Potential of Formerly Incarcerated Women -- And Their Children

Sometimes we look at disadvantaged people and categorize, and evaluate the ways in which those disadvantages might hurt their life chances. College and Community Fellowship (CCF) takes the opposite approach. CCF serves women who face one of the most daunting challenges possible: creating a successful life despite a felony record. More often than not, these women's struggles are compounded by histories of substance abuse, rape, violence, childhood trauma, domestic violence, mental illness and poverty. And yet, when they come to CCF, they are not looking for an excuse to fail; they are looking to earn a college degree. CCF was created to be a place where these women can access the skills, tools, and opportunities necessary to achieve their dreams.

Earning a college degree has remained at the core of our work, but over the years, fostering community, acquiring life skills, building financial literacy, engaging in the arts, and participating in civic discourse have become vital components of our model. In short, we take a holistic approach to ensure women in our programs succeed. This comprehensive philosophy is a version of the two-generation framework championed by Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Two-generation programs address the needs of children and their parents together, something few prisoner reentry programs have tried. Yet, the two-generation framework has important lessons for those working on prisoner reentry. More than 700,000 people are released from prisons each year, many of whom are parents. CCF was, in part, created as a response to emerging prisoner reentry models. Prisoner reentry programs purport to address the needs faced by more than 2.3 million prisoners, the vast majority of who will one day return home to live in their communities. Given the sheer numbers, it was important that when Ascend at the Aspen Institute developed its two-generation framework, they included the criminal justice population, most of whom are parents. While two-generation programs address the needs of children and their parents together, few prisoner reentry programs set out to address the needs of both generations.

For example, a focus on human and social capital is often missed in prisoner reentry work: when women come to CCF, we ask about background as a matter of information gathering, not as a way to determine their potential. One example is K, who had always dreamed of being a registered nurse. K had been told by many program counselors, college admissions counselors and case managers that she could never be a registered nurse because she had a felony conviction. When she came to CCF we asked our signature question, "What are your hopes and dreams?" K told us that she had always wanted to be a registered nurse. We said, "Well, let's see what we have to do to make that happen!"

She had to do her part. She went to school and did well. But we helped. We learned about the laws pertaining to health employment licensing in our state. Staff and other CCF students engaged the City Department of Human Rights and advocated on her behalf. We learned as a community, and then acted in concert (I think they call that social capital these days). Now, K is a registered nurse in pursuit of becoming a nurse practitioner. Her children, who were once in foster care while she was incarcerated, are now in college. They say that their mom inspired them to dream big for themselves. Potential may just be too small a word for what the future holds for K and her family.

This story, and others like it, makes CCF's partnership with Ascend at the Aspen Institute catalytic. CCF is working with Ascend to more strategically integrate two-generation approaches into the work we do with women who have been involved with the criminal justice system. In doing so, we hope to tap into these mothers' potential and the potential of their children and other family members. We have learned that CCF women care for and support children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, sisters and daughters-in-law. CCF's two-generation approach impacts all members of a family, seeking to harness and actualize each individual's potential despite odds that have been stacked incredibly high against them. As a formerly incarcerated woman, I know first-hand the importance of recognizing every person's potential. By providing comprehensive educational opportunities to children and their parents - regardless of their criminal record -- we can ensure a legacy of opportunity passes from one generation to the next.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the latter of which is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. The series is being produced in conjunction with the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Inaugural Fellowship. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about Ascend at the Aspen Institute, click here.