Susan Mason, Executive Director and Co-Founder of What’s Next Washington, joins the program to discuss how organizations can recruit, hire and retain formerly incarcerated talent. Susan reveals some startling statistics about overcriminalization, including the fact that by 2030 100 million people will be convicted of a crime in the US. Discover what needs to change from a policy standpoint, and why without policy changes, organizations will miss out on hiring one in two working age adults, with an overrepresentation of people of BIPOC, women, and LGBTQI communities.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Susan Mason: We have a pledge that we’re working on to have employers just kind of sign up and say, “We’re going to come out of the closet.” We patterned a lot of this on the LGBTQ community and the way that they stepped up during the AIDs crisis and said, “We’re not doing this anymore. We have got to come out of the closet. We are who we are, and I can’t be pigeonholed anymore.” It’s been fantastic to model it off of that and see the power and the grace in that, and how much it works. People are hungry for humanizing other people. We’ve spent a lot of time in this country demonizing everybody, and I think that people are hungry for the truth about our fellow citizens.
Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will To Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. Now, here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Doug Foresta: Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. Of course, I’m here with Jennifer Brown. Today’s guest is Susan Mason. She’s a executive director and co-founder of What’s Next Washington. Founded in 2017, What’s Next Washington is a nonprofit organization located in Washington state made up of formerly incarcerated individuals and allies working together to improve the ability to reintegrate into society and achieve longterm economic stability. They’re focused on removing systemic barriers and ending the marginalization of formerly incarcerated individuals.
Doug Foresta: Susan is a sought after speaker, subject matter expert on issues of employment, education and housing discrimination. She’s a National Council of Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls 2019 Reimagining Communities Fellow, and was a 2018 Just Leadership USA Fellow. I should mention, as kind of you can probably figure from what I just said, Susan herself was incarcerated. She was in federal prison from 2001 and 2003. Obviously, she shares this passion for now helping change policies for formerly incarcerated individuals. First of all, I want to say, Jennifer, Susan is going to be on a DEI and she’s bringing some guests with her, correct?
Jennifer Brown: Yes. That’s right, Doug. I’m so excited for that and for everybody to listen to this incredible episode. We are actually going to ask Susan to come on with a couple of people she knows whose stories are really compelling, one of whom is a former Seattle Seahawk and current radio and TV personality, Jordan Babineaux, who has a book out called Pivot to Win. Jordan is a serial entrepreneur. He owns multiple businesses, and it turns out he was unable to hire someone at his company because of regulatory barriers. He had somebody in mind who had a conviction history who’d paid his debt. Jordan wanted to give an opportunity, but he couldn’t because the Department of Transportation regulations stopped him.
Jennifer Brown: You’ll hear in this episode, Doug, just on a sort of side note, that Susan… What’s so compelling about this is she wanted me to ask her about why is this not a training and skills development question. She really focuses in this episode on regulations, which, at the end of the day, were always the thing that stopped her from getting employed because there were so many other things she had and brought to the table. But at the end of the day, every single time she chased this through, this incredibly frustrating and damaging process of getting all the way to the offer and then the background checking pulled. I think that people listening to this… We talk a lot about that it’s this balance of education, yes, awareness, yes, tackling biases and fear around hiring people with conviction histories, yes, but we also have to tackle the equity issues.
Jennifer Brown: We have to tackle the systems that, at the end of the day, no matter what we do or what we intend or what we set up that’s within kind of what we think is our sphere of control, the system is going to prevent us from following through with it. It’s like that last mile of a marathon. Those of us with power to influence how you… Human resources, what our processes are like, what we’re lobbying for at the state level, the voice of the company and the employer, getting involved more proactively in some of these things that we maybe in the past have thought are outside of our purview. I think that we have to get involved because we’re not going to meet our goal if our goal is to make our workforce more inclusive and include the… By the way, what will be one out of every two people will have a conviction history by the year 2030, so 100 million people. Then we sit here and say we have a talent shortage.
Jennifer Brown: There is a real disconnect and a real opportunity here, but I think that we’ve got to look at it differently. This episode, and Susan, every time she speaks I learn so much because she’s a font of statistics that are startling and dispiriting and, hopefully, are very motivating, particularly with this audience, all of you listening to Will To Change. Some of you have the ability to be more welcoming and not just in intent, but in structural, be more structurally welcoming to this talent pool to meet our DEI goals. I mean, there’s just such a connection that could be made there, but there’s a path to get there. It is absolutely not just a structural change, but also, like any true, well done change management process, there are emotions and resistance and changing hearts and minds and all that work that has to go into this so that we help our internal partners who are making these decisions with us and participating in kind of dismantling the way that we screen out so many talented people.
Jennifer Brown: It is a feat of, I think, probably coordination and change management and dealing with naming fears and sort of tackling them and refuting them, which Susan gives you a lot of ammunition in this episode to refute with statistics a lot of the fears and hesitations and rationale that we have for not welcoming this community of talent into workplaces. We’ve got to go about this strategically, but I think that Susan is a fabulous resource and has all sorts of things on their website that you can download. She’s the kind of person who you could probably just pick up the phone or email and just say, “Hey, can I pick your brain? Where would we start on this in our employer?” I think that would be just an incredible outcome, Doug, of having her join me on the pod.
Jennifer Brown: The other thing I wanted to say is there’s yet another person I think, and I hope, Susan will have join her on the community call and then will become a podcast, this woman named Teresa Hodge, who’s a co-founder and CEO of a company called R3 Score. She took the company public, but she had to step down as its CEO because of SEC laws because she had a conviction history. She had to step down as the CEO of her own company, took it public and could no longer be the CEO. Just these stories are startling, and I’m glad they startle us out of our complacency, out of our… They make us realize how little we understand about the perniciousness of this and the pervasiveness of it. Then we have to think about what are the levers for change that we have access to on this issue, and what conversations can we start? Wherever we sit in organizational structures, what conversations can we start to have?
Jennifer Brown: She’s got this roadmap that she talks about that I think makes this whole conversation about where do we start and where do we go and what do we start to examine and what might we change and what is the process… She has a whole kit for that, and so because she’s been down this road so many times and she has some examples of companies that are doing this well. Not as many as she would like, but I know benchmarking is really important to our community so that’s another way to utilize Susan and the organization as to generate these comparisons and then say, “Okay, so what we thought happened… What we were afraid would happen hasn’t happened.” We need to be able to see that, and we need to be able to share that with our internal leaders, too, as evidence that our biases about this community are not founded in fact.
Doug Foresta: One of the things Susan said that I loved was she said, “People are hungry for humanizing other people. We spend a lot of time in this country demonizing everyone, and I think people are hungry for the truth about our fellow citizens.” I love the way she put that.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Yeah. She reminded me, of course, and we know this, it seems so obvious, but we’ve always demonized somebody in the workforce.
Doug Foresta: That is true.
Jennifer Brown: She said in… Yeah. I mean, I should know this. The 50s and 70s, women enter the job market. The assumption is, “This is never going to work. They’re hysterical. How are we going to manage it?” Of course, we get over that. In the 90s, the LGBTQ community. “Oh, we can’t let them work here. We can’t do this.” There are still vestiges of that, certainly, and challenges we’re fighting every single day to have equal access to employment and housing in the LGBTQ community, particularly the trans community. We have this super troubling and problematic history of marginalizing different communities over the decades and finding clever and unique ways, as she says, to keep them out.
Jennifer Brown: She believes that overcriminalization and overincarceration combined with background check policies are ways to continue to keep people out. It actually impacts black, brown and Native communities most of all. But lining up this community in that way, sort of in seeing that there’s so much precedent for this, and we just sort of shift the target population over time. Then we see subsequently, though, we look back and we say, “Well, that was ridiculous.” Because everything we feared didn’t come to pass. For this community, it’s, “Oh, they aren’t criming on the job.” As she says. She uses criming as a verb.
Doug Foresta: I love that.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, right? She says it’s just, “Many of us are many, many years from… Our conviction time is way behind us. It’s not relevant. Anyway, so there’s just so many things that I found really illuminating, really troubling, really motivating and just… I’ve added it, Doug, in my teaching, in my favorite model, the iceberg. I’ve added conviction history or incarcerated family members and a diversity element under the waterline because it touches so many families and touches so many people. I think there’s a complete lack of understanding about this, amongst my audiences, anyway. To me, this is a frontier conversation and I’d love to hear from everybody as you’re listening to this.
Jennifer Brown: If you reach out to Susan and engage her organization and take part in any pilots that she’s running, please let us know. We would love to continue to educate ourselves and I would like to help bring your story of where you got started with this and some surprising results, which I’m sure will be borne out, as she predicts. We’d like to highlight all of that in our thought leadership, so please keep us posted, too, at email@example.com. That’s where you can reach us in general, just about other frontier DEI issues that we think are not being discussed very often or at all.
Jennifer Brown: Please keep sending those along. I’m always listening, we’re always gathering some thematic buckets of information and research and statistics, and pointing people towards where this conversation is going next. I think this is one of the biggies that we have to really chip away at, and bigger than chip away at. I mean, I think, Doug, we need a full scale transformation because 100 million people with conviction histories by 2030 is an enormous untapped labor pool. We just can’t let that happen for so many reasons. Susan, welcome to The Will To Change.
Susan Mason: Thank you, Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown: I was so delighted to learn about your organization, What’s Next Washington, and be introduced to you by my dear friend Christopher McCormack. As our listeners will piece together, no doubt, if you’ve been listening to The Will To Change for a while, we are going to learn a lot about a particular aspect of diversity, a diversity dimension that I’ve been keeping my eye on and making sure to educate myself about. As I grow in my own aspiring allyship and advocacy and solidarity, it’s a community of identity that is vast and, I think, not just poorly understood, but extremely challenged from a barriers perspective, from a systems perspective. We are really, really excited to feature your work, Susan, and hear sort of why this is so personal to you and some really incredibly startling statistics about the opportunity here.
Jennifer Brown: For all of us that listen to The Will To Change that lead this work in the organizational context, I hope this will give you a lot that’s very provocative to think about in terms of how you handle certain communities of identity from the recruitment sourcing process, recruitment evaluation, legal, all that fun stuff. We need to be better. I’m just really excited to learn from you today, Susan. Thanks for coming. I’ll hand it over to you. Let us know… We always say everybody has a diversity story. Often these are not visible, unless we make them visible. You certainly made yours visible in so many ways, but what would you like to share with our audience about either how you grew up, how you discovered your passion, some very, perhaps, deep, deep challenges in your life that led you to really come to the purpose that you have today.
Susan Mason: Yeah. That’s a great intro, thanks. I think I’m going to truncate it all together. What do you think?
Jennifer Brown: I think that sounds good.
Susan Mason: All right. I, like so many others who grew up with a lot of childhood violence and trauma and poverty, found myself struggling very early with addiction and alcoholism, and really struggled to put my life together. I’m a driven person, though, and I would build my life up and then I’d burn it to the ground and build it up and burn it to the ground. I just really struggled to make my way emotionally, I would say. I also went through about 20+ years of domestic violence, and that eventually kind of just broke me. Around 1999 or 2000, I kind of jumped down the rabbit hole of my disease and by the end of 2001, early 2002, I was on my way to federal prison because I’m a terrible criminal.
Jennifer Brown: Oh.
Susan Mason: Yeah, and so I went to prison for 15 months. I came out in 2003, and I knew that I needed to do something about the common denominator in all of my tragedies, and that was me. I really set out on a journey of discovery and started to understand that I’m an addict and I can’t put a drug or a drink in my body and have the life that I want. I started to do a lot of trauma work and work on some of the domestic violence that I had suffered, and really just set out on a journey, take responsibility and have some accountability for the way my life was turning out. When I was in the halfway house after prison, I got a job right away. I had been in residential lending and I had quit my job before I jumped down that rabbit hole, so I had not ruined my reputation in the industry before all of that.
Susan Mason: It was the refi boom in 2003. I got a job processing loans at a mortgage company and quickly became a loan officer again and was doing really great, and by 2006 was coming right along. At the end of 2006, the state of Washington implemented loan officer licensing and I lost my career. I was unable to get the license because of the felonies I had, even though I’d been out and was doing very well. I really struggled. Of course, I was in an industry that was imploding all around me. We all know the Great Recession started around the end of 2007. It was a nightmare. I really struggled finding work because of these new laws and regulations, and also because I was competing against people without conviction histories.
Susan Mason: What you might not know is that during the Great Recession, the unemployment rate was over 60% for people with conviction histories. I was not immune to that. I found some work as a foreclosure housing counselor. I was helping to save people’s homes from foreclosure. I loved that job. I was good at it, and in 2015 I was laid off, which is good because I was laid off because the foreclosure crisis in Washington State was pretty much over. That’s good, I was glad about that, but I was concerned. I’m like, “Uh oh, now I got to go out there and try and find a job.” But I’m a hopeful person. I thought, “I’ve put together so much, I’ve done so great. It’s going to be all right.” I went out there and I got a job right away with U.S. Bank in their underwriting department. Offer letter, start date, contingent on a background check.
Susan Mason: They pulled the background check and they said, “Hey, listen. We’re going to have to rescind this offer. You’re not going to be able to get certifications and other… There’s just barriers with the SEC and others that we’re not going to be able to overcome.” She cried and I cried, and they sent me on my way. It became very clear as I was looking for work that nobody was going to hire me, even after all these years, it’d been 12 years since I was released, and that I was going to need to find another career. I’d done some political organizing around the foreclosure crisis, and I thought I would be a great political organizer. I slipped my resume out and I got an interview at SEIU 775. It’s a local union. They were looking for a political organizer.
Susan Mason: I went through rounds of interviews. I’m going to tell you what, I’m great in an interview. I’ve had so many. They hired me. Offer letter, start date, contingent on a background check. I called them up and I said, “Hey, here’s what’s on there. I’ve been good for a long time, good meaning stable. You see my resume, my references and all that.” They said, “Don’t worry. We’re looking for murder or arson.” I said, “Okay. Well, that’s not me.” I showed up five weeks later on the first day of work and they wouldn’t let me upstairs.
Jennifer Brown: Oh.
Susan Mason: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The human resources director had pulled my background check that morning, actually. She said, “Listen. I want to send you home. I’ll call you later this afternoon, we’ll talk about it.” I was gutted. I’m standing there with this other kid that they had hired and it was just really humiliating. They sent me home. She called me, and she grilled me like I was criminal. She said, “Look, I just can’t take the chance.” I was like, “Nope. Uh-uh (negative).”
Susan Mason: I was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, a $30,000 fine and three years of probation. That was 12 years ago. I had done my time, and here I was unable to secure work even though I was otherwise qualified. I felt like I was being reconvicted. I thought, “If this is happening to me, I’m white, I have an ability to advocate for myself, I have a skillset and I have a lot of privilege, then what’s it like for people without those things?” I knew I had to get in the fight. Driven by those no’s, I co-founded What’s Next Washington with my co-founder, Roz Solomon.
Jennifer Brown: Oh my goodness. What a story. I’m just reeling from it. I want you to describe… You just said, “If this is happening to me, how many more is it happening to that don’t identify as I do?” Can you ground us in the statistics you know…
Susan Mason: Yeah, it’s my thing. It’s my deal. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: … like the back of your hand. Yeah, it’s your deal. Tell us about today and also tomorrow. What numbers are we looking at from a constituency perspective? When we think about this… I think of talent pools that are underutilized and all the need for talent, and the mismatch that we have in this moment that is tragic and could be addressed with the right systems and process in place, which we’ll get to in a moment, but tell us some of the statistics first.
Susan Mason: Sure. Let’s talk about the scope of the problem. As of 2015, there were 70 million people in this nation who had convicted of a ground. By 2030, there will be 100 million. Pre-COVID, our unemployment rate was 27%. The national unemployment rate was 4%, and then my state, Washington state, it was under three. But for people who have been convicted of a crime, it was 27%. That’s not sustainable. If you think about 100 million by 2030, that’s one in two working age adults. If you are a company that has a stringent hiring policy, you’re not going to be able to recruit, hire and retain the talent that you need by 2030 without some serious introspection. If you are in a sector that is heavily regulated or your company has contracts with large entities, like government entities, schools, hospitals and others, you’re not going to be able to secure the talent you need.
Susan Mason: I see this as a real problem. How are we going to keep our economy stable and actually stabilize it further? Because in my mind, this crisis, this overcriminalization and mass incarceration crisis, has actually destabilized our economy and created the labor shortage that we were in pre-COVID. I would also like to add that, as we all know, this does not impact people the same. We overcriminalize and overincarcerate black, brown and Native communities and then we create DEI goals. Our DEI goal is to increase the hiring black, brown and communities by X. And yet you haven’t looked at your internal hiring policies, and you haven’t challenged the regulatory and licensing barriers in your sector. You’re going to find that if we don’t do that together, what’s going to happen is you’re not going to be able to meet your DEI goals. I promise you.
Susan Mason: Yeah. That’s a really big focus of What’s Next Washington, is if black lives matter, if you want to give second chances and if you want to secure the labor that you need and meet your DEI goals, then we have to have a conversation about why you’re locking out people. These are not people who were recently released. We’re not making rules around someone who just left prison four days ago. 675,000 people leave prison every year, prison or jail, and there’s 70 million of us. What you’re actually doing is you’re turning down people who’ve been out, and who’ve been out for a long time and who are coming to you with their resume and their experience and their education and their skills, and you’re reconvicting them.
Jennifer Brown: That’s so powerful, and so just tragic. It needs to change. Why is this not a… We talked about a sort of matter of training and education. I know that’s a really big thing that’s one of many kind of myths of how you would tackle this and how it has been tackled in the past. It hasn’t been effective, so what would you add about that?
Susan Mason: Yeah, that’s a great question. 70 million exist on a spectrum. I want to add another fact, is that there’s two and a half million people in prison and jail, four and a half million people are on probation and parole, and the other 63 million of us? We have no further contact with the criminal legal system. Why are we being excluded from employment or education programs or housing? If you think about the 70 million, or technically 67 because two and a half million are still inside, although we do want to train folks, it’s more than a matter of training. We assume that everybody doesn’t have a set of skills, and that’s just not the case.
Susan Mason: What happens for the subset that do need skills and training, because I will admit that many, many do and that’s okay, but if we’re going to train them and give them the skills that they need and put them out into the market to compete against people without conviction histories for positions at companies who already don’t hire, or whose sectors won’t allow them to hire, training doesn’t matter. I’ll give you an example. You could have an aptitude for tech. You come out of prison, you get into a education program, you get a degree and you head out into the marketplace. None of the big tech companies will hire you because of your background, but you find a job at a medium sized tech company. What happens is that medium sized company is clipping right along, and they get a nice big fat contract with, say, a hospital.
Susan Mason: That hospital contract requires them to pull background checks on all their employees and either fire them because they won’t allow them to work there on this, or you can’t work the contract. How are you to advance? How are you supposed to… If you’re the person with the conviction history and they’re saying you can’t work our biggest contract, you’re not getting promoted. If there’s any layoff, you’re laid off first. There’s not a lot of mobility. You’re going to have to stay at a medium or small company, even though you could work at one of the big tech giants but they won’t allow you to. Even in construction, the one area that says, “Oh, get a construction job.” Well, you could be a journeyman welder and not be able to work on a porch, a school, a hospital, a defense contract, a base, the big tech giants and other energy jobs.
Susan Mason: You might have been out for 10, 12, 14 years and be turned down to work at a giant aerospace company, who we shall not name, because of your past. That is industry cutting its nose off to spite its face. At this point, it’s become such a problem and I’ll tell you the starting day, by the way. There’s a starting day. Prior to 9/11, there were about 8000 collateral consequences to having been convicted of a crime. There were regulations, laws, licensing barriers, that sort of stuff. After 9/11, we exploded the books with over 40,000 new laws, regulations and licensing barriers. Over 20,000 of those are in employment alone. None of them was based on data, and they all make the incorrect assumption that you can’t trust somebody who’s been convicted of a crime in this nation. What we know to be true is that we are addicted to overcriminalization, overpolicing and overincarceration. How do we create a roadmap for employers to do something about this intersectional problem?
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Actually, I was going to there next, is the roadmap. I know that part of what you do at the organization, What’s Next Washington, is coach them on their roadmap. I want to know what are the biggest culprits to tackle in that roadmap, but I also want to know the how do you deal with the fear piece. By the way, the fear that’s not grounded. You and I went through… Over the years, we’ve been afraid of a new whatever, a new identity kind of entering and taking over the workplace. There’s fear for different groups of people and, lo and behold, we absorb all this diversity in the workplace and the worst doesn’t happen. We can think of this as just the latest in a long line of who hasn’t been welcome in the workplace, who has struggled to be equitably treated.
Jennifer Brown: I also kind of wonder a roadmap element that you look for and that you recommend, and then also how do you combat the fear of taking this one and all the resistance that’s likely to pop up? I think it’s probably led by HR leaders that have to have a tremendous amount of courage and vision to wake everybody up and share a lot of this stuff. It’s probably an incredibly difficult fight to align everything to support something like this, even though we’ll look back at this moment, I know, in the future and say, “Boy, those were really difficult times, and since then we’ve figured it out.” I mean, I hope we see that day, but we’re in these, I think, early stages and you’re helping to chart that out, thankfully. But yeah, so roadmap and then kind of how you recommend people deal with fear in the organization.
Susan Mason: It’s so funny because you’re right, we have done this before in the 60s and 70s when women entered the market or the workforce. Man, we were told we were hysterical, that this wasn’t going to work, how are we going to manage this. Those were great times, right? We got over that. Then in the 90s, I’d say it was the LGBTQ community and, “Oh, we cannot let them work here. We can’t do this, we can’t do that.” We got over that, although we’re still struggling with the trans community. We’re trying to marginalize that community and single them out for marginalization.
Susan Mason: Of course, we’ve always pushed back against black, brown and Native people in the workplace and that’s got to end. We’re always trying to find clever and unique ways to keep them out. I believe that overcriminalization, overincarceration, combined with background check policies is a way to circumvent that and we need to take a really hard look at the impact because it is black, brown and Native communities that are taking the brunt of all of this. Having a conviction history is that new group, the, “We can’t do this. We’re all going to die.” Right?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah.
Susan Mason: Like, “The whole system will collapse.” It’s just not true. We’ve proved this over and over and over. I’ll tell you how I saw it. When we started What’s Next Washington, we thought, “I know why I’ve been turned down, and I want to hear from employers why they’re doing this.” We started to do some employer convenings, and we brought employers in of all sizes, from five employees to 300,000. We asked them, “What’s going on for you?” We found out what I assumed, which is what was the dovetail with my story. One is regulatory licensing barriers, internal policies, contracts. The other was fear, just flat out fear. “What if they come into… I can’t have somebody come into the workplace and crime it up on the job.” It’s like, “Oh, Lord. Okay. All right. Well, let’s address that.”
Susan Mason: But here’s the thing, I mean, if that’s a fear, legitimate or not in my eyes, it’s still a barrier and so we thought, “Okay. How can we help employers?” We came up with the Partnering for an Inclusive Workforce Project. We thought, “Do HR folks really have all the tools that they need to vet a candidate, especially one that’s been to prison?” We wrote a Get FIT guide. FIT is formerly incarcerated talent. It’s a hiring manual that can help an HR professional to recruit… Or excuse me, to vet somebody with a conviction history, especially someone who has been to prison. We specifically address violent crime, sex offenses and financial crimes because those are a big deal to HR departments and companies.
Susan Mason: We really try and help them understand the extremely low recidivism rate of people who have been convicted of a violent crime or a sex offense, and to understand that time out of… Or time past conviction is an indicator of stability. We also have in our toolbox contextualized background checks, which can show who a person is today instead of just that black and white moment from so long ago. But, basically, it’s a set of tools and services that we can use to help employers get over their fear. Then I would say that one of the biggest ways that we figured out to help employers is… Well, I had an epiphany. This is what happened. I did my little four hour employer convening spiel and everybody loved it, and nobody went back and changed their policy. I was like, “What? Really?”
Jennifer Brown: So typical, though.
Susan Mason: “[crosstalk 00:35:41] and you didn’t go back and change your policies for your 300,000 employees? Okay. Whatever.” I thought, “But how could I get them to do that?” I thought, “What about pilots? What about having them try it at a small scale? What if I could get a company to agree to hire, in their next hiring push, people with and without conviction histories and we would compare data on their performance.” We have a ton of data to show that we’re loyal, we’re driven to perform, we are promoted faster, high retention, but we don’t have any data to prove we don’t crime it up on the job, right?
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Mason: I assert that if we fail on a job, it’s because of the same reasons as our peers, like transportation, maybe we don’t like the job and got another one, maybe we were immature, maybe we are struggling with a substance use disorder or undiagnosed mental illness, maybe we have transportation or daycare issues, but those are the same reasons our peers aren’t making it. It’s not because of criminality. We were able to do a short project on the Washington State Convention Center addition project, and we collected the data on union craft workers with and without conviction histories and compared their performance. We have a report that’s on our website, on the Partnering for an Inclusive Workforce page, that showed our findings.
Susan Mason: There were some interesting things that we discovered quantitatively and qualitatively. Qualitatively, the most interesting thing that we discovered was that if a person who’s a journeyman is applying for a job at a company, and these are all construction works, and they get turned down because of their background, they never try it again. So a journeymen iron worker turned down at the port and literally never tried to work at the port again, and they can’t find enough people for port jobs. They won’t try and work at a hospital. I had asked them, “How long ago were you turned down?” “14 years. 16 years. 10 years.” “And you never tried that aerospace company again?” “Never. I’ll never be humiliated like that again.” What’s happening is these big job owners are not able to find the talent that they need.
Susan Mason: That’s very interesting. But we believe that these job and… Excuse me, performance data projects can help a company prove to themselves that we’re not the risk that they believe us to be and that, actually, you’re going to get high retention, high performing folks. If they don’t turn out to be high performing, high retention… When they leave, it’s not because they’re doing any workplace harm. They’re just leaving for the same reasons as everyone else.
Jennifer Brown: Right. That’s so important. I’m curious what the… For organizations that have done all the right things and are trying to open this talent pipeline and maybe rebrand they way they’ve been in the past and change their policies and get the communications out, I would imagine if… If it’s been 14 years, I wonder how do companies effectively speak to those who’ve been formerly incarcerated to say, “You are welcome here. We’ve done our work, we’ve set up systems and we want you. We want you to know that you could be successful here.” I wonder have you seen an example of that being done well?
Jennifer Brown: Because that education piece is interesting, too. It’s sort of once you’re in the closet as LGBTQ person, I feel like it takes a long time to realize that you may be working in a different era for a different employer for a different manager. You’re like, “Oh, maybe I can be different now. Maybe I can be here and be out.” It reminds me of so many other diversity dimensions that, over time or situationally, we may be accepted and invited and sought after really proactively. I wonder what has that education process been like when it comes from the company that’s doing better on this to the candidate who assumes that because, “I was so humiliated, I would never go through this again.”
Susan Mason: I think there’s a few companies out there that are out about hiring this population, but I think that it’s somewhat between 83 and 80% of companies do not openly hire people with a felony conviction. Really, what needs to happen is companies need to get on board and be specific and explicit, and really review their policies because what’s happened is a company stated they’re a second chance hirer, or company, and it’s not true. What happens if we go and we apply? What they really are looking for are certain types of offenses, and then they weed out the rest of them. It’s not okay. If you think about a young black girl who was criminalized at 19 and given theft charges that probably a young white girl would not have, that means that she’s lost out.
Susan Mason: Those are financial crimes, people think, “Oh no, she’s a thief. She’s going to steal things her whole life.” We don’t know the circumstances of it, there’s no end date on her sentence, she wouldn’t be able to go into healthcare and become a nurse even though… Maybe she was in trouble. Maybe six years later she’s not. Maybe she wasn’t in trouble and she was just criminalized and she’s going to pay for that for the rest of her life. It’s not okay. We need to really think about what it is we are doing. I know there are lots of companies that do what I call a tribunal system that I’m not happy about. What happens is they’re like, “Oh, we see this. Why don’t you come in and explain it?” It’s like, “Well, I explained it to a judge and that judge said this was what I needed to do to make it right, and I did that. Here you are asking me to make it more right.”
Susan Mason: I wasn’t sentenced to a lifetime of unemployment. I mean, I was given an economic death sentence, I’ll tell you that, but it seems preposterous. Companies are basically acting out of fear, trying to protect themselves. What they’re doing is they’re actually harming people economically. Employment is the number one predictor of recidivism. For folks who’ve been out, just recently released, for those that go back in the first year, and remember that’s not very many people, for those that go back in the first year, 90% of them are unemployed. If they’re given a living wage job within two months of release, that number drops to 8%. 8%. People aren’t criminals. It’s opportunity. We really need to reconsider what it is we’re doing to people, the judgements we’re making because here’s the thing.
Susan Mason: I start out our employer convenings by asking people to think about the worst thing they’ve ever done. Think about it. Imagine having done this thing that you don’t talk about and that you are ashamed of and maybe it’s the thing that drove you to be the best person you could be, but you had to share that thing for the rest of your life with people that were screening you for employment or housing or an education opportunity. Would you have this network you do? Would you get as far as you’ve gotten? Would you work where you work? We don’t want that to happen to others, and we’re talking about people that were caught, people that were overcriminalized, especially in black, brown and Native communities, and people that are poor because that’s how it works.
Susan Mason: Wealthy people don’t end up with criminal records. They’re able to get the resources they need to make sure that doesn’t happen, and so what we’re really talking about is we’re screening poor people out of our opportunities, and people of color. Yeah. We have a big heavy lift, and I hope I scare everyone listening to this in every sector that by 2030, if you’re not on a roadmap to fast and complete internal and sector systems change you’re in trouble.
Jennifer Brown: Yep. One out of every two people.
Susan Mason: One out of every two. Yep. 100 million people will have been convicted of a crime in this nation. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Really incredible, just [crosstalk 00:44:31] that statistic in mind. Tell me what’s different for formerly and currently incarcerated women and girls? I’m sure you have a lot of thoughts on… How does that process happen? What happens afterwards? What should we know? What do you want to ensure we understand about the impact on women and girls of this system?
Susan Mason: Yeah. Interestingly, the fastest growing community of overcriminalized and overincarcerated groups is women and girls. 700% since the 90s, right?
Jennifer Brown: [crosstalk 00:45:09].
Susan Mason: Yeah. And what are we doing? Then we send them out into a world that won’t house and will not employ them and will not educate them, and many of them have children. What are we doing? We’re denying opportunities to people that keep families going, we are making sure that generational poverty is not being addressed, we are locking out the foundation of our society. Women and girls, we keep this going. I don’t know if y’all know, but we do. It just puts a strain on every part of our economy. Lifting up, educating, employing and housing women and girls means that we lift up, educate, employ and house children and grandmothers and sons and fathers and families. This is all an ecosystem.
Susan Mason: We tend to employ white men and pretty much marginalize the rest. We overincarcerate and overcriminalize women, we overcriminalize and overincarcerate LGBTQ folks, and we overcriminalize and overincarcerate black, brown and Native communities. The very people that we need to reach our DEI goals are being screened out or locked out due to contracts and regulatory and licensing barriers, right?
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Mason: It’s a gigantic problem. I’m hoping the people listening will be curious about a pathway to doing something about this, and moving out of our fear based decision making and into decision making that maintains safe and productive workplaces. We don’t want anybody hired that’s not ready for the opportunity, we don’t want to repeal every single law and policy and licensing restriction, but we do want to amend them. We do want them based on data and we do want to repeal most of them, repeal or amend. We think that that’s a process that can be done. We’re not going to be able to do it without partnering with major companies in every sector to challenge the regulators and the lawmakers to say, “I need the labor I need. Let’s make these rules based on data instead of the fear that we used post-9/11.”
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Are there some industries that you think are early adopter because of the kinds of talent they’re looking for or because of how perhaps progressive their HR systems are? I mean, or would it be fair to characterize any or is that across the board?
Susan Mason: No. No. No. I don’t know of any. We think it’s construction and hospitality, but here’s the thing. 70 million people exist on the spectrum. We can’t put them all in construction and hospitality. By 2030, 100 million people cannot work in construction and hospitality.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right.
Susan Mason: Right? And we want there to… Within those sectors, you can’t work at a hotel, you can’t work at a hospital, you can’t work at a school, you can’t work at a port, you can’t work on a base, you can’t work for any employer that has a DoD contract or a Pentagon contract or a Department of Energy Contract. I mean, it just starts whittling everything down. We’re just relegated to longterm economic instability. Our goal at What’s Next Washington is to make sure that there is longterm economic stability for people who move on from a past mistake, and I think we can all agree that that is the best thing for our economy and our communities and the health of this nation.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You deserve that, for sure. How do you… I know for LGBTQ rights in the workplace it was led so strongly by private companies, like corporations, finding amicus briefs, things like that. How do you envision the partnership between the public sector and the private sector to get this done? What are the most powerful levers that you’re looking to pull to accomplish this more quickly?
Susan Mason: I think that it’s really important that we get some big companies to be thought leaders on this, to be early adopters and to get out there and say, “We’re not going to do it like this anymore.” There’s, of course, going to be pushback and a lot of pearl clutching around the criminals and, really, that’s what has been done to everyone along the way. I think that making the economic case is really important, but I also think that gathering the data that we need to prove that we are not committing crimes on the job… In fact, the data shows that people who are committing crimes on the job don’t have conviction histories.
Jennifer Brown: Right. Right. That didn’t startle me to read that, but perception is reality.
Susan Mason: Right, but… Yeah. I’m not asking anybody to listen to my very well thought out arguments and…
Jennifer Brown: Yes we are.
Susan Mason: … make all the changes that I want. Prove it to yourself. Partner with us, create a roadmap. Let’s do it. Maybe in a division or a region, or even one area, one town, and let’s prove it and get you the access to the labor that you need. But the bigger and heavier lifts are these contract holders and the regulatory and licensing barriers. The energy sector is hemorrhaging jobs. I don’t know how they’re going to be sustainable into the future without making these changes, and yet they just don’t hire. Finance, same thing. Healthcare, for sure, especially in Washington state. Healthcare is super white, and that’s because we overcriminalize the black, brown and Native folks that make up such a small percentage of our population and then we create licensing laws that say that you cannot go into healthcare. Everything’s circular. I’ve got an argument to challenge anybody’s objection if they want to call me, and I’ve got a roadmap.
Jennifer Brown: I love it. And you’ll do pilots, which I’m a big of pilots, too. This is not a giant commitment that you’re making forever and always, let’s just isolate something and work on it in one division, one unit, like you said, one office, one location.
Susan Mason: Right? It’s a win-win all the way around. You’re going to get the talent you need, you’re going to be able to overcome your fears and we’re going to get some data and you’re going to help us repeal or amend, not just overturn. I shouldn’t say that. I do want to repeal or amend. I want safe and productive workplaces, right?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah.
Susan Mason: I do, and so do you. But I also want to make sure that people can leave a path behind them. I want to say one more thing. I say I’m the formerly incarcerated executive director and co-founder of What’s Next Washington all the time, but I was released 18 years ago. 18. The only reason I say that… I mean, I should be able to lay that down. The only reason I say it is so people understand that we move on with our lives by the millions. By the millions. I shouldn’t have to talk about it anymore. I shouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I shouldn’t be denied anything, but there’s whole education programs I can’t go into, there are multiple sectors that still would not hire me, there are housing providers that would not rent to me. In multiple states, there’s lifetime lookback. That’s preposterous. Yeah. The time is right for this type of reform.
Jennifer Brown: It really, really is overdue, I would say. So folks can engage with your organization, get in touch, start somewhere, start to tackle something, if you need to, in a small scale way, but-
Susan Mason: Even if that’s just a pledge. We have a pledge that we’re working on to have employers just kind of sign up and say, “We’re going to come out of the closet.” Right?
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Susan Mason: We patterned a lot of this on the LGBTQ community and the way that they stepped up during the AIDs crisis and said, “We’re not doing this anymore. We have got to come out of the closet. We are who we are, and I can’t be pigeonholed anymore.” It’s been fantastic to model it off of that, and see the power and the grace in that and how much it works. People are hungry for humanizing other people. We’ve spent a lot of time in this country demonizing everybody, and I think that people are hungry for the truth about our fellow citizens.
Jennifer Brown: Because of meeting you and others, I’ve added formerly incarcerated or related to the formerly incarcerated as a diversity dimension that’s under the waterline of the iceberg that I teach. That’s a model I teach. I love that moment of even just articulating that in my presentations and knowing that most of my audience, it wouldn’t even cross their mind and yet it touches so many people in the workplace. It’s one of those many, many deeply stigmatized and not visible aspects of diversity. When we say most our dimensions aren’t visible, indeed, and yet it’s pervasive in its impact and it is in existing talent and then in the sort of talent to be recruited and engaged. It’s just this enormous pipeline. I mean, I get annoyed when I hear like, “We just can’t find enough people.”
Susan Mason: Oh, [crosstalk 00:55:12].
Jennifer Brown: It just infuriates me, and then what you’re pointing out is there’s this world. It’s truly this incredible diverse and intersectional world of talent that wants to work that’s… I think you pointed out earlier the statistic around retention and engagement and loyalty, I believe. There are some real benefits to instituting new practices, revisiting existing and starting small and just taking these steps forward, is what I would hope we would see a lot more of in the coming months and year.
Susan Mason: Yeah. If you’re a company and you’re thinking, “Well, how can we… Or what about…” Call me or email me. We have a strategy. Yeah. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you, Susan. It’s so incredible. So people can get in touch with you at What’s Next Washington. Any other places you would point us to?
Susan Mason: Yeah. My website, of course, www.whatsnextwashington.org. You can contact me there, or my email. I’m just going to throw it out there, firstname.lastname@example.org. Really happy to engage and push this conversation forward. I just want to thank you for having me and amplifying our work and this message. I am thrilled beyond thrilled that you get it, and that you’re willing to use your social and professional capital to humanize us.
Jennifer Brown: Oh my goodness. Of course. That’s what I’m all about, and all about this human potential being forwarded, and not okay with it at all.
Susan Mason: Yeah. Shout out to Christopher.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, shout out to Christopher. Yay, Christopher.
Susan Mason: Good job. Yay.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you. Thank you. Anyway, Susan, thank you for what you do. Keep going. I love how energized you are. I mean, I’m sure you have just this deep well of energy because you know that you’re tackling something that’s so critical not just for those affected, but for all of us. I really appreciate you being so vulnerable about your story 18 years later, still introducing yourself in that way because…
Susan Mason: Right?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. I mean, that is part of… I don’t like normalizing. I like to say usualizing. Your experience and educating us and being brave and doing that because I know that the number of reactions we get to these truths about ourselves is hard and challenging and damaging, and yet you’re shining a light on something and I’m going to help you do that.
Susan Mason: Thank you.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, so please, everybody, think about getting in touch with What’s Next Washington, set up a pilot. Everybody has my commitment that I will continue to pursue educating myself and all of us about this community of talent that wants to work, needs to work, like all of us, needs to find our passion in this world and, certainly, deserves many, many chances just like we all do. Thank you, Susan.
Susan Mason: Thank you. I appreciate you.
Jennifer Brown: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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