Understanding the Environment
I recently attended the Rebuilding Reentry Hackathon at Impact Hub in downtown Washington, DC. The hackathon's purpose was to build solutions for returning citizens, people who had been previously incarcerated.
It is easy to come up with excuses to disregard the needs of returning citizens, believing that "They are criminals, why do they deserve help?" or "Normal people can barely get by, why should I give resources to a bunch of ex-cons?".
I have a close family friend who was like another father to me. He drove me to karate practice, taught me how to play air hockey, and put up with my teenage angst. It wasn't til I was a senior in college that he was incarcerated and released, missing my graduation. To label him as someone unworthy of help would disregard all the positive things he has done and is capable of doing.
Also, incarceration costs American tax payers $63.4 billion a year*. 75% of returning citizens are re-arrested within 5 years of their release and 70% of children with incarcerated parents will follow in their footsteps.*
Unpacking the Problem
As a developer, I can get easily excited about building a solution without fully understanding the problem. I normally rely on my personal experiences to find a solution like when my friends and I built a recipe management system because we were foodies. But for this project, I had no idea what it is like to be a returning citizen. After some brainstorming, our hackathon team decided to focus on getting returning citizens to feel reintegrated in society because we wanted to help solve the emotional and psychological part of reentry.
We narrowed down to the problem statement of "How do we create an inclusive environment for returning citizens?" and need to do research to answer this question. Thankfully, Mission Launch invited returning citizens to the event who were brave and open enough to do interviews. We spoke with 5 people, both men and women. One person told us that he was incarcerated for 25 years. Once out, he found community through his church, and 5 years later became a home owner. Another person we interviewed was Ryan. He spoke about his journey on moving his life forward after his reentry, finding a life coach and mentor who helped him focus on the success of being a business owner.
Finding a Solution
The key insight we found from our interviews was that mentors helped returning citizen unlock their potential. Mentors were someone who had gone through a similar experience and came out of the other side successful.
With a mentor, the returning citizens had someone in their corner to help them with things such as getting the proper paperwork for an id, navigating their legal rights in the employment process, or bridging the culture and technological gap that they missed when they were away.
Our solution was threefold. First, match mentors and mentees on certian criteria. Second, train and support mentors to become more productive. Third, create a space where returning citizens could celebrate their successes.
As my mentor once told me about hackathons, "No good software was built in a single weekend." so figuring out what the problem is paramount and the solution will naturally flow from it. As Einstein once said "If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." In the limited time we had, the most valuable thing we could create was a vision through research and mock ups of what the problem looked like and what the solution could be.
Telling the World
Since the hackathon, change for returning citizens have made strides. Mission Launch has gotten their story out to world by being feature on MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry and President Obama has also taken steps to "Ban The Box" for federal job applications*.
Shout outs to my awesome hackathon team:
Andres - Andres helped us workshop our problem into the right solution.
Ashley - Ashley's copywriting, design, and front end skills brought this project to life.
Beverlee - Beverlee had the courage and passion to pitch her idea at the beginning of the hackathon that brought us together as a team.
Bill - Bill brought his experience as a returning citizen to help us understand what would be practical for the project.
Kevin - Kyle's work with mentoring children of incarcerated parents gave us a framework of how a mentor program could work and what infrastructure was need.
Sladjana - Sladjana's background in education and social work made sure we had the right academic concepts guiding our research.