017 NO ORDINARY BUSINESS with Defy Ventures

The Highlights 

·       The United States has earned itself the moniker of Mass Incarceration Nation with 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners who are disproportionately represented by African-Americans and Latinos.

·       Nationally, 94% of people who are incarcerated are going to be released. There’s a persistent myth in society that when somebody is sentenced to prison, they’re somehow never coming out again. 

·       Children who don’t have access to resources and are unable to succeed in schooling are more likely to be pulled down pathways that lead them to criminal activity. If they don’t have the appropriate interventions along the way, they end up following in the footsteps of people around them who might be engaged in criminal activity. That’s why we need not only to consider giving second chances but also talk about fair chances.

·       We have to change the narrative around someone who was formerly incarcerated and recognise that every person is redeemable, every human worth salvaging. 

·       Through a prison programme called “The CEO of your new life” Defy offers an inside-out approach to transformation and empowerment of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated through the lens of entrepreneurship. 

·       There’s a shift going on in corrections right now across the country but the system was designed for punishment, not rehabilitation. The recent bipartisan prison reform bill is a wonderful move in the right direction… We have a real opportunity to make some moves in this country towards a system that is fairer and gives more opportunity for people to get the training and education they need to be more successful upon re-entry.  

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Gina: The United States has earned itself the moniker of Mass Incarceration Nation with 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners who are disproportionately represented by African-Americans and Latinos. More than 650,000 people are released from federal and state prisons in The United States every year emphasising the importance of rehabilitation and opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals’ post-release. Over two-thirds are rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanours within three years. 

Today’s guests on No Ordinary Business: Andrew Glazier and Quan Huynh are part of Defy Ventures, an innovative, impactful programme that helps to facilitate rehabilitation during incarceration and support released inmates to successfully integrate into society. Welcome to No Ordinary Business Andrew and Quan! I thank you for taking the time today.

 

Andrew:  Me too.

 

Quan:  Thank you.

 

Gina: I mentioned earlier that we are facing a mass incarceration challenge in the US and high recidivism rates.  What is going on to drive these numbers?

 

Andrew: It’s a majority non-white population in prison. I think this disproportionate representation mirrors the societal issues that we see out of prison.  People typically begin their journey down the path into the criminal justice system as youth. You need only go into some of the statistics to see who’s dropping out of high school and where are the schools with the lowest test scores, lowest academic achievement, and there is a pretty clear correlation to poverty and incarceration, and these things are generational. Without painting this with a monolithic brush, that’s where you’re going to correlate the pathways into incarceration. 

We can say with certainty that at an early age, children who don’t have access to resources and are unable to succeed in schooling are more likely to be drawn down the pathways that lead them to criminal activity. If they don’t have the appropriate interventions along the way, they end up following in the footstep of people around them who are engaging in criminal activity. That’s why we need not only to consider giving second chances but also talk about fair chances. While someone released from prison might be given a second chance or a third chance, there’s a really good chance here that they’ve never before been given a fair chance. When you have a child who was jumped into a gang at age 11 and thrown on the street to sell drugs at 13 without other options or guidance, what do we think as a society is going to happen there? 

This is an important consideration when we start to think and talk about who is incarcerated, why are they there, and how long are they going to be there. What opportunity are we giving them to chart a new path? When someone comes into prison between the ages of 18 and 23, and now they’re in their 40s, are we willing to give them a chance to prove that they’re not the same as they were when they were 19? Who among us is the same as when we were at those ages? To me, it seems only just that we would give an opportunity to that individual who says: “I’m ready and I want to be different, and I want to pursue a different path”, to give them a chance to try something different and to pursue the best version of themselves.  

A major social justice issue is how do we empower individuals who have made serious mistakes in their life to chart a different path and unlock their purpose? Through education, Defy tries to give them a fair chance of success to become the best version of themselves when they are released.

 

Gina: Would you share a little bit about your journey and how you became involved with Defy? 

 

Andrew: I’m the CEO and President of Defy Ventures and I oversee the national organisation as well as Southern California. I was introduced to the challenges associated with prison re-entry when I had a brief career in real estate development and construction. On a construction site, a lot of the people were once ‘justice involved’. One of the things that struck me was how few options people have when they are released from prison, particularly if they were convicted of a violent felony. Construction is one of those jobs more available, but not everybody can pursue construction. That was when my awareness of the issue started. 

After leaving construction, I joined the non-profit sector and spent about eight years working within K-12 education doing dropout prevention work. Working with public schools in Los Angeles showed me is that there’s a ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline that starts at a young age and has a lot to do with privilege and access. One of the biggest indicators of incarceration is dropping out of high school. 

 

Gina: Quan, how about you?

 

Quan: I work as the Post-Release Programme Manager for Defy. I help our returning citizens follow their entrepreneurial dreams when they come home in addition to helping them adjust to society, acclimate themselves, and create a new life.

I became involved with Defy about 3 ½ years ago, give or take, when I was still incarcerated at Solano State Prison. I was serving out a life sentence at the time. Defy’s pilot programme came to Solano, and I jumped right on board. It felt to me like the programme complemented everything in my journey and my self-understanding at that point and channelled my hustling mentality into legal ventures. Fortunately, I was found suitable for parole that same year, and I was released about three years ago. I continued as an entrepreneur in training (‘EIT’) at Defy. Six months later, I created my first business; it’s still running to this day, and I also helped to create our family’s restaurant and was involved in real estate, but when Defy branched out to Southern California, I was fortunate enough to be one Andrew’s first hires out here, and it just feels like this is the perfect thing for me to do to be able to give back and be involved and just to share my experience with the men and women that are coming home.

 

Gina: You’re an example of a success story of the Defy programme!

 

Quan: Yes, I guess. There are a lot of success stories of the men and women coming home.

 

Andrew: I would agree, Quan is a success story for us.

 

Gina: Please share your entrepreneurial story and the business that you are running in addition to your work with Defy.

 

Quan: I created a commercial cleaning company, it’s called ‘Jade Janitors’ and I have hired six employees. Four of them are also formerly incarcerated and by far are my best workers. They’re very loyal and very conscientious and very respectful, and I don’t have to micromanage any of them. That’s why I’ve been able to slowly grow while I can still do my work with Defy. By using a lot of the principles from our coursework and with mentors and amazing volunteers I have met along the way, I’ve been able to make my company very sustainable, and it’s slowly grown. 

 

Gina: Congratulations on your success!  

What do you feel are the shortcomings of the current approach to the prison system regarding rehabilitation, regarding supporting with re-entry into society?

 

Andrew: I think there’s a shift going on in corrections right now across the country but the system was designed for punishment, not rehabilitation. It’s been that way for hundreds of years since the penal system was invented in the U.S., the outcome of which is incredibly high recidivism rates where people are coming out of prison and are on an endless cycle of coming out and going back in until they just never come out anymore. 

When you have schools that have consistently high levels of dropouts and low test scores and low outcomes, typically, there’s a lot of public pressure to do something different to reduce dropout and increase graduation rates. It is strange that we don’t apply the same kind of outcome-driven approach to prisons. Rather than look at how to help people have successful re-entry into society, we just build more prisons. 

Nationally, 94% of people who are incarcerated are going to be released. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realise. There’s a persistent myth in society that when somebody is sentenced to prison, they’re somehow never coming out again. We can look at this from either a compassionate standpoint or a self-interested standpoint. From a self-interested standpoint, it is in all of our interests to better prepare someone who’s incarcerated with the support they need for their mental health, their physical health, to help them develop the skills they need so they can get a job when they’re released. From a compassionate standpoint, certainly, I think rehabilitation makes even more sense. 

The system was designed to keep people incarcerated and to punish. With this, programmes like Defy or college programmes or other sorts of vocational programmes are viewed as a luxury and something that the residents of our prisons don’t deserve. There are attitudinal issues how individuals the individuals running our correction systems think about this. Fortunately, those attitudes are starting to change. Increasingly, rehabilitation is being put front and centre. Until rehabilitation is considered to be truly part of the mission and as much attention is paid to bringing more programming in and making data available to see what is working, we’re going to remain in a system that is stumbling. 

 

Gina: What supports and service do you feel is required to equip prisoners to be most successful upon release?

 

Quan: I would say several things. The main thing is giving hope and helping to show that there’s an opportunity for a different life. When I first got involved with the criminal justice system, I was 17. Coming home after serving 2 ½ years I was written off as a candidate for every job I applied for because of my past. It weighed at the back of my mind, and I thought, even if I go to college I won’t get hired.  There’s also the sense of shame and the stigma behind being incarcerated and feeling like I’m being judged. To bring a sense of reconciliation for people coming home and embrace them and realise that these are mistakes that we made but give us an opportunity to show that we are willing to make a difference in our lives and our community, I think that will be the main thing. 

I wore labels that like murderer or gang member and those labels defined me. Through programmes like Defy and other self-help groups I attended, that made me realise that I don’t have to be defined by my past. I can forge a different future for myself. Once I came to accept that I was not my mistakes, that was very liberating.

 

Gina: How does Defy help people form a different and better future for themselves?

 

Andrew: At Defy, we take an inside-out approach to transformation and empowerment of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated through the lens of entrepreneurship. It turns out that entrepreneurship is an incredible way to see yourself and your goals and to spark transformation. We run a prison programme called ‘The CEO of Your New Life’. It is a 6 – 8-month programme and includes a 1,200-page curriculum with supplementary videos. While it has an entrepreneurship focus, it’s about 75% self-work and career readiness. We are looking to spark change in people who are ready for change, and we don’t discriminate against criminal histories. Everybody who completes the application is welcome in our class, space permitting. It’s about 10 – 15 hours a week of work and we have class one to two times a week facilitated by a staff member. 

Through that coursework, our EITs build a community amongst each other. They’re typically anywhere from 40 – 60 members at the start of the class and they cover topics ranging from how to make a meaningful apology, taking accountability, thinking about my family and my childhood, writing my  obituary, creating a legacy to basic etiquette and how to network, writing a résumé and a personal statement.  Eventually the EIT's get into the entrepreneurship of ideating a business and thinking about customer acquisition, about revenues and expenses, how to create a compelling pitch. 

We bring volunteers into prison with us, anywhere from 30 – 60 at a time.  That’s a pivotal moment for our EITs, firstly because they’re incredibly nervous to talk with someone from the free world. They may not have had a visitor for years, family or otherwise, but just the basic idea that someone took a day out of their life to come and support them is an instant confidence boost, and it restores humanity and worth to our EITs. That is the single biggest impact that our programme has.  It restores our EITs humanity and their self-worth because those are things you lose when you go to prison. You’re told that you are worthless and subhuman, both implicitly and explicitly. Going through that volunteer experience restores that and gives them incredibly useful feedback on their resumé, personal statement, and in their business plans. 

At the end of the course, we bring volunteers back, and the EITs do a ‘Shark Tank’ style business pitch competition. The winners of the pitch competition win between 100 – 500 dollars given to them when they’re released.  At the end of the day, we have a cap, and gown graduation ceremony for them and their families are invited to celebrate.

The EITs come out of that programme are better prepared for release and better positioned to continue to navigate the remainder of their sentence in a way that still is putting them on a path towards purpose and being their best self. We see people who come out of it, and then they’re enrolling in college courses, in different vocational courses, and it starts to have an impact within the prison. 

We have a post-release programme to continue to allow them to be a part of the Defy community and receive support from us. Ultimately, if they would like to start the business that they ideated in prison, graduates can enter our small business incubator. 

Entrepreneurship is an important part of our programme, but it is not our only marker of success. The skills acquired through our programme help EITs in getting a job and being successful whether they start a business or not. 

 

Gina: Quan, what were the main takeaways of the programme for you?

 

Quan: Everything seemed like it was perfect for my journey and my self-understanding at that moment in my life. I wanted to make a change, and with the Defy programme, everything resonated and fell into place for me.  It made me realise that I can be a much better person and what it takes. It’s not going to happen overnight, but these are choices I consciously have to take each day towards becoming a better person. Defy gave me a community where I could feel connected. Defy shows EITs theirs is a shared struggle - we share challenges with each other. The support with each other, belief in each other, and the connection of the community building each other up increases our momentum of moving forward into a better place in our lives.

 

Gina: The one thing that struck me on my visit to one of the graduation/pitch days is the support EITs demonstrated for one another, the camaraderie-ship was so strong and genuine. Also, I was surprised at the EITs open-heartedness. In my experience, people in free society are often so guarded.  There seemed to be so much love and support genuinely for one another and a willingness to be vulnerable and open-hearted. It is incredible to me that this can exist such a maximum security prison environment.

 

Quan: I know exactly what you mean.  It is like liberation of your soul from inside. When I was going through Defy, I felt free way before I ever came home when I was still incarcerated. It was a shared community with shared challenges with open hearts and vulnerability. It is a more intimate brotherhood that we’re supporting each other and supporting each other’s struggles. 

 

Gina: Do you feel that this programme has impacted or shifted the energy in the penitentiary, on a broader level even beyond this group?

 

Quan: Yes. I would have to say that is what the programme does; it changes the whole culture of the prison yard. I saw how Defy changed the culture at Pelican Bay. When I was at Pelican Bay, the prison was racially divided, and people did not cross the racial lines. Defy has managed to break through those barriers and because of it, today we see people of different races supporting each other, hugging each other, smiling with each other, eating with each other; it does not happen without programmes like Defy. So, it’s funny that volunteers will come in and see that everybody is happy and full of joy. It’s because of the programme and the hope it brings not only for the people that are involved in the programme but those men carry that joy, that happiness outside in the yard and people will gravitate to them. The men will share their experience with Defy. Prison becomes an opportunity to practice living as a human being and treating people kindly - I think that’s what the programme has done by changing cultures in prison yards. 

 

Gina: I think that in and of itself if nothing else is an incredible feat!

What are some of the barriers to entry that Defy has faced? 

 

Andrew: One thing is the access to prisons.  We’ve continued to build up our reputation, so I think we have reasonably good access but when we want to start in a new prison every small point is a negotiation. Interestingly, one other challenge is space. There’s limited space in the prison that can be used for programming, and that’s something we’re starting to bump up against, and that makes it hard to deliver the programme. 

Another systemic issue that I see is just a lack of access to data. Some States are different than others, but if you want to do some larger reporting on important questions about what goes on in prisons or how the residents are doing there, it’s really difficult to do that kind of thing. The systems aren’t set up for that, and that makes it a lot harder to try to understand what’s working.

The last piece is the non-profit issue, which is access to money and programme funding. There is an increasing amount of government funding available, but it’s still early days, and the funding is not always as sophisticated as it could be regarding how those grants are allocated. I think it’s getting better but it is still an arduous process to try to get at it and then trying to look for some sort of a consistent base of funding from government remains a challenge. 

Within the general philanthropic space, I think it’s still fairly cutting edge for people to fund programming in prisons and not everybody feels comfortable with that, and there is still fear around supporting inmates. It remains an uncomfortable area for funding. It’s not like children or the environment or even homelessness; it’s a largely unseen group, and often the incarcerated are forgotten about even when they come out of prison. At Defy, we’re working to give this forgotten community their best shot at a second chance. You have this cognitive dissonance between the emotional attachment to victims and victim rights and empathy and humanity and understanding for people who have been incarcerated for long periods. The risk is to condemn them to incarceration forever whether that’s inside prison or outside by imprisoning them in poverty and homelessness. 

 

Gina: I can see that there’s still a propensity to focus on punishment and resist investing in rehabilitation. How do we shift the narrative to overcome this bias?

 

Andrew: Punishment and rehabilitation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can empathise with both the victim and the perpetrator on a basic human level. You’ve got to start to balance these competing ideas in your head. I’ve seen it happen first-hand.  We had a volunteer who had one of her relatives murdered. After the experience with us, she had a much different viewpoint, and that’s a beautiful thing coming out of what was a tragic situation. The other part of our mission of bringing people into prison with us is to make human connections and to understand that we are all humans and we make mistakes, and we have differences in our lives that may or may not influence the kind of mistakes we make. 

I hope no one mishears me, I’m not suggesting there isn’t accountability, there shouldn’t be accountability, or that prison isn’t sometimes a necessary option because it is, there are people who commit serious crimes and need to pay that debt and prison is the way we’ve got right now. But we are challenging the idea of people being irredeemable and not giving a chance to change their path. 

 

Gina: How open are the incarcerated individuals to joining up to the programme? 

 

Quan: Our EITs are our best recruiters because other men or other women that are inside will gravitate towards these people that are happy or that have some type of light in them. Usually, our waiting list to join the programme is long, showing the high level of interest.

 

Andrew: We see average programme retention of around 60% in the class. Our goal is to have 70% retention based on people who are leaving for reasons that are out of their control such as getting transferred, paroled, or if they are removed because of disciplinary infractions.

 

Gina: What is your vision for Defy in five years?

 

Andrew: I would love for us to continue to grow across the country so that we can serve as many people as possible. We’re hopeful that we may be up and running in Illinois at the beginning of next year. We are having some early conversations in Ohio right now. We were contacted by a potential interested donor in Massachusetts. We recently started programming in Washington State.  What we’ve developed is a very self-contained programme; it doesn’t require specialised expertise to facilitate it, just the support from the community to fund it and the prison system to allow it in. We’ve made it easy to scale up, and that’s exciting to me. 

On the post-release side, through our volunteer interactions, our goal is to change perspectives among society to start to see formerly incarcerated people as an untapped talent pool not as people to be feared and shunned. A big part of our mission is to challenge perceptions and change perceptions, shifting mindsets, shifting hearts so that people start to see that eternal punishment is not the best thing for society. 

I look at Quan as a shining example. Quan was making very serious mistakes as a young person, and he served 15 years of a life sentence and now has a business. Plus, he’s employing people, he’s paying taxes, he’s contributing, and he’s giving back. This is an individual that if not for Defy, might have spent the rest of his life in prison. He would continue to be a drain to the tune of 75,000 dollars a year on society and as a human being, would be living without a sense of worth. It’s just amazing, we’ve got all these proof points of people who come out and not just in Defy, lots of other programmes also have come out and do good. Part of my vision is that people don’t need to be convinced that once someone has paid their debt, has done a bunch of rehabilitative programming, that has helped them be successful, to give them a shot at being successful outside so that we aren’t condemning them to a second sentence after they complete their first one.

 

Gina: What opportunities do you feel are needed in order to really affect wider systemic changes?

 

Quan: I agree the main one would be just changing the narrative of what it means to be formerly incarcerated. Andrew and I were sharing this morning how it can feel for a lot of the men and women coming home after they complete their sentence, like they are serving a second sentence out here being stigmatised and not being able to find employment. We have to change the narrative around someone who was formerly incarcerated and recognise that every person is redeemable, every human worth salvaging. It is a challenge in and of itself just to shift that type of mindset, but I see our work doing that on the small scale.

Also, companies should start to shift their perspectives and change their own narratives by re-examining their own HR practices and giving second chances to the formerly incarcerated by employing them.

 

Gina: What different opportunities does Defy offer volunteers?

 

Andrew: Our primary voluntary opportunity is through our in-prison programme. We’re running both business coaching days as well as the pitch competitions and those run once or twice a month. We’re still confirming our dates for 2019 but those dates for volunteering will be on our website. 

For companies, we run specialised trips for company employee events. The visit to a prison is not only a great opportunity to be exposed to a different way of thinking about criminal justice; it’s also an incredible exercise in leadership, empathy building, and team building.

In the post-release programme, we are growing our incubator programme right now, and so there will be opportunities for people to be kind of executive venture capitalists and we are looking for people to lead workshops around topics like creating a website or thinking about marketing, etcetera. As we continue to evolve and grow the programme, those opportunities will grow. 

We’ve just received funding to launch a programme here in Los Angeles that actually brings our CEO of Your New Life programme into a community setting so very soon, we’re hoping to offer volunteer opportunities to people who can’t take a whole day off to drive out to a prison but want to have an experience doing the business coaching in a pitch competition within the community. That will be another volunteer opportunity. We’re always looking for ways to grow because we know we have a group of really committed volunteers. 

One of the really interesting things is that many of the incarcerated men and women had businesses before they went in, they just happened to be illegal businesses but they still employed the skills of business in their work, and many cases, far more successfully than a lot of legitimate businesses. There is amazing skill waiting to be channelled into a legal opportunity that is additive to society, not a distractor. I love it when volunteers come in sceptical and they walk out saying “I heard better pitches today than I’ve heard in a long time”.

 

Gina: What are your thoughts on the bipartisan prison reform bill that was recently introduced in the House and Senate? I believe the bill aims to increase focus on rehabilitation in an effort to reduce recidivism and to support reintegration into society. 

 

Andrew: I think it’s a wonderful move in the right direction given that we’re seeing folks in both sides of the aisle getting behind the idea of changing mandatory minimums and easing some of these automatic sentencing rules. This tells me that we have a real opportunity to make some moves in this country towards a system that is fairer and gives more opportunity for people to get the training and education they need to be more successful upon re-entry. The Bill is a great start so I’m really hoping that it is successful.

 

Gina:  Thank you, Andrew and Quan.  I appreciate your openness and time today.  You are running a very important programme that deserves support so that you can increase your impact.  Certainly, for myself, I can say that my experience visiting the EITs at Kern Valley forever changed me.

Is there anything further that you wanted to mention?

 

Andrew: I would say it is this is important work and it’s only successful if we are building a community of support around it and that support looks like giving time and money to the effort. I encourage folks to go take a look at our website and to consider volunteering for one of our upcoming trips if you are in one of our hub cities. We appreciate everybody who is supporting us financially and continuing to build our network by sharing the stories about what they see inside. 

 

Gina:  One last question: if readers want to follow up with you, what’s the best way they can reach you?

 

Andrew: I’m at Andrew@DefyVentures.org and our website is www.defyventures.org

 

Gina: Thank you both for your time today and all the work that you’re doing and wish Defy all the success in the world!

 

Andrew: Thank you so much, we really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

 

Quan: Thank you so much, Gina for this opportunity for us to share our story and what we’re doing.