I’ve been out of prison for fifteen years, but I have been reconvicted over and over again because of my criminal record.

by Susan Mason, #LwC2018

September 20, 2018

We’re out here living our lives, trying to survive, trying to rebuild our families, and we’re constantly locked out of opportunity.

Over those years I received multiple job offers, but as soon as the employers did a background check, the offers were rescinded, one by one.  The final straw happened three years ago when I was hired by a labor union and the offer was rescinded on my first day of work. I wasn’t permitted upstairs and was summarily sent home.  I was mortified and thought if this is happening to me—I have a skill set, I’m a white woman, I have a lot of privilege—imagine what’s happening to people who can’t advocate for themselves or to people of color.  I realized that I couldn’t keep going through the experience of rejection and discrimination.  I did my time, and I want to move on, and I’m going to have to show society how to let me do that.  So I founded a new organization:  What’s Next Washington.

At What’s Next Washington we focus on three areas.  One is building the leadership capacity of formerly incarcerated people so that they can be effective advocates for change.  Another is using communications and media strategies to change the narrative about those of us who have served time.   To overcome the stigma that comes with addiction and a criminal conviction, we have to come out of the closet about our backgrounds and show the public that there’s a path from what some would consider being broken, to self-actualization, wholeness and civic participation.  And third, we want to reduce recidivism by addressing its main causes—employment and housing insecurity.  Although they don’t realize it, employers and landlords are perpetuators of the cycle of recidivism that formerly incarcerated people experience.  We live in a society that’s based on the American Dream. It’s all about having a career and a place to live, but if nobody will rent to you and nobody will hire you, you’re pushed out to the margins of society.  My goal is to ease the suffering of the 70 million people with a criminal conviction. We shouldn’t have to beat the doors down for a job 15, 20, or 25 years later.

Ultimately we need to rein in the private multi-billion dollar background check industry which shuts down whole career paths for us for life.  My criminal record is between me and the state, and not only is its use by employers discriminatory; it’s a diversity, equity and inclusion issue. We are incarcerating one in three black men, and if employers won’t hire people with criminal records it’s keeping a whole population out of the labor market.  We’re out here living our lives, trying to survive, trying to rebuild our families, and we’re constantly locked out of opportunity.  My organization is working with human resource professionals to change policy and encouraging them to take a good hard look at how this practice is affecting our economy as a whole.  This needs to end!

I really appreciate the Leading with Conviction trainings and I think JLUSA is a fantastic model and a great way to stay organized and get things done.  If I want to build capacity in others and support them, I need to develop my own leadership skills as well.