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Rwanda Entrepreneurial Model Gives Hope to New Jersey Women Ex-Offenders

04/03/2015 09:09 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
Same Sky

On Martin Luther King Drive in Jersey City, in a neighborhood dotted with boarded up buildings and home to some of the most notorious drug corners in town, a group of women sit together stringing beads in silence.

The occasional car horns, police sirens or shouts drift in through the open window. We're only on the second floor, but in the meditative calm that permeates this place, the chaos of the street seems a world away. When people visit Most Excellent Way Life Center, they're surprised to hear that these women are all recently released from Hudson County Jail.

On my first visit to Most Excellent Way, I had just returned from Rwanda. Five years before, my team and I had set up a social enterprise, Same Sky, which employs HIV+ women genocide survivors as artisans to craft beautiful jewelry. We pay them wages 15 times higher than the regional average, giving them the dignity of work and the freedom of self-sufficiency.

Most Excellent Way showed me there's a need for programs like this among ex-offenders. There are about 2.3 million people in prisons and jails across the country and another 5 million on parole or probation -- more per capita than any nation in the world. After being released, more than three quarters of these people will recidivate -- be re-arrested -- within five years because the situation they're in when they get out makes it virtually impossible for them to reintegrate into society. A growing, but often overlooked group are female ex-offenders.

Rev. Gloria Walton, founder of Most Excellent way, gives female ex-offenders a fighting chance. She provides a supportive, sober, and emotionally nourishing space in which these women can live, and pick up the pieces of their lives. This means more than just shelter. These women are stigmatized by their own community and labeled as criminals by the larger world. Most Excellent Way gives them a place to process this, support one another, and to begin to see themselves as someone who is no longer invisible, or just a criminal.

When LaTonya arrived, she wore thick makeup and a different wig every day. She used a variety of different street names. Gloria could see that she was hiding, ashamed of who she was. Little by little this began to change. The makeup and the wigs fell away, and she became LaTonya again. Most Excellent way was a place where she could be herself, without stigma or judgment -- the first step toward recovery and regaining control of her life.

Gloria gives them not just housing, but a place where they can change their self-narrative, and guidance through the bureaucratic maze of the conditions of their release. But what she couldn't give them was employment.

Working is critical: Many owe significant fines, court fees, and 85% of female ex-offenders have children to support. But for ex-offenders, getting a job through normal channels is next to impossible -- many lack hard skills and work experience, with nothing on their resume except their conviction.

Work was the missing piece, so we adapted the Same Sky model that we developed in Rwanda to provide it. After Gloria decides a resident of Most Excellent Way is serious about recovery and ready to put her old life behind her, she begins beading. The hours are flexible: they're able to make meetings with parole officers, go to school, and learn career skills during the day, and make jewelry at night.

This flexibility is what makes Same Sky so powerful: Tonya, a high school dropout who had lost custody of her children, works toward her GED during the day and makes jewelry at night. At 37-years-old she found herself in a classroom with kids the same age as her children. She's finally learning to relate to her own kids, and she's on the road toward regaining custody and repairing her relationship with them.

Their income is more than just a check. Beading is calm and meditative, the opposite of the chaos of the street. They also feel a sense purpose, because their work helps the women in Rwanda. These women are almost never asked to give to others, but at Same Sky they become part of the mission. These are women who are considered criminals, but at Same Sky, they keep their own hours, they work with the expensive beads and jewelry, and most importantly, they're trusted with the reputation of Same Sky.

As they grow, I can even see the spark of entrepreneurship in some of them. Angelique's favorite part of the program was telling others what to do. She quickly became in charge of quality control and inventory and is now taking business courses focused in management. Before Same Sky, she was silent. Now she has a voice and purpose.

Same Sky, in Partnership with Most Excellent Way, is giving women ex-offenders a real, credible alternative to being trapped in the loop between jail and the streets. And it's working: the women who participate in our program are taking that alternative; the recidivism rate for Same Sky artisans is zero.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.