Washtenaw County organizations aim to make it easier to find employment after incarceration

It can be difficult or even impossible to find work after returning from incarceration, but local businesses and nonprofits are working to change that.
33% of formerly incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens, are unable to find any work within four years of their release. With just over 1% of Washtenaw County’s population being incarcerated, according to national nonprofit organization The Marshall Project, it can be difficult or even impossible for returning citizens to find steady work as well as housing. That can contribute to repeat incarceration, as 68% of returning citizens are arrested again within three years of their release.

However, some Washtenaw County employers and organizations are working to flip the script and make it easier for local returning citizens to find work and a path back to normal life. Ypsilanti nonprofit organization A Brighter Way (ABW) works with formerly incarcerated individuals by providing peer-led mentoring and other services in order to facilitate successful community re-entry, including finding stable work. Founded in 2016, ABW also employs returning citizens itself. Every director of the organization has had a history of incarceration, including current executive director Adam Grant.

Grant, who served 27 consecutive years, believes that quality re-entry programs and investing in returning citizens ultimately makes for better public safety and better community. 

"I actually never thought that I'd really be in a position to actually create careers," Grant says. "... We're not trying to say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ We want to know what you’re passionate about, what is aspirational. When we say we take a holistic approach, we really mean that."

For ABW Programs Director LaQuan Hill, building a sense of belonging in community is central to ABW's work.
A Brighter Way Executive Director Adam Grant.
"It’s not ‘those people’, ‘this population’, this, that, or the other. It's just people," Hill says.

Hill, who worked briefly as a factory worker before joining ABW, believes his work goes beyond connecting on a personal level through a similar lived experience. 

"I’m a navigator, not a mentor. I’m in the business of empowerment, not enabling," Hill says.

Empowering returning citizens takes more than just nonprofits like ABW, though. While groups like ABW are paving the way when it comes to reentry programs and readying returning citizens for a world that moved on while they were inside, many businesses still will not even consider a job application denoting a criminal record.

Paul Hickman, founder and CEO of Ann Arbor-based wood processing and consulting company Urban Ashes, views that particular practice as a detriment to the workforce. He sought to create change through an unconventional hiring and business model. 
A Brighter Way Programs Director LaQuan Hill.
Urban Ashes’ workforce is made up primarily of formerly incarcerated individuals, with about one-third being teens and young people who have had similar experiences with law enforcement. By having an intergenerational staff, Hickman says he inadvertently created natural mentorship groups among the Urban Ashes team.

"These kids would listen because it wasn’t a parent or a teacher or a social worker. It was someone who came from the same situation and had really been there," Hickman says. "You’re not walking into a group social work session. You’re working and hanging out and just chatting."

Hickman's business is based on a triple-bottom-line model, which considers social, environment, and economic benefits as markers of a company's success instead of judging the business solely by profit.

"Many businesses focus mainly on their bottom line, their financials," explains Hickman. "We focus on people and the environment as well, and view those aspects as equally important to financials."

Hickman says that Urban Ashes is currently working alongside ABW to bring its model into more businesses in Washtenaw County, the rest of the state of Michigan, and other parts of the country. He also plans to work with ABW to create training for businesses looking to expand their hiring pool. 
Urban Ashes Founder and CEO Paul Hickman.
That program, the Business Alliance For Returning Citizens, would further connect businesses, both those who currently employ returning citizens and those who do not. Hickman hopes the effort would also lead to more businesses considering and hiring returning citizens.

"We can’t do this without organizations like A Brighter Way," he says. "The model is viable, but we need more support systems."

Where Urban Ashes intentionally hired primarily returning citizens prior to transitioning to consulting and working alongside businesses interested in its model, other local businesses are shifting the hiring paradigm by simply eliminating the hiring stigma traditionally associated with an incarceration record. The Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCOB), including but not limited to Zingerman’s Deli, Roadhouse, Creamery, Coffee Company, and Candy Manufactory, is one example.

"There is an ethical obligation for any business in Washtenaw [County] to be as open as they can be," ZCOB HR Specialist Paul Swaney says. "If we’re going to behave in an ethical way as a community member, we need to do our part to reach out to the community and provide opportunities to those looking for work."

According to Swaney, Zingerman’s has seen 11,000 job applications across all affiliated locations since 2019, with just over 700 of those applicants indicating on the application that they have a criminal record.

"We’ve hired 166 of those applicants," Swaney says. "If they’re the right fit for us, we’re open to that possibility." 
Zingerman's Community of Businesses HR Specialist Paul Swaney.
Swaney says the hiring team at ZCOB is working to remove the question about criminal history from ZCOB applications entirely due to the bias it can create. 

"We still want the information, but we don’t want it to be a part of the [hiring] decision-making process," he says. "I don’t know how many people we’re missing out on because of that question."

Swaney also attributes some of the success ZCOB has had in reaching returning citizens to the company’s relationship with Grant at ABW. Grant reaches out to Swaney when individuals working with ABW apply to ZCOB.

"Businesses can be open to this community. There may be limitations, but it shouldn’t be a completely shut door where we say 'no' at the onset," Swaney says. "We say, 'We can’t hire you here, but here are some other opportunities.' We wouldn’t shut the door completely to that person."

ABW, Urban Ashes, and Zingerman’s are not alone in the effort to assist returning citizens looking for work. The Washtenaw County prosecutor's and public defender's offices also update a list of felon-friendly businesses monthly. Hill says his mission is one of changing lives by reducing stigma.

"I think that the biggest opportunity that I really get out of it is being of service and seeing the impact that you have," says Hill. "Seeing an individual come in with initially no hope in their eyes, and after they leave, you can see hope, because now they have options."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by 
Doug Coombe.
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