After building a successful career in sales, Emily Thompson took an unusual step – she quit her job at a national organic food company to run a job training program at a small Baltimore nonprofit, Benevolent Baskets.
“When I was in sales, I was travelling all the time,” Thompson says. “Baltimore needs so many things, so many people are hurting, and I wasn’t around. I kept asking myself what I could be doing to help make things better?”
In her new job at the nonprofit, she worked to help connect women to job skills and employment and saw first-hand how huge of a barrier having a criminal record can be. No matter how minor the crime, it was very difficult for people with a record to find a job, navigate the system, and connect to critical resources like housing and income supports. These barriers to reentry contribute to a re-offense rate of more than 70 percent in Baltimore City.
In 2017, Thompson attended a workshop at the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University, an incubator program for mission-driven companies and nonprofits. There, she met Bridget Nistico. Both women shared a vision for how to help women who are returning citizens and decided to join efforts. Together, they came up with PIVOT.
PIVOT helps fill a gap in reentry services in Baltimore City, where most programs are targeted to men. It’s a gap in services that begins before women are even released: throughout the state, there are nine pre-release facilities for men, but zero for women. And programs that serve both women and men often present a barrier for women, many of whom were abused by men. There is no safe space for women to receive support in trying to rebuild their lives post-incarceration.
Another barrier is the lack of coordination among service providers. There are a lot of programs that support people returning from incarceration, but there is not a centralized way to access those services or programs. The burden is on the women to connect to services, but many of them lack transportation, computer access or the know-how to navigate various systems and providers.
While Thompson and Nistico are not returning citizens themselves, they are committed to creating a program that is for women in reentry created by women in reentry. Since October of 2017, they have engaged on a listening tour of Baltimore – talking with returning citizens, advocates, and nonprofit partners to help craft the PIVOT pilot program, which ran for five weeks in the summer of 2018.
In the pilot, participants set individual goals, and then PIVOT brought the relevant resources directly to the women. There were common themes – helping women connect to stable employment and housing; improving relationships with family members, especially children; taking care of themselves physically and mentally. PIVOT worked with the women to accomplish their goals through resume building and coaching, partner referrals for services such as addiction recovery, stable housing and parenting classes, and a partnership with JHU Medicine for the Greater Good, which provides both medical and mental health care.
One of the greatest successes of the pilot program was creating a community for the participants. Women felt safe to address some of their past traumas and were able to connect to professional therapists, mentors and other returning citizens who understood what they were going through. The participants noted the importance of having that support, both from professionals and peers.
As an OSI Community Fellow, Thompson will be able to dedicate herself to PIVOT full time – working to grow the program so it can serve more women across Baltimore City.
“With dedicated part-time staff and volunteers, we would have been a powerful but small grassroots organization,” Emily says. “Now, we can really have impact at scale.”