When Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) scaled to Philadelphia from its headquarters in New York last summer, the reentry nonprofit had a hard time fitting in with other reentry nonprofits in town.
It didn’t make much sense to Ceciley Bradford-Jones, a seasoned reentry veteran tapped to oversee CEO when the organization received the funds to scale from venture philanthropy nonprofit GreenLight Fund Philadelphia. It seemed that there was an assumption among the existing reentry nonprofit community, the director said, that CEO would be competing against them for the same future dollars — even though it came here pre-funded.
“We came in quietly. We just kind of appeared on the playground. Not everybody wanted to play,” said Bradford-Jones, formerly an administrative director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
The Philadelphia native is a fierce advocate, but she’s too passionate about reform to let her ferocity hamstring potential alliances. “I’ve had to spend a lot of time reversing that [assumption],” she said.
CEO works within one piece of the incarceration reform puzzle. It knows its niche.
Here’s the thing: Even if every local nonprofit working with returning citizens “did 110 percent,” she said said, they still wouldn’t be able to touch every reentrant in the city. CEO doesn’t even try to impact every returning citizen — the organization specifically works to help find employment for high-risk parolees and reentrants upon release.
“We’re working with a person who did 15 years for an attempted homicide,” said Bradford-Jones. “Don’t send me people who were in county jail for a low-level drug offense.”
CEO works within one piece of the incarceration reform puzzle. It knows its niche, and it does the work well. It’s why the nonprofit keeps pulling in all kinds of social innovation dollars to scale its programming. Bradford-Jones would like to see other reentry nonprofits in the city embrace their own niches and follow suit to create a holistic, unified continuum for reentry in the city.
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That starts with knowing where to look for funding.
“There’s so much expertise in the city. There’s a small pot of reentry money, but there are huge pots of literacy money, family reunification money, workforce money. They all touch reentry,” she said. “What I’d like to see is everyone get plugged into what they do well. I want Philadelphia to go to a place where reentry becomes a program for the city as a whole.”
The work Bradford-Jones says CEO had to do just to sit at the table with fellow reentry nonprofits reveals an unfortunately reality about both the prison system and the sector of nonprofits working with people coming out of it: This whole thing is a business.
“This conversation of reentry and reform, the bottom line is always going to be the bottom dollar. This is real estate,” she said. “The saddest part is that we’re talking about human beings with a per-day dollar amount attached to them. This conversation [on reentry and incarceration reform] is one that will happen in a board room with a financial figure attached to it.”