Reentry providers, like most other social service organizations, have an experience problem.
That’s to say, the folks who put together programs for people coming home from prison largely can’t understand what their constituents truly need because they haven’t experienced reentry themselves. (On a higher level, this also applies to policymakers.)
Reentry is a devastatingly isolating experience, and returning citizens are often battling discriminatory employment practices that impair their ability to stay housed, healthy and, importantly, out of prison. When it comes to getting services, especially legal services, that isolation can create an imbalance in power dynamics.
Lawyers can be intimidating for anyone, especially for vulnerable populations such as returning citizens. Generally, people feel more at ease when interacting with peers. That notion is often missing from social services. It’s a problem Reentry Think Tank is hoping to solve.
“If people with direct experience are helping to design and co-facilitate social services for individuals in reentry, those services will not only be more effective, but less isolating and more generative,” said cofounder Mark Strandquist.
Strandquist and fellow founder Courtney Bowles launched Reentry Think Tank out of People’s Paper Co-op, a project of the Village of Arts & Humanities’ SPACES residency program. After some initial successes, it’s taken on a life of its own.
One of those successes was the citywide expungement clinics hosted by Community Legal Services last fall. Constituents were greeted by fellow returning citizens upon arrival. Walls were covered in photos, art and signs of support, all done by returning citizens. Not your typical legal services clinic.
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“We want people to come with an individual struggle and feel like they’re leaving with a better understanding of their rights and a sense of shared power,” Strandquist said.
When Reentry Think Tank landed a Blade of Grass grant last year, Strandquist and Bowles broke the funding up into 12 fellowships for returning citizens. For the past year, Strandquist, Bowles and the fellows have been meeting with service providers across the city. That’s how they were introduced to the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition.
The coalition, a collective of over 80 service providers and government agencies working in reentry, was looking to bring more perspective from returning citizens to the table.
“One of the areas they wanted to get better at was meaningfully including those with experience in the coalition,” said Strandquist. “They needed and wanted these voices and expertise in the room.”
It’s resulted in more partnerships for the think tank, the most recent being a new partnership with the Defenders Association (more on that later).
Right now, the group is working on a “People’s Bill of Rights,” a list of policy suggestions developed from over a thousand testimonies gathered from returning citizens. As for the near future, the Think Tank hopes to have an advisory council within City Hall comprised completely of returning citizens within the next five years, and Bowles said they’d like to see their model replicated in other areas of social services.
“We’ve seen what happens when people without experience write policies,” said Strandquist. “And we’ve often seen them fail. Something massive needs to change.”
That “something massive” could simply be exclusion.