I’m a little bit of a rule breaker….
“I’m a little bit of a rule breaker” says the presenter, Ashley, with a laugh. “We’re not!” yells someone and the group, made up entirely of incarcerated women at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), all laugh.
The presentation, “Self-Made: one woman’s story of starting a successful business at age 24”, is given by a young woman from a small town in Vermont who built a successful property maintenance company through her own creativity and perseverance. Enrichment Night is a once a month program at the women’s correctional facility in South Burlington, VT. The presenters are all women who have experiences in the workforce that they share with long term residents at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The purpose is to expose incarcerated women to positive female role models and a variety of career paths and ways of reaching one’s goal. It is described as a “motivational evening to inspire and encourage the women to consider different careers and appreciate the transformative value of work” in the handbook given to the presenters.
July’s presentation focuses specifically on starting a small business and working for one’s self but touches more broadly on the idea of perseverance, self-determination, confidence and the feeling of empowerment that can be had from starting something from nothing.
There are two sessions, one starting at 6:00 and the next at 6:50. VWW staff assures us that the first group tends to be larger and rowdier, inmates living in House One and House Two while the smaller is an older crowd, women from Delta, Echo and Bravo. All of these are long-term residential units.
At 5:30, we call to the central control room to announce our presence. Women begin streaming in shortly after. We’ve made a rough circle between the two long tables and the women fill the chairs, sitting with friends, chatting, laughing. They are all different ages and sit in small groupings. When the room is full and no one else appears to be coming from in from the units, we begin by introducing ourselves one by one.
As we go around the circle, each woman telling us her name and what interested her about tonight’s session, why she’s here. The answers vary. One woman tells us that she and her son have had a plan to start a food truck when she gets out. Another shares that her father ran his own business and she’s curious to know what options are out there. Another has specific questions about licensing and permits. The woman after her says that she just wanted to get out of the unit.
Vermont Works for Women has been involved with the Department of Corrections for many years. At one point, the organization ran a modular home building program for incarcerated women at the Windsor prison and later a carpentry class when women were at the facility in Saint Albans. More recently, VWW’s efforts have been concentrated on transferable skills (effective communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution) geared towards preparing women to reenter the workforce after release. In the past VWW has offered a role-playing class called “Working It” where women could practice communication and different scenarios which might arise in a work space.
Enrichment Night was developed as part of a multi-tiered approach for women at CRCF and was meant to be more inspirational and to expose women to a variety of different paths to employment. This also involved a class called “Work Readiness” which was meant to be more focused on pre-release planning to get women ready to find a job when they got out as well as support women already working in the facility to hone their job skills.
At the end of the Enrichment Night sessions, we hand out a short survey with several questions:
“what about this woman’s story was inspiring?”
“Her determination”, “her will to succeed”, “the whole thing”, “How she started with nothing and got to own her own business”, “It was encouraging that she kept trying and found out what she loved”, “she’s pretty”, “I loved it”
To the second question, “Did this event encourage you to think differently about work and/or your own job opportunities?” the women respond:
“If she can do it, I can too”, “stay committed”, “It helped me think about starting my own business”, “It brought up plans that I had years ago, I’m going to look them up when I get out”, “Nothing is impossible”,
“It made it seem like it’s possible for me too”
Over and over at the bottom of the survey where we ask for further comments, the women thank us and the presenter for her time and tell us to just keep coming. Incarceration can be an almost insurmountable barrier to employment upon release. Whether or not the women at CRCF are going to start their own business is irrelevant. What we are attempting to do is give women a little bit of hope, show them examples of other women who have overcome obstacles or achieve goals that similarly felt unattainable.