What if you made a mistake in the blink of an eye? Would you forever be frozen at the time of that mistake even if it was only a millisecond? Too often this is the case for those who end up in the criminal justice system. They wish they could go back and erase that second. Their sentence doesn’t end at release. They are challenged to explain what happened for the rest of their life. 

Since 1991, the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. has risen by 50% while violent crime has fallen by roughly 20%. Countless individuals and organizations have been working tirelessly in our country on the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, and the events of 2020 brought these conversations squarely to the national stage. A significant contributor to the cycle of incarceration is the lack of infrastructure and community support for employment, education, and housing opportunities upon release. In fact, nearly 75% of formerly incarcerated people are still unemployed a year after release. According to NAACP, joblessness is the single most important predictor of recidivism.

Earlier this year, West had the opportunity to partner with The Last Mile (TLM), a non-profit launched in 2010 by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti to tackle the societal impact of incarceration and ultimately break the cycle of recidivism. Founded on the core belief that securing a job is the key to successful reentry, TLM’s mission is to provide opportunities for personal and professional growth for justice-impacted individuals through technology training. The incarceration process is dehumanizing at best and so TLM works to restore dignity within participants, instilling confidence through the TLM community and equipping them with the tools for success. They’re doing so with full-stack coding bootcamps across 23 classrooms and 6 states. TLM is the first organization to launch full-stack coding programs inside U.S. prisons and their work is bringing much-needed attention to this critical issue. 

When the TLM team approached West, they expressed that a major pain point for the program is helping participants cultivate and unlock their personal brand stories. Even after successfully surmounting the challenges of gaining technical depth in coding while incarcerated with no access to the internet, graduating The Last Mile’s program, successfully reintegrating into society, and securing gainful employment, it can still be uncomfortable for The Last Mile Graduates to interact with new coworkers in an office environment. Graduates of the program expressed the need to better craft their personal mission and vision as it related to their new path. Our challenge was to create the tools and frameworks for participants to use in communicating their experiences, personal stories, and ultimately their personal brand to others. 

What comes to mind when you hear the word “brand”? Is it the big legacy players like Nike and Coca Cola? Or is it the trendy vibes on your social media feed? Ultimately, a brand is the sum total of your interactions with that company. At West, we also believe that the most innovative (and valuable) companies can only become so when they build end-to-end experiences and therefore, brands, that truly address customers’ unmet needs. Individuals also have personal brands too, whether or not they cultivate them. The way you tell your story, how you carry yourself, the decisions you make, and your outlook in life all matter to your personal brand. And with social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, the lines between personal and professional are blurring more than ever. 

This was a unique opportunity for our team. There are major structural challenges and cultural stigmas working against formerly incarcerated individuals, and we were honored to lend our expertise in storytelling to aid this community in preparation for such a major and deeply personal transition. It was also a moment to apply our values––Truth-Telling, Uncommon, Relentless, Bold, Optimists-–firsthand. We historically haven’t shied away from “controversial” topics, rather, getting excited by the challenge and the possibility of creating something amazing, together. We understood it would take all of our truth-telling, uncommon thinking, relentless effort, bold action, and optimistic outlook to deliver value.

There are countless ways to tell any story, and while we typically focus on brands, we know that these core concepts apply to individual stories, too. So our first step was to design and lead a 3-hour workshop that fit TLM participants’ unique needs with exercises that created a safe space for the students and West team facilitators to connect, share, and co-create in-person at San Quentin. We were striving to create an environment and a framework in which TLM participants could realize and independently articulate their own North Stars. 

The West Team at San Quentin State Prison
The West Team at San Quentin State Prison

As we worked together through this Personal Brand Workshop, we saw the incredible stories of the participants come to life. Participants - who have worked incredibly hard to get through a demanding program with TLM - honored their strength and found new and creative ways to express who they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go. Our San Quentin visit was also our first experience applying this framework to the individual and based on team feedback we are now working to bring a version of this workshop to our broader community for use on their own time. 

As 2020 comes to a close, we are excited to continue collaborating with TLM and their community. We can’t and won’t forget the numerous discussions we had as individuals and as a team, and our commitment to combat the institutionalized racism that exists in this country. While we began our partnership with TLM before conversations on civic justice reached their apex this year, through this workshop, we saw a meaningful opportunity to continue scaling this model in order to serve more participants of TLM. While COVID-19 halted many operations across the U.S. prison system, The Last Mile has been working tirelessly on new initiatives that will continue bringing value to program participants, and we are excited to continue this partnership and share more in the new year. 

More to come from TLM and the West team!