Changing Mindsets

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By Casey Coughlin

The National HIRE Network works nationwide to assist state and federal advocacy groups to change employment policies and public opinions concerning people with criminal histories. Roberta Meyers-Peeples, director of Legal Action Center’s National HIRE Network, works with organizations around the country to change state and federal policies, specifically changes dealing with the sealing/expungement of records, certification of rehabilitation, and anti-discrimination protection. For additional information on Peeples or the National HIRE Network visit www.hirenetwork.com.

COUGHLIN:  I noticed National HIRE Network does not run any job placement programs directly but does refer people in need of services to other state and community run programs. What are the top three programs you are sending people to in the country?

PEEPLES: There are organizations that exclusively serve this population, who are nationally renowned such as the Safer Foundation (www.saferfoundation.org), the Center for Employment Opportunities (www.ceoworks.org), and The Osborne Association (www.osborneny.org). They are definitely considered the experts in the field of work force development for people with criminal histories.  We look for organizations that provide these services across various communities across the country.

COUGHLIN:  Can you speak briefly about some projects HIRE is currently working on?

PEEPLES: We are supporting people around the country. Each state determines what is most important. Definitely “Ban the Box” which has caught on like wildfire since 2005. (Ban the Box policy would remove questions of past criminal histories on job, housing, and social service applications (www.allofusornone.org/campaigns/ban-the-box).  Another one that’s ideal for me is anti-discrimination legislation for qualified workers who have criminal histories. People should have some right of action to challenge any determination that is made against them. We are also working on a national campaign to eliminate the drug felony ban on TANF/FS (currently individuals with drug felony charges are banned from receiving services for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/ Food Stamps.) Our main focus is eliminating employment and education barriers.  It’s critically important to recognize that this population has been marginalized and will continue to be so unless the law says it can’t be done.

COUGHLIN: If you could change one thing about the hiring process as it stands today what would you change about it?

PEEPLES: For [National HIRE Network] it’s about changing mindsets. I think one of the biggest challenges people with criminal histories face no matter what level of education they have, level of [job] experience, or the seriousness of their record, they always have to overcome the stigma of having a record. To me it’s more about getting to a place where people are willing to give everyone who applies for a job a fair chance to compete.

COUGHLIN: As an expert in this field what is the one question that you never get asked that you feel you should?

PEEPLES: I never get asked, “What should I do to support the individual that comes to me?” To me that’s about looking at each individual as an individual and recognizing that every person that comes through that door is not going to have the same desires and goals. It’s this constant lumping people into a group and not recognizing that we are talking about people who have different backgrounds, histories, and influences. It plays out with the direct service providers and it plays out in the policy making arena. That’s actually how we came up with our tag line for HIRE; individuals with criminal histories.

COUGHLIN: Does HIRE work with any other national agencies?

PEEPLES: We do a lot of work with National Employment Law Project (www.nelp.org) and some with The Sentencing Project (www.sentencingproject.org). But on the issue of employment and criminal records it is really NELP and HIRE doing a lot of the policy advocacy work with the advocates in the states. We really do not take any credit for getting laws passed. It is always the advocates within those states that put in the hard work to identify leaders in the legislature to take up their cause and to build the necessary groundswell required to push a campaign through. Our goal has always been to work with those groups early on in their strategy development and come in when called to help with providing the national perspective on the issues the local advocates choose to pursue. We’ve worked with numerous groups who have been very successful and I would only take some credit in saying that in many places we just laid the seeds for action.

COUGHLIN: How do you see society changing? Is humanizing the stories of this population the right road to go down?

PEEPLES: I think there are two strategies; we definitely need to continue down the road of trying to humanize and remove labels. Folks need to recognize that the person’s criminal history is not who they are; it’s something that they’ve done. But, I also believe that legislation and even litigation will bring change. That’s why [National HIRE Network] really focuses on the legislative process and tries to create policies that will enforce, require and encourage people to have [hiring] practices that are fair and objective.

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