Breaking down stigma and building social enterprise at Grand Valley Institution's community forum

Nada Basir speaking at the forumThe Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) hosted a community forum on February 24, 2016, which I attended along with several classmates from Conrad's BET 420: Social Entrepreneurship class. 

Featuring a keynote address by BET 420 professor Nada Basir and a design thinking lab facilitated by Sean Geobey of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, this session aimed to give participants a better understanding of the challenges faced by female inmates securing employment upon release from GVI. Most importantly, it also served as a working session to develop and brainstorm innovative social entrepreneurship opportunities to positively impact offender reintegration.

Uncovering biases and stigma around "prisoners" 

Kicking off the event, three Conestoga College Community and Criminal Justice students ran an icebreaker focused on stigma, in particular the biases we have towards words often associated with offenders, such as “guilty,” “dangerous,” and “manipulative.” 

After some discussion, GVI Program Manager Sarina Randall provided an overview of the demographic of the women currently incarcerated: the typical woman at GVI is a 20 to 40 year-old Caucasian with a sentence of 3 years or less. This session also touched upon the current programs and services offered at GVI, including the Work Release program, which matches minimum-security inmates with volunteer opportunities in businesses and community organizations. 

This part of the event provided much of the context necessary to later conceptualise applicable and feasible social ventures for these offenders to leverage upon release.

Understanding the challenges of inmate reintegration

The most valuable testimony about employing women after prison came from Lisa Olsen, a former GVI inmate of 16 years, who described her experiences looking for work after her release, and the emotional and psychological hardships that accompanied this process.

Personally, I felt distant from the issue of the economic inclusion of ex-offenders prior to attending the forum. The prisoner experience and the post-release job search seemed like a struggle that one could never fully grasp without going through it. 

Lisa described the feeling of being rejected from positions consistently based on the fact she had a criminal record. Her story made me reflect on how difficult it must be to continuously put oneself out into the job market only to be disappointed with rejection.

I had no idea how I could advocate for anyone in this situation, but the forum and Lisa’s discussion made me feel better equipped to tackle this problem and support the fight to end the stigma associated with ex-offenders searching for employment upon release. Lisa humanized an issue that seemed so distant from me and offered insight much deeper and far-reaching than anything I could have read online.

Laying the framework for social enterprise

Nada BasirThe keynote address by Professor Nada Basir was one of the highlights of the day. She discussed the blended space between not-for-profit organizations and for-profit corporations where social enterprises live, the importance of revenue streams in social ventures to ensure longevity without relying solely on external funding, and the concept of entrepreneurial bricolage to drive innovation.

Sean Geobey’s design thinking lab built on the framework provided by Professor Basir. At this point, the diverse group of attendees, which included students, employers like Habitat for Humanity, and current GVI inmates, sat down to creatively plan a feasible social venture to shift the equilibrium of injustice and economic exclusion that ex-offenders face upon release.

Multiple perspectives make for a better solution

Working with sticky notesThe ventures generated by each group were the product of fantastic discussions about the desirability, feasibility, and value of various ideas. This collaboration was another highlight of the forum; it proved that the diversity in each group allowed us to creatively tackle stigma and various other complex issues, producing better ideas as a result of the various stakeholders' contributions.

The opportunity to socialize and humanize the “female prisoner” was an experience that I will value for the rest of my life. Bias and prejudice about this marginalized group of people are so deeply rooted in our culture, and the negative stigma associated with this group is so far from what I experienced in my time at the forum.

The women at my table were smart, understanding, funny, grateful, determined to succeed, and so many other things that contradict the inmate stereotype. They welcomed discussion about their own experiences being incarcerated and were adamant about providing a true representation of what prison is like.

Among the insights I will take away from the day, I will never forget one of the women assuring me that “prison is nothing like Orange is the New Black”!

About Joseph

Joseph Torosantucci is a 4B Science and Business, Biology, student currently taking BET 420. He has a passion for social justice, innovative marketing, and data analytics.

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