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John Legend Teams Up with New Profit to Help Formerly Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Succeed via Unlocked Futures Program

“I care deeply about issues of incarceration and criminal justice reform,” says Tulaine Montgomery, managing partner at New Profit, a philanthropic venture capital fund.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a passion she shares with Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend.  Like Legend, whose mother cycledin and out of jail for charges related to drug addiction” when he was growing up, Montgomery has seen the impact of prison on families firsthand.

“This idea that there is a group of people we can *other*…that we cannot advocate for – that’s not something I’ve been able to entertain,” she explains. 

Montgomery believes that when someone who’s been incarcerated faces barriers preventing successful re-entry into society, it doesn’t just damage them alone.  On the contrary, it wreaks havoc on their extended family, community and nation, often for multiple generations. 

In addition, she says that treating entire groups of people as “expendable” and “counting them out” of making productive

Tulaine Montgomery, New Profit’s Managing Partner (Photo Courtesy of New Profit)

contributions makes zero economic sense. The USA spends $80 billion a year to keep people behind bars. Once paroled, even non-violent, first-time offenders struggle to find housing, jobs, or chances for further education.  Feeling locked out of opportunity and unable to sustain themselves, many end up right back in prison.  It’s a costly revolving door. Providing a path to success rather than creating a class of “throwaway people” is not only morally redemptive, it’s also economically sound. 

Transforming inequities and imbalances in the criminal justice system is part of the larger mission behind Unlocked Futures, a partnership between New Profit, John Legend’s Free Americacampaign, and Bank of America. A 16-month accelerator program that supports entrepreneurs who have been previously incarcerated, Unlocked Futures provides funding, leadership training, business skills building, executive coaching, content development and peer support to eight members or cohorts. 

The program identifies innovative entrepreneurs whose businesses solve problems that affect those impacted by the criminal justice system.  They are uniquely qualified to address the “most pressing challenges” and break down barriers, precisely because they’ve been there, Montgomery says.   

It’s her belief that “someone who has served time—one of the most dehumanizing conditions we pay federal dollars to create—and emerged mentally intact and ready to lead a business, that’s a leader I want to know.

Topeka Sam is one of the eight inaugural Unlocked Futures cohorts and a case in point. Her organization, Ladies of Hope Ministries, helps women transition from incarceration back into meaningful participation. She knows the terrain and has insight into how to navigate the road to re-entry because she’s lived it.  

Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop, a mobile app company that delivers postcards to inmates from loved ones, says the idea came to him because it was “connection” with family and his mother in particular that gave him a thread of hope during imprisonment.

Every dollar invested in correctional education returns $19.76 back to society,” according to Dirk Van Velzen, founder of the Prison Scholars Fund. Van Velzen’s organization helps inmates gain degrees and skills that are marketable in the job sector because he knows that if they’re employable, they’re far less likely to commit new crimes. The statistics are staggering: national recidivism stands at 68%. For graduates of the Prison Scholars’ Fund, that rate plummets to 4%. 

When Unlocked Futures kicked off at the end of last year, John Legend joined New Profit and the eight cohorts for a round table discussion. After listening to their stories, Legend remarked “with people like you working tirelessly to change the system and the narrative, I’m optimistic.”

It’s personal stories like these that Tulaine Montgomery hopes will break down our culture’s capacity for “othering.”  It’s through telling redemptive stories – showing that those who’ve been incarcerated are capable of significant change and positive contribution – that we can begin to influence the national dialogue around criminal justice reform.

That’s why spreading the word about the Unlocked Futures video series, in which the cohorts share their personal journeys from prison to innovative entrepreneurship, is on the top of Montgomery’s list.  

In the end, it’s the stories we tell ourselves that shape the collective mindset and determine who we deem worthy of care, support, and a “second chance.”  Unlocked Futures is an investment in a new story, one that acknowledges the possibilities inherent in every human being.

America’s got plenty of talent.  Together, we can make sure it doesn’t stay locked up.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Watch the featured videos here.
  • Do you have a large audience or social media following?  Post a link to the video series with the hashtag #unlockedfutures.
  • Make an instant impact by donating here.
  • Nominate someone for the next program round by contacting Unlocked Futures. 
  • Know of a person or organization doing outstanding work that benefits people of color and want us to consider featuring them?  Click here to tell us more. I spotlight individuals and groups who are “doing good” here on GBN.

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