Our Place DC has been a source of sustenance and support for thousands of current and formerly incarcerated women in the District.
In the year 2010 alone, over 1,500 women were served through the non-profit organization’s programs, and since the organization began in 1999, more than 9,000.
It is among several organizations in the District working to curb high unemployment.
In addition to partnering with numerous local employers to assist the women at Our Place DC with finding jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities, the nonprofit also hires many women who have come through its program.
Our Place DC’s Executive Director Ashley McSwain, MSW, MSOD, believes that for the formerly incarcerated, their past mistakes should not define their future.
“I don’t even ask the women that come to Our Place what they’ve been charged with. It doesn’t really matter because your needs are your needs,” she said.
But given the unique population of people it serves, McSwain has taken some pragmatic approaches to increasing employment opportunities for those who walk through Our Place DC’s doors by offering guidance, support, and informal education.
“You have got to make sure that if we’re talking about employment that you acknowledge all of these very little needs. People want you to be ready from the door and with 17 percent unemployment in the African American community – in the population; some of these people [haven’t] worked in 10 years. And they are scared to death about what it’s going to be like. And they don’t want to do the wrong thing, so they don’t want to do anything,” McSwain said.
McSwain endeavors to help improve the lack of proper social etiquette, communication skills, and savoir faire necessary to succeed in a work setting that she sees in many of the people she serves. She said employers hiring the formerly incarcerated should demonstrate patience in helping them meet the standards of the workplace.
“If you want these women to be completely ready the moment they walk in the door, then you don’t need to be working with this population,” said McSwain. “They’ve been institutionalized, they really are looking for guidance and direction and you have to be ready to offer that level of support.”
However, McSwain has seen several success stories and her organization’s efforts extend not only to the women Our Place DC serves, but their families as well. For instance, Our Place D.C.’s employment department works with organization’s like Concerned Black Men to find employment for the spouses of its program participants.
In addition to employment services, Our Place DC provides case management to women while they are in jail to help them create a plan of action once they return home.
The organization also provides a bevy of other critical services, including HIV testing and prevention, housing, and a drop-in center where women have access to computers to apply for jobs, a clothing boutique, therapeutic services, a family visitation program, in which families members are provided with low-cost transportation services to see their incarcerated relatives at several prisons, and a scholarship program.
But like many other area non-profit organization’s the organization is grappling with constraints brought on by the tough economy.
For example, McSwain said that the organization will be forced to close its transitional housing program at the end of the month because its grant for the program was cut by several thousands of dollars.
However, McSwain sees Our Place DC as a “breeding ground” for preparing women to become employable. “I see these women coming in here and they can’t find a job so I get them facilitate a discussion group. Or they can’t find a job so I’ll get the sister to start volunteering in our clothing boutique.”
She seemingly understands the value in restoring a sense of pride and esteem in a group of the population that many have not been forgiving to.
“These women are really just looking for somebody who believes in their potential ,” said McSwain.
District resident Juanita Bennett appears to be one of Our Place’s shining success stories.
In the two years since she has been back home from prison, Bennett has found employment and is an active volunteer for the organization.
Bennett said many of the women she helps feel discouraged when forced to answer questions on employment applications regarding past employment history and previous criminal convictions, but she urges them to be honest and take advantage of opportunities to tell their stories to prospective employers that “I made a mistake, I paid my time and now I’m ready to work and live a prosperous life.”
“If you were here every day and see what I see with the ladies coming in, it’s a struggle,” said Bennett who encourages Our Place DC’s women to be persistent in applying for jobs.
“I don’t want to see them go back to jail. I don’t want them to relapse; I don’t want them run from the halfway house,” she said.