Q&A: Project Return’s Bettie Kirkland

Bettie Kirkland is executive director of Project Return, a Nashville-based nonprofit that helps former felons find jobs.

Post Managing Editor William Williams recently met with Kirkland for a chat.

How many people does Project Return place in jobs each year?

In 2015, we had 376 people (of 451 in the program) who gained employment. Interestingly, the actual number of jobs we help place people in is much higher than the number of people in the program because we help people find not only transitional employment but long-term employment thereafter.

Is that the number the nonprofit targets or is it higher?

We target a job acquisition rate of 75 percent, with the aim that at least three of four people will gain employment. This is an important target, because it is the opposite of what national research studies show: that between 60 and 75 percent of people coming back from incarceration will be unsuccessful at gaining employment for the first 12 months after release from prison. In 2015, our job acquisition rate was 83 percent, exceeding our goal and beating back the odds of failure.

Do you encounter much push-back from people and companies that look negatively upon those who once were incarcerated?

The stigma is extremely prevalent. But, more and more, smart businesses across Middle Tennessee are interested in making their workforce the best it can be, by giving consideration and opportunity to our motivated job seekers, rather than rejecting them outright. And of course as a community, we've always expressed the belief in second chances. It's a win all around.

What are the most common industry sectors in which you place your clients?

We have had great success with the manufacturing sector. Many of those employers have been interested in hiring our people, and many of our people find that type work appealing and rewarding.

The food service and hospitality sectors are next in line for us, in terms of the proportion of our people gaining employment in those jobs. In third place is the construction industry. We have our own "crane watch" of construction underway in the Nashville area at the Project Return office, and we are striving to make further inroads in that booming sector.

Project Return uses a social enterprise model to indirectly reduce overcrowding in prisons. Is this new and how has your approach changed over the years?

We conceived of our social enterprise model back in 2012, and then scored some seed funding and hired the right person to incubate and hone our business model. We then officially launched our social enterprise PROe (Project Return Opportunities for Employment) in July 2013. So our social enterprise is relatively new compared to the 37-year history of Project Return. But it is based on a 20-year-old model that we were determined to create here in Tennessee.

Project Return has always been solely dedicated to the men and women returning from incarceration, and we've been primarily focused on employment, since that's the main predictor of success. Our social enterprise is an innovative new way to accomplish our mission.

Essentially, PROe is a staffing service, through which companies contract with us to meet their workforce needs with our temporary workers. All the while we're transporting and supporting and paying our workers while they gain the real-world experience and coaching from us to be successful in these jobs.

We knew that our clients were motivated and full of potential, but that prospective employers, too often, saw our applicants' recent incarceration as their most prominent characteristic and just wouldn't consider hiring them. Layering in the social enterprise was an intentional effort on our part to create another highly effective avenue to success for the people we serve. Our social enterprise bridges the gap between prison and the workplace, providing people with the opportunity to succeed in transitional jobs immediately after prison, and then providing employers with a workforce of motivated employees who've already proven their work prowess under Project Return's employment program.

How do you measure your impact on the people you serve and on Nashville?

In terms of impact on the people we serve, we measure our success along two metrics: high job acquisition and low recidivism. Job acquisition for people coming through Project Return is greater than 80 percent, and our recidivism rate is consistently less than 15 percent (as compared to a state rate of about 40 percent and a national rate of about 60 percent). Beyond that, we are interested in additional quality-of-life aspects for the people we serve, especially since they are typically starting with us — immediately after release from incarceration — in a state of destitution. We track things like hourly wage rates, housing stability, financial planning, family reunification and job satisfaction.

For the city of Nashville, Project Return's impact cuts across economic, public safety and even education outcomes. Our people are earning their keep and paying taxes, they are living crime-free and productive lives, and household and next-generation circumstances and prospects rise accordingly. Meanwhile, there are clear cost ramifications to incarceration and re-incarceration, and we are able to calculate, for example, the cost savings for Tennessee — in excess of $3 million in 2015 — that derive from Project Return's dramatically lower recidivism rate.

Beyond that, like most of the U.S., people in Tennessee are increasingly aware of the skyrocketed rates of incarceration and are looking for ways to reverse that course; the only way, though, that that can come to pass is if people have the opportunity to succeed when they return from imprisonment, and that's what Project Return is all about.

What is the significance of your being selected to be part of the first ever national REDF Social Enterprise for Jobs (SE4Jobs) Accelerator cohort of emerging leaders?

It's significant in a couple of ways. For one, while there's a burgeoning entrepreneurial community here in Nashville, we have a way to go as a city to fully recognize and embrace the power and potential of social enterprises — these double-bottom line ventures that build benefit while generating profit. So Project Return can be a part of this particular growth edge, and we look forward to bringing home the opportunities and insights that we gain from the Accelerator. For another, it's affirming of our conviction that this social enterprise that we've launched and built is not only successful in its current scope but is ripe for expansion and scaling. Being selected by REDF is not only an accolade but also a real opportunity for growth and greater impact.

Are there any other nonprofit companies like Project Return in Nashville? If so, how do you work together? If not, what kind of expectations or pressure does this place on PR being the only organization of its kind?

Most American cities, including other Tennessee cities, don't have an organization of Project Return's particular focus and heft. So Nashville is unique in this regard. Beyond that, here in Nashville, we are very fortunate to partner extensively with numerous excellent nonprofit organizations across different realms, to the benefit of the people we serve. So, for example, Project Return partners closely with nearly all of the transitional halfway houses in this region, as well as with health providers, emergency financial assistance providers, other reentry service organizations, our local food bank, several government agencies, educational institutions, our local financial empowerment center and many more. We also partner with correctional entities, and are able to go inside facilities across the state of Tennessee in order to connect with people before they get out. We often reflect on how all of our work is relationship-based: the authentic, supportive relationships with the people we serve; the productive relationships with all of the employers whose workforce needs we strive to meet; and the ongoing, mutually beneficial relationships with our peer nonprofit/government organizations across the provision of various services.

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