Friday, April 08, 2016

Susie Bannon with the Second Chance Democrats on Austin's Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance

Last week, I sat down with Susie Bannon with the Second Chance Democrats to discuss the recent passage of Austin's Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance. (See my earlier coverage of the ordinance.) You can listen to the podcast here:

Or find a transcript of the full interview below the jump.

Amanda: Hi this is Amanda Woog with Grits for Breakfast and the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. I'm here with Susie Bannon. Susie is a member of the Second Chance Democrats. She and her group had a major win at City Hall in Austin, last week and she's here to tell us more about it. Susie, thanks for being here. Why don't you start by telling us about you and the Second Chance Democrats.

Susie: Thanks Amanda, thank you for having me. A little bit about me... I am a second year PhD student at UT Austin in the Department of Communications Studies. I study rhetoric and language, specifically the rhetoric of criminality, the stigma of criminal records, and the role of public policy in shaping both of those things.

So I became interested in the subject because when I came home from prison in 2010, I could not get a job, and I was essentially treated like a second class citizen every time I went to apply for employment, and I learned what stigma was really quickly. And so I went back to school because I couldn't find employment and in the process of getting my bachelor's in communication studies, I learned about stigmatized identities and how rhetoric works and how the way that we talk about certain populations then shapes how we treat them so... the rest is history. I went on to get my masters from Texas State and then started my PhD here in 2014.

So I'm also an organizer with the group that you mentioned, the Second Chance Democrats. And I'd like to just read our mission statement, if I can.

"The Second Chance Democrats of Austin is a political club of individuals who are formerly incarcerated or directly affected by the criminal justice system, and their allies, who work together to influence policy for a more equitable Austin. We focus on restoring hope and dignity to the low income communities and people of color most significantly impacted by the carceral state."

We are a group, a Democratic club that functions under the Travis County Democratic party, and we got together last year in 2015 with the hope of influencing policy at the local level and the fruits of our labor are the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance.

Amanda: Great, well congratulations.

Susie: Thank you.

Amanda: You don't always see fruits of labor happen quite as quickly as you all got to see in the policy world, which just goes to show all the hard work that y'all put in over the past year so.

So can you tell us specifically about the ordinance that just passed, the problem that it seeks to address, and how Austin as a community has been affected by the problem going forward, how the ordinance will help solve it.

Susie: Sure. So the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance is essentially what you -- what's colloquially called "Ban the Box." It is a ban-the-box ordinance that is enforceable by civil penalties locally. So what the ordinance seeks to lessen, employment discrimination that is based on criminal history. So anytime someone goes to apply for a job, they check that box on a job application that says 'have you ever been convicted of a crime?' or 'have you ever been arrested?' and their application goes immediately into the trash.

We know that between 2,500 and 3,000 people come back to Travis County from the Texas prison system every year, and we also know that employment is correlated with successful re-entry and reduced recidivism. Research tells us that people who check that box are 50% less likely to be given a call back for jobs. And so what that ordinance does is it delays that inquiry into the criminal background until a conditional offer of employment has been made. When that happens we know that more people get jobs. So basically what we're trying to do is help people who live in Austin gain meaningful employment and take care of their families, take care of themselves and move on from whatever that criminal justice contact was in their past.

Amanda: And when does the law take effect?

Susie: It is in effect April 3rd of 2016, so… Sunday.

Amanda: Two days.

Susie: Yeah.

Amanda: Media has called the ordinance 'the first of its kind in the South.' What sets it apart from other ban the box measures?

Susie: So ban-the-box has been implemented in multiple cities across the country. Some states actually have created these ordinances and they vary in content so... whether or not the ordinance, or the law is actually enforceable, varies. Some of them only remove the background check box from applications. Not many of them have the conditional offer element, which ours does. And that was one of the I think key factors that we were adamant about keeping in when the amendment process started. The employer needs to offer the employment if the person is qualified for the position, at which point they then run the background check, and then they follow EEOC guidelines for assessing the... whatever the results of that screening is. And so they need to take into account the nature of the alleged criminal offense, the time passed since that offense was committed, and other factors, just so that you're really giving somebody a fair opportunity to be evaluated on your merit as opposed to whatever happened in your past.

Amanda: What do you hope will be the effects of the ordinance, immediately within Austin and then outside of Austin, throughout Texas, the South and nationally?

Susie: Our mission at Second Chance Democrats is to influence policy for a more equitable Austin so, that would be I guess a general goal, that this would help contribute to greater prosperity in the population that is effected by criminal justice. We know that there are disparate impacts in communities of color and low income communities. We also know that Austin, the demographics here are shifting, and so there are a lot of people who are being displaced from those communities as it is. So, we hope that this will create an Austin that is really for everyone. So in short term, we would expect or hope that more people would be getting employed. So, more people getting jobs. We would also hope that because of that, recidivism will go down from the prison system, and the work force becomes more diverse. We would also like to see a ripple effect. So because we are the first city in the South to pass something like this, we'd like to see it happen in other cities and we are currently talking to people from other cities in Texas as well as cities outside of Texas.

Amanda: So I'd like to switch gears a little bit now, and talk about your strategy. One thing that really impressed me by the initiative was that it was a grassroots movement led by people who were directly affected, and you got a relatively quick tangible result. So can you walk us through what the organizing and advocacy strategy was, and how it culminated with the specific measure that passed.

Susie: When the Second Chance Democrats was formed, we became official in November of 2015, and we had been... the core group had been meeting for several months prior to that. The ordinance actually had started to kind of culminate around July... May, July is when they passed the original resolution at City Council. They started holding a series of stakeholder meetings and so several of the advocates that were directly involved with that, then became Second Chance Dems. We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted the leadership of the democratic club to be formally incarcerated or directly affected people, so people with criminal conviction histories, and that is what ended up happening.

What was really cool was that we had such a diverse group of people that we had a wealth of experience at the table. And I really think that that served us in a couple of ways. One, it helped us as a group because everybody contributed something. So we had people who were national organizers at one time, we had attorneys, we had, you know, people who were policy analysts, and so... it was really cool to see how everybody gave something to the movement. But I also think that that was important because that contributed to one of the umbrella goals of this ordinance and our club in general would be to change the narrative about what it means to be involved with the criminal justice system.

Like, this group of people who typically is omitted from the policy making process, came together, literally wrote the ordinance that was then amended and passed, you know, because they didn't want to wait around for policy makers to do it for them, were directly involved with the policy making process, and did it, and like you said, you know, under a year, that's pretty awesome. I think the direct influence or the direct involvement that we had with the policy making process was pretty significant. And then again to have people who have criminal histories, or have been incarcerated, leading grassroots movements. That's pretty significant as well.

Amanda: So you mentioned changing the narrative. Another thing that really impressed me with the campaign was the way that you'd used narrative. The stories of people who have criminal histories, the effects on their families, was very effective and powerful, and that was on full display at that last hearing, last week.

Too often I think in policy advocacy and analysis, people's stories get left out of the focus when we're just focusing on numbers and costs. So can you talk about that as a strategic choice, the use of narrative as a component of the policy advocacy.

Susie: Sure. So we know that narrative... from somebody who studies rhetoric and language, we understand that narrative has power, right? On the same token, narratives that are created through the policy making process and through popular media also have power, and those are often negative narratives. So they're stigmatized narratives, they typically will relate to you know focusing on the nature of a crime, or everything that a person has done wrong, and the dehumanization that takes place, you know. Referring to people purely as 'offenders' or 'ex-offenders' as opposed to first names or what they may do now as a mother or a father, teacher, whatever you are. And so, bringing that personal story and letting the council and the public know, you know, I'm a human being, I have a life just like yours, it's really -- you know I think Darwin Hamilton said it best, when he said you never know what's going to happen. One of your family members could go get arrested and then you're going to be hoping for people like us to fight for you. We really flipped the script on what many people perceive as being, you know, what it means to be involved with the criminal justice system, and that is typically a very negative portrayal of people who deserve to be discriminated against and... we aren't that.

Amanda: What, if anything, surprised you about the efforts to get the ordinance passed? And related, are there any highs or lows that you'd like to share with us?

Susie: So... [laughs] I feel a little naive with my answer on this, and it is because I am naive and I was naive going into this situation having no organizing experience, no policy experience prior to this. I just knew that I had a story and that I had experiences that contributed to this ordinance in some way. And so... I think initially this would be one of the lows and one of the surprises, was that it wasn't a common sense ordinance for everybody. I just thought about it in the sense that, you know... we know that people are being unfairly treated, we know that people have served their time, have met whatever requirements imposed on them by the state. We know that they are desperate to move forward with their lives and take care of their families, and do better. And they're still being treated unfairly, and people wanted to defend that right. And that blew my mind, and I took it personally, you know. I felt it was painful for me to experience. And I understand you know, people who own businesses need to run their businesses the way that they want to. But really, when the argument came up 'well... you're forcing us to do something' and I'm sitting there and I'm thinking 'we're forcing you to be good human beings.'

Amanda: Right. When the narrative turned to it being an anti-discrimination measure, I think that kind of encapsulated that move away from just forcing businesses to do something like another level of regulation, to no no no, we're talking about the rights of a group of people that need to be recognized.

Susie: Yes. And I think that when Brian McGivern said the quote from the letter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce prior to the passage of the Equal Employment Act, it was almost identical arguments that had been made against ours, and it's like you know... you can't use this anymore. Because we know that it's happening, and it's not justified, and it's time to you know, stand on the right side of history.

Amanda: Yeah. I actually did a little bit of research similar to what Brian looked into, and I found a brief that was filed in Heart of Atlanta Motel from 1965 that was challenging the Civil Right Act of 1964, and it was the exact same argument. It was... businesses have a right to operate businesses the way that they see fit. So it is an argument that we have heard for quite some time, and you guys did a really great job dismantling it.

Susie: In addition to the fact that, you know, the argument that it would potentially harm the population of people in some way by decreasing their employment... that's not even -- that's not founded on anything. And so another element that surprised me I guess was the degree that misinformation was readily spread, knowingly spread. And again that just comes back to I think my... my level of innocence when it comes to policy exposure but... you know, again, something that set us apart was that we did all of our research. We put together documents that rebutted every single claim that was made that this would be detrimental to people as opposed to helping them.

Amanda: It was a very effective, kind of, two-prong approach, having the narrative component that we talked about and also having the data and the research to support it.

Susie: Yes.

Amanda: And I mentioned this earlier, but were there any highs?

Susie: I mean obviously the night that this passed would be a high. I'm glad that not many photographs made it out of my immediate reaction because it was an ugly cry. I think one of the moments that stood out for me was, we had a coming out party as the Second Chance Democrats, and we put -- you know, we, as a club, put it on, and it was stressful because we had never put on an event before and we weren't quite sure what went into it, and of course all of us, or most of us, have full time jobs, and then some. So this was all outside work. And the event was so successful that it was sort of like, okay. We can do this, you know. We had people complimenting us on the turnout, on just the whole... the whole arrangement of how things went and we gained several, more than several, new members after that. And so the support was growing, and it was just sort of... I don't want to call it a turning point but it was definitely a moment where you can give yourself credit for something.

Amanda: What lessons from this experience can you share that might help people who are trying to organize to create similar change. So what worked and what didn't work, if anything.

Susie: So I think one of the most important things that you can do is have a good model for what you want to achieve. We, as I said, Jacqueline Conn, who's the chair of the Second Chance Dems, did a ton of outreach to other agencies, other organizations, other advocates in other cities, to get a feel for what sort of things were being written into their ordinances and as well as what they would have done differently. And so one of the key parts that other places said 'we wish we had this' is the conditional offer element, which really gives the ordinance some teeth. And so having that model, having resources at hand, not being afraid to reach out for help from other people - that's definitely important.

I think also, the pro-activeness is... is key. You know, this isn't an ordinance that went easily, you know. What we saw in the last... last night, right before it passed, was not what we had experienced in the ten months leading up to that. And there were definitely moments where we felt like it might be impossible to pass. This is about changing an entire cultural paradigm, and that cultural narrative about a population of people, and that doesn't come easily so... being proactive, putting that pressure on internally and externally, and then really building a community of support. One of our priorities has always been - we're going to build a community where formerly incarcerated people and directly affected people can turn to you, and that's what we have maintained this whole time and I think that that's how we were all able to survive the process, quite honestly.

Amanda: So what's next for you and the Second Chance Democrats?

Susie: That's a good question. It really does feel like the possibilities are endless at this point. And of course there is always tons of work to be done. We are -- like I mentioned before, we are talking to people in other cities about possibly getting similar ordinances off the ground there... like I said, in Texas and out. And we will continue to work on the fair chance ordinance to make sure that people are complying. We plan on being a resource to both the city and the people who are to be benefiting from this ordinance. And just making sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.

We want people with criminal histories to have their rights back and so... you know, housing is a huge issue. And in Austin an especially large issue because we're already almost at capacity, just for your "everyday citizen" who may not have the barriers in place that people like us do. And so, that's always on the radar but we really do need to sit down as a group and kind of sketch out our next action steps for the next year or so. So, nothing in stone yet.

Amanda: Yeah, still celebrating.

Susie: Yes, definitely.

Amanda: So what would you say to other people with criminal histories who are faced with the barriers that you've faced, whether it's advice on how to organize, or just to someone who's losing hope.

Susie: Well, first of all I would say reach out to the Second Chance Democrats of Austin. We have a Facebook page, it's and we are happy to be resources, whether it be in helping you work on an ordinance or just sort of sharing firsthand experience with those obstacles. We all have unique experiences but we all have that shared experience of that stigma and that shame and that frustration, and those days where you just don't think you can do it anymore. But, times they are a changin'. It may be slow but... passing this ordinance in Austin gives me hope that those changes are going to be far less few in between.

Amanda: Well let’s end it on that note of hope. Susie thank you so much for joining me today. And good luck in whatever's next for you and the Second Chance Democrats.

Susie: Thank you so much for having me Amanda.


Anonymous said...

Second chance? When I worked with criminals (for over fifteen years) I read their "rap sheets." Most had over twenty chances and they went back to serious crime time and time again. Second chance?

Peter.Marana said...

When Texas does provide much in the line of vocational training for those incarcerated and then "dumps" them out on the street with second hand clothes, $100 and bus ticket it is not much of a surprise that the recidivism rate is 60%.

But to stop wasting tax dollars (150,000 offenders x $25K - $3.75 billion), make the community safer and create new tax income instead of a cost, you much have an approach that improves their employability.

The simple math is that re-incarcerating one person for 5 years costs $125,000. If you only took 10% of that forecasted expense and trained the offender with real skills that crazy recidivism rate would decline. An actuary could easily given you a cost-benefit analysis of the ROI of training costs.

And this is not blue sky. The legislature in 2013 and 2015 passed legislation outlawing junk science such as bite marks. You would think that they could focus on expanding vocational training which would result in huge tax dollar savings and make the community much, much safer.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:23, your comment reminds me of Matt. 18:21-22:

"Then Peter came and said to Him, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'


Peter.Marana said...


I don't use Christian philosophy when addressing criminal justice policy in Texas because obviously the legislature is not sympathetic to these principles.

As I mentioned above, criminal justice policy should be based on efficient use of tax dollars and greatly reducing recidivism (jobs). But, if you are honest, the current policy is about maintaining the massive corrections/policing/judicial complex built in Texas regardless of the risk and cost to society.

For those of you who have never been in contact with the criminal justice system consider yourself very, very lucky.