Music superstar John Legend is using his celebrity status to gather national support for Unlocked Futures, a new foundation aimed at helping formerly incarcerated persons develop into successful entrepreneurs.
Legend is already committed to criminal justice reform through his FreeAmerica initiative.
He joined forces with other philanthropists to coordinate a $500,000 grant from Bank of America. They used it to launch eight startup ideas from former prisoners and persons impacted by incarceration, according to a Nation Swell article.
Too often incarcerated individuals are locked out of job opportunities because of their past, said Grammy-winner Legend. “I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods.”
Unlock Futures selected its debut group of potential entrepreneurs based on their vision to reshape the severe economic landscape confronting persons formerly incarcerated. The foundation offers them a support network of funding and mentorship.
“A lot of people in prison are entrepreneurs,” Dirk Van Velzen, one of Unlock Futures’ inaugural recipients, recently told the San Quentin News. “They are just in the wrong market.”
Van Velzen founded the Prison Scholar Fund in 2006 while he was still behind bars. He gained national attention for his ongoing pursuit of academic excellence while still in prison. Since his release in 2015, his mission has been to make educational opportunities available to as many prisoners as possible.
“The same skills that help you sell stolen goods or drugs are the same skills that will help you sell something that won’t get you arrested,” Van Velzen commented. “The skills are transferrable; they just need to be refined. Education helps.”
“Our job is to help people transition into society to break the cycle of recidivism and homelessness,” he said of his Prison Scholar Fund. “We do that through education, when incarcerated, and workforce placement when they get released.”
New Swell estimates the overall cost of America’s mass incarceration at $80 billion annually. The Unlock Futures entrepreneurship all share common goals of curtailing that fiscal impact and also changing the public perception toward people who were formerly incarcerated.
“Entrepreneurship is not just about starting businesses; it is about seeing problems as opportunities,” said Jason Cleveland, founder of the tech platform Obodo—another Unlock Futures recipient. “It is about seeing beyond the now to what is possible.”
Obodo streamlines the process for nonprofit organizations to reach out and assist parolees getting acclimated back into society—“returning citizens.” Cleveland, himself a Missouri native, visits prisons in his state to inspire and encourage prisoners about the possibilities of entrepreneurship.
“Most people there do not understand that they are already entrepreneurs,” Cleveland explained. “They don’t see that they have been finding unique solutions to problems their entire lives.
“Oftentimes, when these people are provided with a framework for making different decisions and given the tools they need to move forward, they do.”
Amanda Alexander founded the Detroit Justice Center to provide her community with attorney services and also find economic opportunities for those in and around the prison system. She suffered the incarceration of her father for part of her childhood, and is also one of the eight first-time Unlocked Futures recipients.
“Ultimately, it’s not about the eight of us and our work; it’s about movement building,” Alexander said. “Mass incarceration has touched every part of our society, so it’s going to take a broad movement to bring it down.
“Folks in the cohort are always talking about the brothers and sisters they left behind in prison and wanting to reach out to them. … My aim is to ensure that families caught up in the criminal justice system aren’t shut out of the city’s future.”