When I first met Patrice Funderburg in the summer of 2017, she was in the basement of a church in west Charlotte, leading a discussion group made up of 15 people that were analyzing Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, The New Jim Crow. Much of the talk at the church that night was around policing, but like Alexander’s book, Funderburg’s work is centered on what I would call “the other side” of the criminal justice spectrum: incarceration and second-chance employment.
In 2016, jolted into action by the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Funderburg left her 25-year career in corporate HR to pursue her own path in the social justice field. She launched Educate to Engage, a consulting firm with a focus on criminal justice work, and began leading the free, six-week classes around The New Jim Crow.
In January 2020, she took over as executive director at Center for Community Transitions, a reentry organization that offers services to justice-involved people — those with histories of incarceration or criminal records — including a 30-person dorm for women participating in the state’s work-release program.
As Funderburg told me while I was reporting on our latest news feature, which you can find in the paper hitting racks this week, with all the talk of policing and law enforcement over the last year, there should be some attention paid to the other side as well.
“Media has done such a great job of directing all of our energy around criminal justice to law enforcement and policing, so how do you bring someone into another part of the same conversation?” she asked. “I think that is our biggest barrier right now is that everything that we know about criminal justice locally is about policing.”
She pointed out that 25,000 people will return home to Mecklenburg County after serving time this year.
“It’s not about addressing that population of folks through the lens of law enforcement, it’s about, ‘Welcome home, here are the opportunities, we recognize that these barriers exist,’” she said.
Funderburg is breaking down the stigma around incarceration so that justice-involved people can get jobs. She wants to go beyond the Ban the Box movement to make employers understand the economic and societal value involved in purposefully hiring justice-involved folks, and therefore begin tearing away at the leading cause of recidivism: poverty.
At a New Pathways Home summit held by Center for Community Transitions on Feb. 25, Charlotte Works CEO and President Danielle Frazier cited a 2018 SHRM Foundation survey of employers who participated in second-chance employment programs. According to the survey, 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals feel the quality of hire for workers with criminal records is as high or higher as those without.
“So we certainly have a narrative to change around second-chance employment, but it’s going to take a collective effort and collaborative partnerships to make it happen,” Frazier said.
Over the past year, progress has been made for second-chance employment, including the passage and implementation of the Second Chance Act, which allows certain charges and convictions to be expunged from someone’s record and sets up automatic expungements for people who are found not guilty or have charges against them dismissed.
But Funderburg won’t stop there. She wants to build on that momentum by doing what she does best: educating and engaging. That was the goal for the New Pathways Home summit, which included leaders such as N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and representatives with Atrium Health and Fifth Third Bank speaking in favor of second-chance employment.
“There’s a lot that’s been happening during the pandemic that makes the land really fertile for strategically disruptive conversation about second-chance employment,” Funderburg said. “The [summit] was really about moving the conversation forward to a very targeted population, those who hold positions of power, organizational power, and brand positioning.”
At the event, Atrium Health announced a new program that will employ 20 justice-involved people with in-demand jobs at their facilities per year, but it’s not always easy for Funderburg. In 2019, she left her spot on the influential Leading on Opportunity Council as it became clear her colleagues had no interest in centering criminal justice.
“People run the other way in corporate now when I show up,” she told me, laughing and impersonating one of those folks. “‘She used to be in HR but now she’s out there talking truth, we can’t deal with it.’”
But Funderburg has never been one to cater to people’s comfort level, and eventually employers will have to hear her out. They might be surprised at what they learn.
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