Mar 11, 2011

Veteran Businessman now in the Business of Reentry

John Kirkland, The Doe Fund
This week begins our series of three interviews profiling individuals working in the reentry field that took an unlikely path to their current destinations. This week, we focus on John Kirkland, a Senior Career Development Specialist at The Doe Fund, a non-profit organization that offers “holistic programs that meet the needs of a diverse population working to break the cycles of homelessness, addiction, and criminal recidivism.” A former business man with 30 years of experience working for major corporations, Mr. Kirkland never imagined that he would find his life’s passion helping individuals returning from prison find jobs. I sat down with Mr. Kirkland at Times Square Ink, a community based non-profit organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into the work force, where Mr. Kirkland’s first encountered the reentry world.

What is your education and employment background?

I have a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. I worked for almost 30 years in the corporate world, doing corporate development and long range- planning for major corporations like Bristol Meyers Squibb, & Pillsbury, Land O’ Llakes, and General Mills. That was my first career.

Can you tell me a bit about the Doe Fund and what your role is there?

The Doe Fund is a transitional facility designed for people who are homeless, over 75% of whom are also formerly incarcerated individuals and suffer from substance abuse issues. During their stay at our program, we help get them ready to re-integrate into both society and the workforce by supporting them in their sobriety, building their job skills, and getting them housing. The idea is that once they have their job they can move out and be self sustaining members of society, to go from being a totally dependent individual to being a totally independent individual.

I am a Senior Career Development Specialist at one of our facilities, the Porter Avenue Facility in Brooklyn which houses 400 individuals. I supervise Career Development at Porter, which includes myself and two other individuals. Our main goal is to help people develop job readiness skills and find a job.

How does someone who worked in corporate America for 30 years come to work with formerly incarcerated individuals?

Laughs. It does not seem like a likely story. I had left the work force for personal reasons a few years earlier, mostly to attend to kids who had been neglected after thirty years of corporate work and travel. I moved back to NY in 2005 and I decided I wanted to go back to work. I had an extremely difficult job search. My timing was wrong in the market and I had been out of work for a long time and didn’t realize how hard it is to re-enter. I was having a really hard time and experienced quite a bit of depression. My wife told me I had to get out of the house, go volunteer.

I heard about New York Cares through the Mayor’s Office and registered. I started doing a lot of different volunteer work, and one day I saw this posting for Times Square Ink to help formerly incarcerated individuals with resumes. I tell you honestly, I was not sure that I was going to do that. I thought, I don’t know if I want to get involved with criminals. But then I thought, wait a minute, how bad could this be? So I tried it.

What were your initial fears about helping formerly incarcerated individuals?

I think like a lot of people, I have no familiarity, no relationship with anyone who has ever been in prison, who has ever been convicted of any kind of serious crime. The only people I ever had any experience with were people in movies or in novels that I read. When you don’t know something, you often look at it from a position of fear.
So what swayed you?

It’s easy to be swayed. One of the first things you realize is that each individual person has their own story and how badly they want help. And I was just so immediately taken by how easy it was for me to help them. Because I’ve done resumes and interviews for thirty years of my life it’s a skill and it’s easy for me to give that way. The thing that was most powerful was the degree of gratitude that came back at me, the gratitude from people for such small things. It was amazing and very transformational for me. One day I said to the staff here that I really would like to volunteer full time. I wanted to come here every day and so I did.

What your initial impression of the individuals was that you were working with?

My initial impression was mostly extremely positive. These are regular, real people who for whatever reason have gotten themselves on the wrong side of the law and want to get back to a real and honest life. When you see all of the barriers they have to encounter, you want to help because the individuals in front of you have skills and experience and are fundamentally great people. When you sit here for a while, everyday it builds on you more and more that it is just wrong to cast these individuals aside, that we are just wasting people.

Any initial difficulties or culture clashes?

One of the funniest exchanges I had with one was when were just talking in a break and I sort of asked him, “So, what’s your background?” He said, “Well, I was in the pharmaceutical business.” So, I said “Oh, I was in the pharmaceutical business too. I worked for Bristol Myers Squibb, who did you work for?” He said, “No, no, no, in the hood” and I got it.

Do you find this career more fulfilling than your last one?

Way more fulfilling. Absolutely way more fulfilling. Not that work in business can’t be fulfilling, but the business that I worked at can be sort of removed from individuals, it’s the big picture kind of thing. But in my current line of work, there you are with people who are improving themselves and you get to see their lives change in front of you, and that’s amazing.

As part of your job, you reach out to employers to try to find job placements. How do you respond to the question, “Why should I hire someone with a conviction history when there are tons of people out there who don’t have conviction history and need a job?”

First of all when you’re hiring someone to do a job, you want make sure that that person has the skills to do the job, the experiences they need to do the job and the commitment and enthusiasm to do the job. My experience dealing with formerly incarcerated individuals, at least those have gotten this far through the job search process at The Doe Fund or those at other Work Force Intermediaries, is that these are the people who have overcome tremendous obstacles to get to that point. When you think about the experience of where these people were before they made it out- abuse, drug addiction, incarceration, homelessness- and now they’ve gotten to the point where they are prepared to go out on a job interview, that is a tremendous accomplishment. In my mind, it takes a huge amount of conviction and character to say, “I want a real job in society. I want to take care of my wife and kids the way I am supposed to, the way I know I should. I did those things in the past, it’s true that I have a conviction, but that was then and I am a different person now.”

These individuals I work with are men and women who had to climb their mountain, and their mountain was higher and tougher than most of ours. I think that as a business person, that is the type of determination and commitment that you want in an employee.

Do you plan on staying in the reentry world?

Yes, I’m not leaving this field. I like dealing with the formerly incarcerated individuals. It is a history that takes special effort to overcome. If your homeless and you get a house no one ever has to know you were homeless. That doesn’t come up on a background check, nor does substance abuse, nor does mental illness or being an alcoholic or a bad parent. One of the things you realize when you work with this population is that these individuals have to reveal their conviction every time the box shows up on the application. We’ve all looked at the applications before, and thought, doesn’t apply to me , but it applies to them. When I got here and saw people who had to deal with that I said, “I got to work on this.” It’s just a little box but that’s a big deal as you know. A lot of people who are in these groups face tremendous psychological and emotional reactions to that box and being asked that question.
What I find is one of the most fulfilling things I experience helping people get over their fear of that question, to learn that they can find the positive in it. They can fight that question by answering, “Yes, that was the real tough time in my life but I got over that and look how far I’ve come.”