By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – Last week, American Idea Foundation President and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan facilitated a conversation with experts researching social mobility and leaders of non-profit organizations focused on fighting poverty. The discussion, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, featured:
- Shana Berkeley, the Executive Director of Corner to Corner, a Nashville based non-profit working with female entrepreneurs on business development and financial literacy;
- Bill Gaertner, the Founder of Gatekeepers, a Maryland-based organization helping ex-offenders rejoin communities following interactions with the criminal justice system;
- Scott Winship, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and head of the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, that produces research on poverty alleviation, workforce development, vocational education, housing and urban policy, and the revitalization of key institutions.
The purpose of the panel was to detail and discuss real-world, evidence-based approaches to expand economic opportunities in underserved communities. Both Gatekeepers and Corner to Corner have partnered with Ryan’s American Idea Foundation and Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) to conduct rigorous randomized controlled trials to determine the efficacy and impact of their programs. The hope is, if these trials yield positive results, that these successful solutions can be scaled and replicated in other areas across the country helping to improve more people’s lives.
Video of the panel discussion is accessible here and some noteworthy excerpts (edited lightly for clarity) are included below.
Ryan on getting a perspective from front-line practitioners successfully fighting poverty:
“I’m excited about talking to people who are on the ground, who are fighting poverty person to person with specific ideas and proven solutions. Typically, what we have is policymakers speaking to people telling them what they ought to do and how they ought to make a positive change, but today, we’re reversing those roles. We’re going to hear from poverty-fighters about what policymakers can do to make a big difference and improve people’s lives when it comes to fighting poverty.
“As I mentioned, I visited both of these institutions, Gatekeepers and Corner to Corner, and they’re doing really impressive work. Gatekeepers works with individuals both inside and outside of prison to make sure that they’re making good on their second chance. Gatekeepers is often the very first stop that returning citizens make on their way out of prison and Corner to Corner is doing amazing work promoting entrepreneurship. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s really something that’s exciting to watch and witness. One of the most impactful programs is The Academy, which provides aspiring business owners with the skills necessary to plan, start, and grow their own companies. So, everyone should be excited to learn from these individuals who are fighting poverty and directly improving people’s lives. “
Shana Berkeley on Corner to Corner’s “secret sauce” & Bill Gaertner on Gatekeeper’s key to success:
Berkeley: “One is everybody has passion. We don’t give them that and when you see people already having passion, you know that they have what it takes because it’s gotten them where they are and they are already on the road to where we are able to conspire with them and collaborate with them. You’re not saving them. You’re helping them and they’re helping you and that experience has been life-changing…”
Gaertner: “Our secret sauce is the fact that we’re run by ex-offenders. Almost everyone involved with our program are ex-offenders…. We all got together and realized that we could do something by having ex -offenders run this program [so that was] the secret sauce at the start.”
Shana Berkeley on using evidence to help validate Corner to Corner’s amazing work:
“The fact of the matter is randomized control studies and having data to really understand what you’re doing is very important. And so, when we partnered with the Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), we knew that it would be challenging and we knew that there would be some things that we would have to change, like having a control group.
“We actually had to learn what a control group was but it’s necessary because if you want to see what works and you do all this work and you hire all these people, you want to know what is the part that really makes a difference? How can you double down on that? And the things that are just lukewarm – okay, it was a great idea five years ago but it no longer works in the society or in the community that you live in – how can you then pivot? So, it’s necessary for us to be able to have measurement, to know what works, to share the story, to replicate it really well because, in our heart, we want to go into other communities and not make them [repeat] the last five years but instead get them to use the really good stuff.”
Bill Gaertner on how Gatekeepers is growing and making an impact in Maryland communities:
“Hagerstown is a prison-centric town. There are three state penitentiaries in Hagerstown and there’s one Detention Center. Our local detention center has around 370 people so when we were approached by LEO to join a study, it was like a forced fit. At first, we were the smallest group that they ever dealt with and so we kept talking with them but because it’s a prison-centric county, it could impact 40,000 people in the community.
“And Paul and I talked about this. He came to Hagerstown and we threw a big lunch that had 100 people there. We had the mayor and the whole village came out, but until ex-inmates took over the reentry program in that town, nothing happened. [The community] pretended that there were no prisons here. People did not know the difference between a prison and a detention center or the local county jail and that’s where all the poverty comes from…. So, we have a lot of problems in Hagerstown, but it was the perfect place to do this right.
“Keith [Roys of Gatekeepers] and I just established, thanks to the re-entry people who run the state of Maryland, we have an office of ex-offenders in the parole office. So, you report to your parole office when you’re coming back to Washington County and if you’re at the parole office and you have basic needs, you go down to the end of the hall and see Gatekeepers for your basic needs…
“That’s why we call it Gatekeepers. We try to meet as many people we can at the gate when they’re coming back to our county and I’m very proud to say that we’re the only organization in every penitentiary in the state of Maryland.
“We are operating within one of the penitentiaries that I was locked up in and we started, along with the re-entry people from the state of Maryland, a wing for re-entry. Right now, there are 18 men in there and they’re all getting out within a year so these people are coming back to Western Maryland and we’re trying to focus on taking care of our local people. These 18 men are going to have a reentry program for one year with ex-offenders leading it. So, we’re very proud about that.
“We’re inside the parole office. Now, we’re inside the prisons. We have a work release area that we’re helping run and we’re in Cumberland, Maryland Federal Penitentiary doing Business of Living seminars and we’re infiltrating the inside of the prison. The only way it’s going to work is from the inside out, not from the outside in. I know policy people might not like to hear that but you can’t shoot the deer from the lodge. You have got to work from the inside out.”
AEI’s Scott Winship on the role thought-leaders can play to assist front-line organizations:
“At our best, I think the folks who are in positions like mine, including policymakers, we’re coming up with ideas that can affect a lot of people, so those people in Nashville, people in Baltimore, in Hagerstown, and then a bunch of other places as well. We can see a lot of patterns that may not be apparent on the ground, put all the ideas and observations back together, and try to come up with solutions that are appropriate to the big problems of our time.
“At our worst, we’re coming up with incredibly impractical ideas without having set foot in some of the settings that you are working in every day. We are coming up with broken, utopian schemes that are basically unworkable. And so, it’s really important for folks in DC who are doing policy development and policy thinking, to have this reciprocity with folks who are everyday getting up and helping real people in the real world.
“We need to be able to understand from the folks who are there on the ground, the importance of things like social capital, which is a word that really speaks to the importance of relationships, like the fact that you have ex-offenders who are more effective at doing the things that [Gatekeepers is] doing because of their experience….
“I think, at our best, we can do things like what LEO is doing, where they have some expertise in being able to design program evaluations and can show you what is working, things that aren’t working as well, and they’re able to translate what you’re doing.”
This panel discussion with on-the-ground practitioners was part of a quarterly series of policy conversations hosted by the American Idea Foundation to draw attention to policies aimed at expanding economic opportunities. Past policy panels have focused on orienting our tax code towards growth, innovative financial tools to support workers, creating a clearinghouse for evidence-based programs, building a 21st century workforce, reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit, reducing recidivism and promoting 2nd chances, and properly implementing Opportunity Zones.
Note: Ryan is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.