Society management

Students behind bars have a lot to teach nonprofits and society

Places of detention grabbed the headlines – about the shortage of prison officers in county jails, high rates of COVID-19 infections in state prisons, and colleges offering programs leading to a degree in state and federal institutions.

This is encouraging in that the emphasis has been placed on the potential of those incarcerated when they are in good health, engaged in meaningful programs and in search of a better future. It is in this spirit of the future that I am involved in efforts to enroll students behind bars in programs leading to a university degree.

Our program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, called Scholars Serving Time, admitted a cohort of 12 women to Waseca Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security prison for Minnesota women offenders, to continue their education. associate of letters as well as a certificate in non-profit management.

As the director of the nonprofit leadership program at MSU, Mankato, I saw tremendous potential for this business. For the cohort members, of course, but more importantly for the nonprofit sector.

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The sector strives to tackle issues such as poverty, family violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and sexual abuse: these are the very issues faced by the majority of women entering the sector. criminal justice system. Some 35% of nonprofit organizations operating in the United States focus on these types of human services.

Yet those most affected by these issues are grossly under-represented at all levels of the industry, including boards of directors, volunteers, donors, staff, management and management.

Women in general are under-represented in governance and nonprofit leadership (although they still constitute the majority of staff and middle managers), although some progress has been made; however, when viewed through the lens of further inequities, the gaps are more pronounced.

Involving more women in the lived experiences that partly led to incarceration is essential to solving a myriad of societal problems. After all, it would be absurd to ask someone with my lived experience to design – without meaningful collaboration with directly affected populations – a program to address any of the above challenges, let alone their intersections. The hardest step is to define what the problem is, let alone create solutions, and some people are just in a better position to tell that story.

We of course work against our own innate biases. Many people in the nonprofit sector are well intentioned, but paternalistic in their approach. They are the judge and the jury on how “these people”, even if they would never say this sentence out loud, should live their lives, use their resources, raise their children, feed themselves and improve themselves in general. to become good citizens. In short, we don’t always trust people to tell us what the real problems and solutions are.

Kristi rendahl

Some will call me a bleeding heart liberal. Maybe I am. I empathize with those behind bars: some people get caught, some don’t, and some have qualified lawyers. But, more than that, I am pragmatic.

We all want a better community, which means different upstream responses, from systemic sexism and racism, to gaps in education, to accessible community services for mental health, addiction and violence prevention, to a human criminal justice system, to community reintegration services during and after incarceration, to the expectation and acceptance of the full participation of all community members.

Not solving these problems has implications for everyone. Failure to address these issues means that we are losing the potential of everyone involved. The loss of a human’s potential is a great tragedy, I believe. And not one person is immune.

If our stated intention for places of detention is to punish and nothing more, then that is one thing. But if we are the people I think we can be – people who are sincere in their intention to provide opportunities (sometimes more than one) for rehabilitation and participation – then every person should have the opportunity to live, to work. , to learn, to vote and to serve. .

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Nonprofits will always do better when the right people are at the table. And they won’t always have the richest pockets or the richest friends. Their richness will enrich the community, however: if we pay attention to them.

Kristi Rendahl is Associate Professor and Director of the Nonprofit Leadership Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.