Putting Their Prison Pasts Behind Them

America’s criminal justice system currently houses more than 2 million people — that’s more per capita than any other nation on earth. Even worse: Many are repeat offenders who haven’t been offered the support or resources to get their lives back on track once released.
This, along with the stigma attached to a criminal record, has a devastating effect on their job prospects, with an estimated 60 percent still out of work one year after release.
A new initiative, backed in part by the singer John Legend, is hoping to reverse those dire statistics. Unlocked Futures is a joint project of the philanthropic fund New Profit, Bank of America and Legend’s own nonprofit, FreeAmerica.
Over the course of 16 months, the accelerator, which recently announced its inaugural class, will provide support, funding and mentoring to eight people chosen for their visionary prison-reform efforts. These social entrepreneurs have more in common than just a dedication to helping former inmates flourish on the outside: All of them have been either incarcerated themselves or impacted by the criminal justice system in some way.
“Too often are formerly incarcerated individuals locked out of job opportunities because of their past,” Legend said last spring, when Unlocked Futures was announced. “I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods.”

“This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison,” says Will Avila of the Unlocked Futures program.

The initiative will support entrepreneurship as a powerful pathway out of the incarceration cycle, which costs America $80 billion a year in hard dollars and untold billions more in its negative impact on vulnerable families and communities. By amplifying organizations built by those whose lives have been rocked by the judicial system, Unlocked Futures also hopes to change public perception about the humanity and potential of people who refuse to be defined by their worst mistake.
The ventures founded by the first cohort of entrepreneurs and nourished by Unlocked Futures range from an app called Flikshop that lets people send photo postcards to loved ones behind bars to the Bronx, N.Y.-based Hope House, which provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women.
After spending a chunk of his teens and 20s in prison, Will Avila founded Clean Decisions, a commercial kitchen cleaning company that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated men in Washington, D.C., and its nonprofit offshoot, Changing Perceptions, which provides job training and reentry support to recently released inmates. Avila credits Unlocked Futures with validating his efforts and for giving him the confidence to inspire others.
“We are always waiting for someone to come tell us that we did something wrong, and as we get more success we struggle to know what to do because we don’t feel like we deserve it or that we belong,” says Avila. “This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison.”
In the nation’s capital, where Avila grew up, 71 percent of returning citizens were unemployed in 2015.
“There are a lot of reasons that’s the case,” he says, “but we all have felt that pain, as well as the pain of homelessness, substance abuse to numb this pain and anger that leads to violence. For this reason, when we do start our own enterprises, we want to give back. Entrepreneurship is a powerful cycle because almost every returning citizen I know is crafting a business that helps others who have served time.”

Singer John Legend is one of the key backers of Unlocked Futures.

Amanda Alexander, founder of the Detroit Justice Center, which provides community lawyering services and economic opportunities to those in and around the prison system, asserts that there is a boldness to the group’s ideas, as well as a sense of urgency.
“Folks in the cohort are always talking about the brothers and sisters they left behind in prison and wanting to reach a hand back to them,” says Alexander, whose father was locked up during a portion of her childhood. “I was fortunate to have support through my dad’s incarceration, and that’s allowed us to have a lifelong relationship. I want the same for other families. My aim is to ensure that families caught up in the criminal justice system aren’t shut out of the city’s future.”
And, she adds, Unlocked Futures helps good ideas spread faster.
“Ultimately, it’s not about the eight of us and our work. It’s about movement building,” Alexander says. “Mass incarceration has touched every part of our society, so it’s going to take a broad movement to bring it down.”
As for Jason Cleveland, founder of tech platform Obodo, which helps nonprofits serving returning citizens streamline data and training systems, Unlocked Futures affirms what he’s long believed ― that there are real market opportunities within the prison-reform movement and that it is possible to both care and prosper.
“For too long, efforts to serve have been hampered by lack of access to capital and an outdated notion that to do good, a person or an organization needs to be impoverished themselves,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is not just about starting businesses; it is about seeing problems as opportunities. It is about seeing beyond the now to what is possible.”
Whenever Cleveland visits prisons around his home state of Missouri, teaching what he calls “the entrepreneurial mindset,” he encounters a glut of potential business leaders.
“Most people there do not understand that they are already entrepreneurs. They don’t see that they have been finding unique solutions to problems their entire lives,” Cleveland says. “Oftentimes, when these people are provided with a framework for making different decisions and given the tools they need to move forward, they do.”

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Amanda Alexander’s father had been incarcerated more than once during her childhood. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

Putting the Power of Positivity Into Focus

It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”

Cinematographer and editor Codi Barbini on the Greek set of My Intention Was Not to Leave.

Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”
Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.

A Second Chance at the American Dream

“There are only three ways to create wealth: You either make it, you mine it or you grow it,” says Robert Trouskie, director of field services for the Workforce Development Institute, a New York nonprofit focused on growing and retaining well-paying jobs in the state. “The one that’s really lagged behind in the last two or three decades has been the making of things, but I think the pendulum is starting to [swing].”
Indeed, the U.S. saw about 5 million manufacturing jobs disappear between 2000 and 2014. But despite the loss, 400,000 positions still sit unfilled across the country. Most are for jobs that require special training — a need WDI has been addressing since 2003 by working with other organizations and unions to connect willing workers to available positions.
One such worker is Todd Holmquist, a recent graduate of WDI’s Accelerated Machinist Partnership, which combines classroom education with hands-on training in factories. After the aircraft plant where he worked closed in 2013, Holmquist’s income plummeted from about $80,000 a year to $20,000. He enrolled in the program just a week before his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Watch the video above to see how WDI helped turned Holmquist’s life, and employment prospects, around.

A Prison Sits Empty. A Nonprofit Moves In

As a social worker accustomed to prodding the minds of adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system, Noran Sanford has long been an inquisitive kind of guy. So when he discovered that six prisons had closed within a 50-mile radius of his home in rural Laurinburg, N.C., including one in the nearby town of Wagram, he began asking questions. Lots of them. “It was in that moment that I began putting together the idea that somebody should do something with these large sites,” Sanford says.
Enter the concept behind GrowingChange. The organization launched in 2011 to help reform and empower young ex-offenders, some barely into their teens, as they work to turn the abandoned prison in Wagram into a community farm and education center. The first group of 12 participants recruited by Sanford had all been arrested, expelled from school and kicked out of their homes — a combination of risk factors that Sanford calls the “unholy trinity,” especially when living in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
The Wagram site, which partially opened to the public for tours in October, has worked with 18 formerly incarcerated youth since its inception, with seven active participants today. The group was able to secure the property from the state’s Department of Public Safety, who agreed to donate the land after Sanford and two of his youth leaders pitched the idea. Sanford hopes they will eventually be able to sell the soil amendments and organic produce they’ve cultivated. So far, participants have grown food for needy local families, and are working to repurpose jail cells into aquaponics tanks and guard towers into climbing walls, among other initiatives. GrowingChange also provides intensive group therapy for its youth leaders.

This former prison has become a community farm and education center.

Analyzed over a three-year period, the prison-to-farm program was 92 percent effective in preventing recidivism among participants, Sanford says.
As the program has matured, so has its group of original participants, some of whom have stayed on to act as mentors to new recruits. Other young ex-offenders have been working to expand GrowingChange’s reach with a graphic-novel series, called Prison Flip Comics, that chronicles their troubled past; the goal is to use the comics as a learning tool distributed throughout North Carolina’s system of juvenile justice offices.
There are also teens who have embraced a more public-facing role, speaking at outside events and otherwise “sharing their stories about a personal experience of change,” says Simon Stumpf of Ashoka, which awarded Sanford a fellowship last year for his social entrepreneurship. Ashoka also provided funds to help scale GrowingChange. Sanford’s long-term goals include flipping 25 former prisons by 2025; currently, he estimates around 300 prisons sit empty across the U.S.
Despite GrowingChange’s small number of participants, other organizations have taken notice, reaching out from places as far away as the Netherlands, where Sanford traveled to present his model. And students from schools including the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have helped in areas like designing site plans and mapping the area with 3-D technology to share with the public what the site — which will eventually include housing for veterans and a counseling center — will look like once fully completed.
Sanford hopes to inspire prison authorities, government leaders, nonprofits, universities, foundations and others to think differently about unused prisons, taking an open-sourced approach by sharing what has, and hasn’t, worked at the Wagram facility. And that has him dreaming big.
“Our hope is to create a federated system of independent sites,” he says.

When the American Dream Becomes Human Rights Abuse

Christina Fialho was in law school with hopes of becoming an immigration attorney, when a friend’s father disappeared into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system. Later, they found out he’d been deported to Mexico. “To this day, she and her father are separated,” Fialho says.
After the incident, Fialho, whose great-grandfather, grandparents and dad all emigrated from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, made it her mission to learn more about what’s often an opaque and isolating process for undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. Once detained, “They can hire pro bono attorneys or pay for a private attorney, but 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented, because there is no right to a court-appointed attorney,” she says. Many can’t even afford to place costly calls to family members on the outside.
So Fialho, along with social justice advocate Christina Mansfield, cofounded Detention Dialogues in 2010, the first visitation program for immigrant detainees in California.
Bolstered by success of their joint effort, the two Christinas expanded their reach by building and coordinating a national network of visitation programs. In 2012, they launched Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement — or CIVIC for short — a national nonprofit that works to abolish detention centers by monitoring human rights abuses and offering alternates to the current system. The watchdog organization also advocates for legislative changes, such as limiting ICE’s expansion of detention centers, and it operates a free, confidential hotline for detainees to connect with family and to report any abuses. On average, CIVIC volunteers process around 14,000 calls a month from all 210 of the country’s immigration detention centers.
“The mere act of a visitation is great, but turning that into a tool for advocacy was really where we saw the potential for systemic change,” says Erica Lock, director of fellowship programs at Echoing Green, a nonprofit that helped Fialho and Mansfield launch CIVIC.

CIVIC co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, which helps fight the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers.


The myriad issues facing immigrants in detention — including substandard medical care, prolonged imprisonment and poor nutrition — are stark, and they’re only getting worse. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been more than 175 confirmed deaths in detention centers nationwide. Since October 2016, 11 immigrants have died while in custody, the highest number since 2011.
Between January 2010 and July 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual or physical abuse in immigration detention facilities, with just 1.7 percent of those complaints leading to an investigation by the federal government. “If we can educate the public and our legislators about how our tax dollars go to perpetrating human and civil rights abuses, that’s one step toward change,” Fialho says. “The second is providing alternatives to [detention centers].”
The alternatives championed by CIVIC work similarly to refugee resettlement programs, says Fialho, in which a nonprofit typically steps in to help immigrants obtain housing, a social security card and, if necessary, legal support. “Individuals may spend weeks, months or even years in detention centers,” says Fialho. “We’ve been working to get those people released and provide them with support.”
CIVIC’s efforts have been “critically important” in helping detainees feel less isolated, supporting their legal cases and advocating on their behalf, says Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She also sees potential for change through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bipartisan law passed in 2003 and standardized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014 to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and assault at its detention centers.
The hope, says Lopez, is that CIVIC’s “recent efforts in telling the stories and collecting information about sexual assaults will have an impact on how the implementation of PREA moves forward.”


This past summer CIVIC, along with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, successfully advocated for the inclusion of a provision in a California budget bill that limits ICE’s expansion of detention centers in the state. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and it bars all new contracts between local municipalities and ICE for the next 10 years. CIVIC also co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, recently signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, that freezes the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers — another first in the U.S.
“Our budget bill stopped the spread of immigration detention facilities run by county jails in California,” Fialho says, noting that 70 percent of people detained in the state and nationwide are held in for-profit facilities.
Increasingly, Fialho has her sights on shaping policy at the national level. Her team has already began filing federal civil rights complaints, including one that alleges rising sexual abuse inside the centers and another that claims detainees at one California facility are frequently denied visits from attorneys and family members.
Fialho and CIVIC have also consulted on a federal budget amendment to stop immigrant detention expansion nationwide and are co-sponsors of a new bill introduced in October called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which builds upon the organization’s achievements in California. “We’ve been able to push for policy change,” says Fialho. “That’s been really powerful.”

Could Field Trips Push Kids Past Their Violent Realities?

Many first heard of Chicago’s Harper High School in 2013 on “This American Life. The radio show devoted two episodes to the school after a whopping 29 of its current and recent students were shot in a single year.
But Imran Khan first got to know the students there, on a much deeper level, when he began teaching at Harper in 2008. He saw firsthand the impact that poverty, gangs and violence had on his students. He also noticed that, despite living in the country’s third-largest city, the kids he taught rarely ventured beyond a several-block radius; it was simply too dangerous.
In essence, the students were isolated, leaving them without exposure to the people and experiences that could inspire them to go to college and then on to rewarding careers.
So Khan began taking some of the students on nearby trips — to restaurants, universities, grocery stores and museums. The journeys, he says, opened their eyes to possible career paths, like becoming a cook, a chef, even a restaurateur. Other students became more interested in the arts, or intrigued by fresh produce they had never before seen, let alone tasted.
“They had a distorted sense of self-efficacy and were not quite grasping [that it was up to them] to change their situation,” says Khan, who took what he learned leading these journeys and created a three-year extracurricular program, called Embarc, in 2010.

Imran Khan launched Embarc to empower students in one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods to step out of their comfort zones and embrace new opportunities.

In the seven years since, Embarc has focused on providing real-world “experiences,” partnering with more than 250 local organizations and companies willing to open their doors to the low-income students who participate. Nearly 40 teachers at 20 schools have signed on to the program, which has been integrated into Chicago Public Schools’ course catalog, and Embarc is pushing to expand its impact both in Chicago and other cities across the U.S.
“It is imminently scalable,” says Eboo Patel, a mentor and founding president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “It’s a great three-pointer in a broader set of plays that America needs to have in order to level the playing field.”
Khan is quick to point out, however, that Embarc “isn’t a pity party” focused on society’s haves and have-nots. The journeys and experiences instead are built on fostering trust, goodwill and confidence.
For one team activity, students meet on neutral territory in downtown Chicago and separate into pairs. With adult supervision, they have about 90 minutes to find and check off a list of city landmarks. The rules? The pair of students must take two forms of transportation, and one of the them has to remain blindfolded.
“The fear level is so high, but everyone has to do it,” says Khan, 37. “After that, you learn massive amounts of trust and how to ask other people for help. That kind of journey can happen in any city.”
During restaurant visits, students can shadow employees on the job, chip in to help and taste a few dishes while learning about their ingredients. “There’s a sense of belonging and accomplishment,” says Khan.
Embarc students on a field trip to Brooklyn Boulders.

Through these kinds of activities and tours, Khan is proving that experiential development has as much a role to play as cognitive development when it comes to education. Ninety-seven percent of Embarc’s participants have graduated high school, Khan says, and 93 percent have enrolled in college, including both two- and four-year programs.
“Oftentimes you hear complaints that young people are throwing away this education that’s been gifted or given to them,” says Simon Stumpf, director of venture and fellowship for Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs. But, he adds, Khan’s “sense is that they don’t know what door that key opens — we need to help them unlock intrinsic motivation so they can use that key.” Last year, Khan was selected as an Ashoka Fellow to help scale Embarc’s work.
Ultimately, foundations and grants may drive Embarc’s expansion outside Chicago. But Khan envisions a model that could move beyond donations — where cities, schools or partner organizations access an Embarc “blueprint,” and then scale the program in their own districts. Patel admits that finding long-term funding to support Embarc’s core mission will be tricky.
“You have to get lucky, and you have to be strategic,” he says.

The Job-Training Program Giving City Kids a Reason to Hope

As urban areas across the nation experience renewal and transformation, Camden, N.J., is at the beginning of its renaissance.
The city — once known as America’s most dangerous — has been experiencing dramatic decreases in gun crime and violence, namely an 80 percent reduction in homicides during the first three months of 2017. That’s good news for Camden, which has also become a testing ground for tech nonprofits that want to help beleaguered youth find their way out of neighborhoods riddled with gang violence and into well-paying tech jobs.
But for Camden’s young residents, an increase in opportunity might not necessarily mean a better economic future.
“We had seen too many times in Camden, programs that had trained young people the same way, the same old skills, the same old methodology. Our young people needed something different,” says Dan Rhoton, executive director for Hopeworks ‘N Camden. “Our young people needed training, they needed healing, so that they could get a career that not only gave them a pathway to the future, but offered them sustainable opportunities now.”
Other nonprofits work to get minority students or young girls interested in tech jobs, but Rhoton says that the biggest challenge most of those organizations face isn’t getting kids interested — it’s that they don’t address the trauma that comes along with poverty or exposure to violence.
By using therapy as a means to address deep issues that can affect work ethic and personal integrity, Hopeworks has been successful in providing a steady stream of quality graduates that are career-focused and mentally prepared for work.
“Our young people have been hurt. Their legs have been broken, and yet we put them at the starting line with everyone else and tell them to run,” says Rhoton. “When they struggle, when they fall over, what too many programs do is they say, ‘Try harder,’ or they say, ‘You’re not motivated.’ If my leg is broken, motivation is not the issue — healing is.”
Hopeworks began 17 years ago under the guidance of three faith-based community leaders that “looked out on the streets and saw young people with no dreams, saw young people with no opportunities,” says Rhoton. The program was meant to address some of the biggest challenges in Camden at the time: getting teens from the tough streets of one of America’s most challenging and economically poor cities into more fulfilling careers in tech.
With a background working at detention centers and bringing education to those formerly incarcerated, Rhoton came to Hopeworks in 2012. At the time, the organization was experiencing problems, namely that it was only seeing a 10 percent success rate.
“We were bad at our job,” he says, adding that the low success rate was the catalyst for Hopeworks to focus on personal issues, such as abuse or neglect that can hamper a student’s ability to learn. “We decided that a 10 percent, or 20 percent, 30 percent success rate wasn’t okay.”
“Yes, young people need to learn technology, but if you can help them deal with what’s happened to them, then you can help them show up on time, you can make sure they’re ready for work,” Rhoton says. “It’s harder, it’s longer.”
Brandon Rodriguez, a 19-year-old student intern for Hopeworks and lifelong Camden resident, says that when he joined the organization, he was only looking for a gig learning graphic design.
“When you come into Hopeworks, you have this pre-conceived notion that you’re coming here for an internship, or you’re coming here to just talk to someone. You don’t think you’re gonna get as much as you get.” he says. “I’ve only been here for less than a week, about five days now, but the opportunities started flying my way.”
Student-turned-mentor Frankie Matas graduated in 2013. Today he works with incoming Hopeworks students.
“Everybody learns different. If some people need to show them a different way, I help them in that aspect,” he says. “Hopeworks noticed that about me, and that’s what got me to become the first youth trainer. It helped me become a better leader.”
That aspect of youth training and leadership is key, says Rhoton.
“It’d be one thing if someone who looked like me was teaching you how to code, but if it’s someone who, just a few weeks ago, was standing on the corner with you, that’s a powerful message about who can do it, and how you can do it,” says Rhoton.
To that extent, Hopeworks has been successful since Rhoton came on board. The program has seen a 300 percent increase in students going into college and employs nearly 50 students each year after graduation to work within their studios, which take in $600,000 in annual revenue designing websites, among other things. Other participants land part-time and full-time jobs in the tech market, says Rhoton.
“What we wanna do is we wanna make sure we change the equation,” says Rhoton. “So that our young people are not only able to change their lives, but they’re able to change lives in the next generation, as well.
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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They’re Finding Hope for Their Future in Comic Books and Journal Entries

When Kevin Vaughn Jr., a 15-year-old from North Philadelphia, wrote a letter to victims of police brutality, he did so from a perspective that many in his community say they share. Namely, that being young and black in America is a raw deal.
“I am sorry you were treated as something less than human,” he wrote. “No matter who or what you are, you should be respected as a human, a citizen, and an American. … Use your experience to make a difference.”
The letter wasn’t intended to be read by anyone other than him and his classmates, a group of about a dozen teens from some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Vaughn Jr. wrote it for a writing workshop that encourages young people like him to record their thoughts and feelings in a journal — punctuation, spelling and grammar be damned. The point wasn’t to get a good grade; it was simply recording his experience that mattered.
Vaughn Jr. is taking part in Mighty Writers, a program that teaches writing skills to students between the ages of 7 and 17. The nonprofit works with about 2,500 kids annually, exposing them to everything from playwriting to comic book creation through after-school classes, night and weekend workshops, and summer sessions. Boosting literacy skills is crucial in a city like Philadelphia, where nearly half of the population lacks even the basic reading skills to hold down a job. The idea behind Mighty Writers is that kids who master writing also make better decisions, have higher self-esteem and achieve greater success as they enter adulthood.
The first step is getting them to think creatively, says Amy Banegas, program administrator for the North Philadelphia chapter of Mighty Writers. This summer, Banegas, a 14-year teaching veteran of North Philadelphia schools, is holding weeklong summer sessions at the Mighty Writers location just north of the city’s burgeoning Center City neighborhood. It’s the fourth writing center the nonprofit has opened since its founding in 2009.
Despite downtown Philadelphia’s booming economy, the local school system is flailing. The cash-strapped district, which educates about 130,000 students, has had a hard time retaining permanent teachers, resulting in dramatically low test scores across the city. To save money, the education department will reportedly begin closing three schools a year starting in 2019.
All of this is bad news in a city where nearly a quarter of the population can’t read or write beyond an eighth-grade level, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, the most recent year information is available. 
“Literacy is horrible in North Philly, from kids to adults. And as parents, you can’t help your child read or write if you can’t do it yourself,” says Banegas, who sees many sophomores enter her program at a fourth-grade reading level. “It’s sad that it’s not shocking.”

Kevin Vaughn Jr., 15, puts his thoughts on paper during a Mighty Writers workshop.

Mighty Writers’ network of 400 volunteers, made up largely of filmmakers, musicians and journalists, attempts to combat that by providing structure through consistent writing exercises based on the issues that affect the kids who attend. In one recent session, for example, students learned how to channel their voices to become advocates for justice and equality.
Mighty Writers measures the impact of their program by assessing participants’ writing development using a tech platform. Additionally, the organization tracks students’ self-reporting on writing motivation and writing stamina over time. Education director Rachel Loeper says that she’s seen improvement among the students who attend.
There have been other city-based organizations that are similar to Mighty Writers. One is Writers Matter  at La Salle University, which focuses on middle schools students. Professor Robert Vogel created the program in 2005 and says writing classes like it are imperative in urban areas with large populations of low-income and special-needs students.
“The writing programs in most large cities are pretty minimal and don’t really address the adolescent issues these students experience. Schools there just aren’t as well-funded as they are in suburban and rural areas,” Vogel says. “It’s a whole different social-economic dynamic in inner cities. As a result, the resources aren’t that good, and the challenges are much greater.”
At the Mighty Writers summer workshop that NationSwell attended, the topic at hand was the state of “being unapologetically black.” Students discussed police violence against African-Americans — specifically the deaths that have dominated headlines over the past five years — and then wrote in their journals. That these kids would have strong feelings about cops isn’t a surprise. In 2015, a federal study found that 81 percent of police shootings in the city targeted black residents in North Philadelphia. Just last month, a policeman in North Philadelphia’s 15th precinct shot and killed an armed black man after he was stopped for recklessly riding a dirt bike.
“It’s not just a workshop,” says Banegas. “It’s about self-growth and connecting to community.”
Those are qualities that Vogel, who conducted a three-year study on the effectiveness of his Writers Matter program, says are necessary for future success.
“There’s an emotional and social impact, and a building of confidence among the children that is hard to measure, but we’ve been able to see [those positive results] through interviews with [participants],” he says. “These kinds of programs have an impact that goes beyond the academic.”
Vaughn Jr., the 15-year-old who penned a letter to victims of excessive police force, says he’s learned to appreciate the practice of keeping a journal since enrolling in Mighty Writers.
“I find value in it because it’s a great way to let you know what you’re thinking and feeling,” he says. “It’s just keeping note as to where you are as a person.”
Homepage photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari
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How a Service Year Helps Turn Four Walls Into a Home

“A home, to me, is much more than four walls and a roof,” says Adam Hunt, a site supervisor for Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte, N.C. “I try to build homes — where you have Christmas and where you have birthdays, where you come home soaking wet after a rainy day, those kinds of things. That’s home.” As a child growing up in Lynn Haven, Fla., Hunt lived in a home built by Habitat for Humanity, an organization that constructs affordable housing and promotes home ownership for low-income families. While Hunt’s house was being built, he put in a 5-year-old’s version of “sweat equity” — picking up stray nails around the property — just like every other Habitat resident.
In this episode of NationSwell’s eight-part mini documentary series on service years, watch how AmeriCorps service year corps members help increase Habitat’s ability to provide affordable housing in Charlotte.
“[Habitat] meant a great deal of stability for myself and my family,” Hunt says. “I want to be able to give other families that same opportunity.”
NationSwell asks you to join our partnership with Service Year Alliance. Watch the video above and ask Congress to support federal funding for national service. Together, we can lead a national movement to give young Americans the opportunity to help bridge the divides in our country.

6 Stunning Art Projects That Are Making Cities Healthier

Communities coast to coast have added artistic flourishes to troubled or abandoned neighborhoods. But revitalizing areas takes additional finesse — and, oftentimes, creative placemaking projects capable of connecting segregated communities. Here are some of the public art efforts that have helped do just that.

Forty works of art, including “Valence” by Michael Cottrell, are located along a sculpture trail in Huntsville.

Huntsville, Ala.

The midsize Southern enclave of Huntsville always had public art tucked in here and there, but it lacked a comprehensive way to tie those works into the greater landscape. With its profile on the rise, Huntsville created a master plan to make large-scale art more accessible and better integrated into public spaces. This targeted approach has resulted in collaborative projects like SPACES, a revolving sculpture trail with nearly 40 works by 22 artists from 12 different states. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, in 2015, Huntsville’s art initiatives generated nearly $90 million in economic activity while supporting the equivalent of 3,073 full-time jobs.

Philadelphia’s Porchlight Project is made up of numerous pieces of public art, including “Sanctuary” by James Burns.


The mission of the city’s Porch Light program: to strengthen community wellness through public art. By working with those suffering from mental disorders, trauma and substance abuse, Philadelphia has shown how civic engagement can foster healing and challenge social stigmas, while simultaneously giving the existing landscape a meaningful makeover. Since the program’s inception in 2007, dozens of massive murals have been erected throughout the city, providing opportunities (like community “paint days”) for the public to contribute to the meaningful works of art. And research has shown that public art really can promote public health. Philly residents living within one mile of a newly installed mural reported an increase in social cohesion and trust among neighbors, according to a study by the Yale School of Medicine.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe have visited the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

In 1986, troubled by the violence and blight of Motor City’s East Side, local artist Tyree Guyton began transforming empty homes and lots, as well as nearby sidewalks, streets and trees, into a massive public installation. Dubbed the Heidelberg Project, the colorful houses and funky sculptures made mostly from recycled materials and found objects, have attracted an estimated 200,000 visitors annually and generated millions to the local economy since its inception. Last year, Guyton began removing some smaller, less prominent installations on Heidelberg Street to make room for a new vision: Heidelberg 3.0, which organizers say will continue the transformation of the McDougall Hunt neighborhood “into a self-sustainable cultural village for residents and visitors alike.”
Artists Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn were commissioned to create this work, which is located in one of Baltimore’s parks.


Arts programming got a boost when four Baltimore nonprofits banded together to raise the profile of the long blighted area now known as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED). Though it lies just north of a major commuting hub, most travelers pass through the zone without ever leaving the station. To encourage passersby to stick around, SNAED holds programs and performances, such as Final Fridays, a monthly public art event, and the “Think Big” awards, which supports local artists, in empty lots and abandoned buildings. Though the neighborhood has long suffered high vacancy rates, it’s become a cultural center, with numerous arts and entertainment venues and several artist live-work spaces opening in recent years.

By bringing in more pedestrian activity, Greensboro’s Over.Under.Pass has contributed to the revitalization of an abandoned area of the city.

Greensboro, N.C.

After plans for a roughly four-mile, multi-use walking and biking greenway started coming together in 2001, the local nonprofit Action Greensboro saw an opportunity to help revitalize Greensboro’s city center by installing public art along the route. The project Over.Under.Pass transformed a long-abandoned railroad trestle with Art Deco-style iron sculptures and interactive light displays. Action Greensboro also commissioned ColorHaus, which brought together artists to paint bright, Bauhaus-inspired murals on highway overpass concrete supports. The economic impact of the pedestrian walkway has exceeded expectations, with high visitorship in particular to the Over.Under.Pass section of the trail. “Over.Under.Pass is unlike anything that has been done before in Greensboro,” said project manager Dabney Sanders, “and the interactive aspect of the installation has been particularly well received.”

Inspired by Spartanburg’s textile past, an artist used the worn brick surface of a smokestack as a canvas for a high-powered LED light display.

Spartanburg, S.C.

Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” a dynamic public art project built as part of the annual National Night Out, promoted crime prevention, strengthened police-community relations and fostered neighborhood camaraderie. Funded by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “Seeing Spartanburg” brought temporary LED-light installations, including “Glow,” which transformed two of the city’s towering smokestacks into multicolored beacons, and “Benchmark Spartanburg,” a long public bench backed by pulsating lights, to 10 local neighborhoods. According to Jennifer Evins, president and CEO of Chapman Cultural Center, the project began to “cultivate relationships between local residents and law enforcement officers, which is a step towards reducing crime.”
MORE: Want to Fight Urban Blight? Wield Art as a Weapon
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Evins is the president and CEO of The Arts Partnership. NationSwell apologizes for the error.