Academic Philosophy and Fair Chance Hiring: Thoughts from Dr. Eric Martin

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates in America. In Texas as in many southern US states, an astounding 1% of all males are currently in prison. People are regularly sentenced to decades in jail for non-violent, first-time offenses such as drug possession. And we know that America’s mass incarceration disproportionately affects minorities.

The effects of a conviction last long after one’s debt to society is repaid. Past convictions keep people from improving their lives in the future; their histories trap them and stop them from moving on. People with criminal records face enormous challenges securing the most basic necessities in life, especially employment. Texas now has over 8 million felony criminal records in its database,* so in a state with 26 million people, a significant fraction of our neighbors will struggle to find a job, not because of their abilities, but because of a past offense.

Job application forms currently include a box that identifies the applicant’s criminal history, which typically rules them out of consideration before they even have a chance. The current movement to “ban the box” in McLennan County would give those with criminal histories a better chance at employment by removing that box from the first round of the application process. They would be judged based on their merits and experience rather than a past conviction. Their conviction would still be made known, but only at the later stage, if they have been identified as a good candidate. The decision to hire would remain with the employer — the change only alters that very first round of applications.

We need reforms that will stop denying employment to ex-offenders. This need is so compelling that I will here illustrate two entirely different lines of thought that could each be used to support the same conclusion, namely a fairer shot at employment for ex-offenders. As an academic philosopher, my work deals with some of the theories of justice and of political order that are debated by scholars and implemented by policymakers. I’ll briefly mention two rich political traditions and show how they bear on fair employment. Pick one of these, or both, or some other argument entirely, but I hope they will illustrate how there are many different arguments supporting fair hiring policies.

The first is from Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, whose landmark 1971 book “A Theory of Justice” has enjoyed enduring influence. Broadly speaking, Rawls’ ideas fit into the classical liberal tradition which says that the function of government is to secure individual liberty and basic rights that are needed for people to live freely chosen lives. At the heart of Rawls’ theory are two principles: 1) that everyone has the same right to a set of basic liberties and 2) that social and economic inequalities are permissible so long as they are generated through fair equality of opportunity, and that they benefit the least-advantaged members of society. Both conditions of the second principle are relevant to our discussion. Both would be closer to being fulfilled if ex-offenders were not facing such severe hurdles to work. One reason is because being denied the right to work directly prevents the equality of opportunity that Rawls articulates. Ex-offenders are not falling behind in the workforce and in economic security  because they are lazy or uneducated or not interested in work: they are falling behind because they are simply not allowed to work. A further consideration is that fairer employment would go at least some way towards alleviating America’s increasing economic disparities. Because poorer people are over-represented within the criminal justice system, there is every reason to think that fair hiring policies will be especially helpful to poorer Americans. Because Rawls’ system tolerates inequalities but only when the least-advantaged people are better off, then fairer access to work will help: it would create fairer opportunities and would especially benefit poorer people.

The second line of thought comes from a very different political tradition, developed in part as a reaction to Rawls and other classical liberal theorists, called communitarianism. Communitarianism emphasizes ideals that are often overshadowed by liberalism’s focus on individual freedom and autonomy. For example, communitarians claim that individuals are strongly shaped by social relationships; and when it comes to practical political deliberation, communitarians prioritize the importance of tradition and social context. So this tradition could permit explicitly religious considerations in political dialogue, whereas the Rawlsian tradition would suggest that such “private” beliefs are best set aside for the purposes of public debate, which (it claims) requires a set of universally-held values and premises. If such religious considerations are legitimate expressions of public values, then, given the demographics of the Waco area, Christian values might be marshaled to help the plight of ex-offenders. Christian scriptures have a well-known “bias to the poor” (as it was called in a recent letter from Church of England bishops) that could be used to support reforms helping ex-offenders find employment. Jesus’ peculiar commitment to prisoners and other marginalized members of society suggest that the Christian tradition following his example would take special interest in the well-being of this, and other, disenfranchised people.

These two lines of thought, Rawlsian liberalism and communitarianism, are obviously very different. What unites them is their shared belief that we are all deeply connected with one another. This is an old ideal that has animated many different philosophies — not to mention religions. Aristotle thought it was obvious that our neighbor’s well-being is relevant to our own happiness. The 18th century poet-priest John Donne memorably put it, “No man is an island entire of itself.” And Rawls writes that “In justice as fairness, men agree to share one another’s fate.”

Current policies that unfairly deny employment to our neighbors do not make for fates I want to share. We should do better.

Dr. Eric Martin, Assistant Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, Baylor University

*Source: US Dept. of Justice Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2012

Invitations…

Lent is an invitation to practice our faith in radical ways,

preparing us to join God in the big Spirit ideas that birth abundant life,

that transform us through Love,

and shower our grace-starved world with God’s revolutionary mercy.

Lent is an invitation to practice disciplines that lead us

to deeply share in the struggle of the poor and marginalized,

to see and embrace and learn from the outcast and shunned ones,

to joyfully carry each other’s burdens,

and to follow Jesus, the condemned criminal that he is,

into direct confrontation with the powers that steal and kill and destroy.

Those were the last two sentences of a chapel talk I was invited to share at Baylor University on February 3, 2016.  I was asked to discuss Lent and share about my journey of practicing Lent in the uniform of the imprisoned in 2014.   Watch the entire service here (the prayer and introduction begin at about 17:45 but you will miss some great praise and worship beforehand).

Lent is an invitation.  It is an invitation to embrace change.

Lent changes us.  Maybe not the world as we want it to, but our world as we need it to.

As we enter this Holy Lenten Season again, we continue to invite you to join us in a movement for change on behalf of the millions of our neighbors who suffer under the devastating realities of mass incarceration and its collateral consequences.  In particular, we invite you to join us in our Fair Chance Hiring Policy Initiatives.  We are seeking changes in local hiring policies to ensure that people with criminal records are given a fair chance to show their qualifications for jobs they desperately want, instead of being unfairly discriminated against because of past mistakes that they have already atoned for.  We invite you, Lent invites you, to join us in the following opportunities as we seek to build solidarity with and creatively advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the struggle:

Buy a t-shirt and wear it on Wednesdays during Lent. 

Shirts are $10 and are available at the main Mission Waco office, 1315 N. 15th St., Waco, TX 76707.  Or email us at 40daysinorange@gmail.com if you want a shirt and do not live in the Waco area.  We can ship you a shirt for a small shipping fee.

Join us for Locked In Solidarity.

5:30 pm Thursday, February 11, 2016 at the Meyer Center Chapel, 1226 Washington Ave., Waco, TX 76701Locked in Solidarity Flyer .jpg

Lenten Community Worship

Join the downtown churches for combined
community worship in our various churches
on Wednesdays during Lent. Following
each service, we will also share food
truck lunch and fellowship at each location.
Worship will be 12:15-12:45 p.m.each day.
Wed., February 17th: 7th & James Baptist
Wed., February 24th: Austin Avenue United Methodist Church
Wed., March 2nd: University Baptist Church
Wed., March 16th: First Lutheran Church

Fair Chance Rally

Saturday March 19, 2016
Heritage Square, Downtown Waco
Join local and state elected leaders in support of fair chance hiring policies and practices!

More opportunities to come, so stay tuned!

Rally for a Fair Chance Hiring Policy!

Hey Waco-McLennan County, come join us for a Fair Chance Hiring Policy Rally! 10 am Saturday April 25 at Heritage Square-Downtown Waco. Invite others! Share the flyer! Come rally for all those who need a fair chance for employment! Hope to see you there.

T-shirts will be available at the Rally for a special rally price of $10 each.  Join us in Orange!

Fair Chance Rally FlyerFair Chance t-shirts

Going Back for Judas

On this Good Friday, I invite you, and strongly encourage you, to read the penetrating and difficult, humble and life-giving words of my friend and hero, Jeanne Bishop — “Going Back for Judas”.

This week I have had strep.  As with so many over the past several months, our household has been through many various illnesses.  Thus, we immediately went into quarantine mode.  I was sent into isolation, forbidden to touch, getting close, sometimes even breathing.  This illness would not spread!

And I felt the isolation — it hurt!  I just wanted a hug!!!  Longing for the comforting touch of my wife’s hand and the warmth of my children’s arms wrapped around me, I began to grieve for those who live under this alienating reality every day of their lives.  The terminally ill.  Those with chronic diseases.  The shamed ones.  The guilty.  The condemned.  As I reflected on the physical ways we isolate those we fear, I realized we also socially quarantine those we are afraid will spread whatever it is we desire to avoid.  And I wondered how bad it must hurt them, how deeply they may just want, and need, a hug.

Jeanne Bishop realizes what it means to hug those we fear and isolate and turn away from.  She has gone back for Judas.  Will we?

Today, Good Friday, is about the power of forgiveness. A love that heals through brokenness.  A power that confronts death and conquers evil.  A going back for Judas.  It’s about the great big bear hug that is the Cross.  The warmest, most life-giving, alienation-defying embrace that all of us need and desire.

One way — out of so, so many that we often ignore and resist — that we might hug those in need of a respite from their social isolation is through a Fair Chance Hiring Policy.  Seriously.  An embrace that says we see you, we don’t need to fear you, we want you close to us — as our employees and our co-workers and our fellow productive community members.  A word of forgiveness and new beginnings for those who have been cast aside and alienated in ways the rest of us can never fully understand.  A great big bear hug of a fair chance in the process to get a job.

Sign our petition for a Fair Chance Hiring Policy for Waco-McLennan County.

Together, let’s go back for Judas.  As we do, we might just find the hug we need, not just Judas.

Prosper Waco, indeed, with a Fair Chance Hiring Policy.

More than 65 million American adults have criminal records, largely due to the boom of mass incarceration over the past 30 years. That means it is highly likely that one in four adults in Waco-McLennan County have an adverse criminal history that relegates them to second-class status the rest of their lives. They’re part of the one social group that we are free to hate, it is legal to discriminate against, and toward which we openly perpetuate “the feeling of being lesser than… a gut wrenching, self-worth-stealing experience,” as described to me by a young woman from our community.

All too often, they can’t get housing or drive a car, can’t find a job, are mounted with massive debt and lose much of their social support system. Often they cannot vote or serve on a jury. Locked out of society, their dignity battered and hanging by a thread, it is no wonder that many are forced back behind bars or into the shackles, whether literal or figurative, from which they came. Try as hard as they might to make a new life, the discrimination against them is legal and a lifetime of shame, derision and exclusion awaits. This is the world of the one-in-four Wacoans with a criminal record.

Those of us with the power to change things must act. Compassionately and reasonably, we must use our resources to provide fair chances for new beginnings for our neighbors and fellow citizens.

A Fair Chance Hiring Policy is one way we can act.

We must eliminate unfair and unreasonable barriers to employment for qualified workers with criminal records. One way to accomplish this task is through a Fair Chance Hiring Policy. Across the United States, more than 70 cities and counties, 13 states (from every region of the country) and numerous private businesses have embraced the opportunity to provide fair chances during the hiring process by removing the question on initial job applications asking about an applicant’s criminal record history.

A Fair Chance Hiring Policy would still allow for employers to perform background checks and discuss criminal record history with applicants. It would just push this discussion back to later in the hiring process, to a point where an applicant has been deemed initially qualified for the job. At this time, the employer can provide an individualized assessment of the applicant (as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the applicant’s qualifications for a particular job and if the individual’s specific criminal history indicates the applicant cannot perform the job safely and satisfactorily.

Providing stable employment increases public safety, reduces recidivism, decreases costs to our economy, and saves taxpayer dollars.  A Fair Chance Hiring Policy enlarges the applicant pool and provides employers the opportunity to find more qualified employees.  In the 2013 Texas Legislative Session, lawmakers passed a law that limits the liability of employers who employ persons with criminal records.  Employers who hire people with criminal records also receive other benefits such as tax credits and insurance bonds.  The movement is a win-win-win-win-win situation.

We all win.

Waco-McLennan County must not just join this movement. It must lead it. We should adopt a city and countywide Fair Chance Hiring Policy that would not only provide people with criminal records a fair chance for a new life but also yield many significant social and economic benefits for our community overall.

Prosper Waco, indeed, with a Fair Chance Hiring Policy.

If you are an employer or someone with hiring responsibilities and you are interested in learning more, please email us. If you are a concerned citizen ready to advocate for those in need around these issues, please email us. You can also read more about these issues and proposals on this blog, especially on the Fair Chance tab and on days 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, and 21. Our email is 40daysinorange@gmail.com.

Together with the McLennan County Reintegration Roundtable and its efforts to put former felons back into the mainstream of American life as well as Prosper Waco’s emphasis on financial security, education, and health for our community, the time is ripe.  Waco-McLennan County, let’s lead the way for fair chances for all.

Worship

“Authentic Christian worship is a disturbing event.  In worship, God is present among us, challenging us to recognize sin, embrace our enemies, transform our lives, and proclaim the kingdom in the world.  It is a dangerous, precarious, explosive undertaking.”

— Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley in Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, p. 52

Join us for this dangerous, precarious, explosive undertaking every Wednesday during Lent.  We are not the organizers of this event, but we will be willing participants.  So, wear your Orange in solidarity and in acted out prayer for those who suffer injustice related to a broken criminal justice system.

You can buy a t-shirt for $12 at the Mission Waco main office at 1315 N. 15th St., Waco, TX 76707.  Call 254-753-4900 to check on availability.  We have only some XLs left until Wednesday, when we will get a new batch in with various sizes.  Also, email us at 40daysinorange@gmail.com if we need to arrange shipping for you.  We welcome support from anywhere we can get it!

Lenten services flyer

Orange again, sort of

Greetings friends of the marginalized!  Many have been asking me, but I am not in Orange again this year for Lent (more on that later).  Well, at least not the official Orange uniform of the imprisoned.  Instead, a small but growing group of folks here in Waco (and we hope beyond as it progresses) will be wearing orange T-shirts on Wednesdays (and perhaps other times) during Lent. The T-shirts look like this for now.

Fair Chance T-shirts

The quote on the front comes from my final 40 Days in Orange experience with Juan, as shared in this paragraph.  That’s Juan’s actual prison number.  He has agreed to share his story in the near future.  But here is my story with Juan:  “Finally, my parents are in town for the weekend so we went to a local restaurant for some takeout.  As we waited for our food, a couple of the staff mentioned that they had been reading about me.  I gave them my usual smile and thanks, and kept sipping my water.  And then Juan came up to our table where we waited.  He said he heard what I was doing and wanted to shake my hand.  He knew what I was wearing.  He had been there.  He thanked me.  I asked how long he had been out.  Two years.  And he had been blessed with a job at this restaurant since he got out.  Things were going pretty well for him, praise God.  But I could still see a remnant of that shame that we unnecessarily and without mercy place on people like Juan.  We shook hands again, he thanked me, I told him it was a blessing for me, and he concluded, ‘We’re not all bad people.’ “

Amen, Juan, Amen.

Let us know if you want a T-shirt!  Email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com.  $12 each.

Our purpose is to advocate and build awareness for a Fair Chance Hiring Policy campaign for the greater Waco community and beyond.  We will be posting further details on what a Fair Chance Hiring Policy means and how it benefits everyone in the community.  However, a good way to refresh would be by re-reading some of the following links (see below) from last year, if interested.

As people of faith who follow a condemned criminal who provides chance after chance after chance for new life, we cannot keep silent about the dehumanizing stigma attached to those with criminal records.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer.  This Lenten season, please remember those who suffer, find ways to join with them in solidarity, and use what power you have to be a voice of grace.  In the end, isn’t this what Lent is all about?

“Are we a nation of second chances when it comes to those with criminal pasts?”

Janice

Kevin

Joy

George

Michael

Diane, part 2

Day 18

Day 19

Day 20

Day 21

Catching up

Wow, it has been a busy few weeks post-40 Days in Orange!  Trying to play catch up while still thinking about what’s next is a hard balance to find.  And to be honest most of what I have been up to is on the catching up side of things.  However, I did have the honor and privilege to write a guest column for the Waco Trib — “Are we a nation of second chances when it comes to those with criminal pasts?”  I will continue with some updates soon as we move forward with our advocacy for those who have worn and continue to wear the real prison orange.  And of course, email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com if you want to get involved in any way!  Stories, ideas, commitment, questions, resources, you name it, let’s start talking!

Be Life in places of death!

Bittersweet

Greetings friends.  I have had several people ask me what it has been like the last few days, post-40 Days in Orange.  There have definitely been some sweet spots.  No more orange is pretty nice (see pics below for the official “shedding”).  However, I really don’t like having to pick out clothes everyday!  Having felt like I was on a marathon sprint for the past 40+ days, I gladly welcomed the rest the last few days.  Rest from writing.  Rest from explaining myself.  Rest from the glances, glares, and stares.  Rest from stigma.

And herein lies the bitter part.  I really miss it in so many ways.  My journey in orange blessed me in ways that were deeply meaningful and transformative.  I will miss those challenges that have made me stronger.  I began to understand things about Jesus’s story and about God’s presence among us that I had never thought of before.  All because I walked on the margins for a while, as one of them, the despised and oft-forgotten.  Even though it wasn’t real and I could explain myself and take it off at anytime, wearing the orange prison uniform gave me an opportunity to listen to the songs of the oppressed in ways I could never hear and experience as a white male with a middle-class, professional background.

Add to the personal formation the opportunity to speak truth on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  What an honor and a privilege.  Imagine a time when you were able to stand up for a friend or family member in a situation where they really needed you and couldn’t perhaps speak for themselves.  That’s what it was like for me.  The marginalized and imprisoned are like friends and family to me.  I love them dearly.  Their beauty and grace transform me.  I see how their afflictions often stand in the place for my comforts.  The least I can do is speak truth for them, about them, and most especially with them, any time I have a chance.  To allow for my “story” to point beyond to the stories that really matter, for those who truly suffer, was a blessing I cannot begin to describe.  I will forever be grateful for my 40 Days in Orange.

But I don’t want it to end.  It should not end.  The suffering of the poor and oppressed, the marginalized and imprisoned, the despised, cast aside, and dehumanized never ends.  Not in this life, at least.  So I have been thinking about, praying, and listening for ways to keep this experience alive.  I would gladly welcome your thoughts and suggestions.  Email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com.  Here are some ideas from my community of support:

  • I will be writing a guest editorial in the Waco Trib to use my experience to highlight the need for jobs not jails and call for Waco-McLennan County to adopt Fair Chance Hiring Policies, in both public and private employment.
  • I can share a draft Fair Chance Hiring Policy with anyone interested in advocating in your local community for a policy that makes sense for everyone involved.  See Days 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20.
  • “You have to write a book”, I was told.  So maybe someone can help me figure this out!?
  • I would gladly come to speak with your church, civic group, community organization, school, or other groups.  I thrive on dialogue and believe this is the space where together we figure out what to do!
  • Connect with other advocacy groups already doing the hard work around these issues.
  • Keep wearing the orange?!  And keep blogging.
  • Start a movement of orange-clad advocates!?  This idea has been discussed with me by a handful of people.  We would need to really discuss the ramifications, identify our purpose, and be proactive in reaching out to the communities where folks join the movement.  If anyone is interested in joining this conversation, please email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com
  • What else?!  Send me ideas!!!  Let’s keep the conversation going, the pot stirred, and the lived experiences of the poor and oppressed at the forefront of who we are as people, communities, and a nation.

    As My servant you will do even more than this,
        even more than restoring My family to Me
    And making the nation right with Me again.
        I will make you a light for the nations,
    And You will illumine them until My healing love reaches to the ends of the earth.    Isaiah 49

photo 1 photo 2

photo 4 photo 3

 

Day 40

Wow.  Last day.  Hard to believe.  What a journey.  And it ended with such a bang.  Are you serious, the New York Times?!  So blessed to carry the message of love and hope and life and redemption and beauty among the poor and marginalized as far as anyone will take it.

But I never would have imagined when I began this journey 40+ days ago that I would end it with a photo shoot.  Putting on the orange uniform, I never thought some of the last experiences would make me feel like a model.  Hold that pose.  Oh, that’s a good light.  Could you walk through that again?  HAHA.  Seriously, though, my time with the New York Times writer, Jesse Wegman, and freelance photographer, Dylan Hollingsworth, was another experience of this journey that I will cherish for a long while.  Two more kindred spirits helped spread this message of love and justice.  And both from very different backgrounds and experiences.  Yet we found ourselves at the same places, with the same desires for a better world, striving for new life for every single one of us.  Thank you Jesse and Dylan for sharing this journey with me.

But I have to admit, as honored as I was to have the New York Times cover this story, there were three other experiences just yesterday that made everything over the last 40+ days more than worth it.

In the local grocery store, photographer following me, I hear a “You just get out of prison?!” as I am reaching for the coffee creamer.  I turn to see Roddy standing there laughing.  So I begin to explain to him.  He cuts me off.  “I know what that is.  I have been there.”  So I tell him why I am actually wearing it.  I get to shake his hand.  He tells me some of his story.  He is now working with the formerly incarcerated.  We share our thanks to each other for doing what we are doing.  I feel most honored to wear the orange for my new friend, Roddy.

Later that day while playing in the backyard, I got a phone call from Homar.  What a blessing to speak to him in person!  This man is on fire for his faith.  He thanked me for what I am doing.  He shared that so many of the guys in prison with him and their families, from all over the place, have heard my story, and they are so grateful for my message.  I told him that it is the least I can do.  That it has been a blessing for me personally.  And most of all, that he is an inspiration to me.  Homar and Marie, overcoming bad choices, deciding not to let the consequences continue to steal and kill and destroy.  Receiving God’s grace, bathing in God’s love, has been their strength, the power to keep their family together, to wait, to hope.  The joy of the Lord is my strength has never been so real to me than after this most blessed phone call.  I tell him I love him, and to please tell the other guys in there that I love them and that there are a lot of people out here who love them too.

Finally, my parents are in town for the weekend so we went to a local restaurant for some takeout.  As we waited for our food, a couple of the staff mentioned that they had been reading about me.  I gave them my usual smile and thanks, and kept sipping my water.  And then Juan came up to our table where we waited.  He said he heard what I was doing and wanted to shake my hand.  He knew what I was wearing.  He had been there.  He thanked me.  I asked how long he had been out.  Two years.  And he had been blessed with a job at this restaurant since he got out.  Things were going pretty well for him, praise God.  But I could still see a remnant of that shame that we unnecessarily and without mercy place on people like Juan.  We shook hands again, he thanked me, I told him it was a blessing for me, and he concluded, “We’re not all bad people.” 

Amen, Juan.  Amen.  And that’s 40 Days in Orange.