Kathleen St. Louis Caliento is the President and CEO of Cara Collective, a Chicago non-profit that provides career-skills training and access to employment opportunities for those who need it most.
Zip code is a social determinant of future success. Where you grow up has an outsize influence on your mobility. Neighborhoods shape outcomes and opportunity. A 2015 Harvard study found that children whose families won a housing voucher lottery to move to a lower-poverty neighborhood had a 31% higher income by the time they reached their 20s. Living in a particular area determines what you have access to in terms of resources, education, transportation, possibility, promise, development, and investment. All of these social determinants are inextricably linked.
At Cara Collective I’ve been exposed to how we can remove some of those barriers to work and flip those social determinants on their head. These are big problems that need fixes from the public and private sector, and from local and national policymakers. But there are some ways we can chip away at the current system and improve the future for workers. Here are a few things that are on our minds at Cara Collective.
We need to give workers a voice—and listen to them
I can sit here and tell you what some of the barriers are. As a black female, I face some of those barriers myself. But not talking to the workers directly—and listening to them—is a huge issue in understanding barriers that exist. And that’s an easy fix: policymakers and employers can say, “What is it exactly that is keeping you from this job?”
That’s something we did at Cara Collective. We had participants review job descriptions and explain why they wouldn’t apply. That gives us a better understanding of both barriers to work and deterrents to application. We realized that we had a rich resource we weren’t utilizing: the perspectives of our job seekers. If we could share that worker perspective with a company who was seeking to be more equitable in their hiring—but was coming up short in the application process—this was a way to create more opportunity. For this to work, however, it required working with companies who brought an openness to accept this feedback and a willingness to create true change within their hiring practices.
One positive outcome we saw as a result of our work was evaluating language choices on a job listing for an entry level position with a leading company in the financial sector.
To our participants, seeing a term like “bachelors degree preferred” felt mandatory—and they would automatically dismiss themselves for the role or, worse, the industry entirely. Auditing these language choices helped change that perspective, and made the position more desirable as we walked through it with workers and employers.
It’s really important to truly understand what workers want and need, and that starts with the power of worker voice. For example, we had an applicant who was going to apply for a job but they didn’t see anyone who looked like them on the company’s website—so they opted to move on. Representation matters. If you want to be inclusive, you have to ensure you include opportunities for everyone to feel seen. Once you listen to that voice, you can implement changes to create a better environment and more opportunities, a human-centered future for workers.
Expanding expungement and case sealing can improve access to opportunity
You can “ban the box” on job applications, but anyone who has been justice-involved still has very serious barriers to work. Expanding expungement and case sealing could go a long way in helping folks find opportunities once they have re-entered society.
One of our trainings that we run with participants is called the Mirror Exercise. We have them look at themselves in a physical mirror and say out loud what they see. You can only imagine the heartbreaking descriptions that some of our participants use to talk about themselves.
When you hear someone that talks about themselves in that way, you recognize the deep psychological trauma those that have been formerly incarcerated deal with on a daily basis, and also how this person has been boxed in by society. The weight of that psychologically can be damning and damaging.
Now imagine giving that person a true clean slate by expunging records and strategically sealing cases. It would mean a true opportunity to start a new life and to to be given a second chance. There will still be ongoing hurdles for them to address, but expungement gives the formerly incarcerated a better chance at better jobs and bettering themselves.
The impact of expungement and case sealing creates opportunities for someone to believe that they are beyond the mistakes that they’ve made.
The private sector can help usher in change
Companies committing to big initiatives—like higher wage floors or inclusive employment—makes a difference. The power that they have to take a public stand on the decisions that they’ve made to be more inclusive or to pay people more can have a domino effect. All it takes is one or two, particularly at the Fortune 500 level, to say, “Here’s what we’ve done. Here’s what it looks like. It’s hard work, but we’re committed to it. And here are the results that we’re seeing once you do commit to it.” That goes a long way. We saw a shift in the whole financial service industry when JP Morgan publicly committed to Second Chance hiring.
In the response to George Floyd’s murder, a lot of companies really reflected on what it means to take actionable steps towards improving equity for workers. They realized it’s not good enough to have a fancy statement on your website. At Cara Collective, we have figured out how to help those companies take actionable steps to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion and narrow the inequality gap?
We launched cohort-based trainings called the Inclusion Action Lab. So far, we’ve had six cohorts, 21 companies nationally. It’s been amazing to see folks say, “No, we want to problem solve and think about what this looks like from an equity perspective.” We really saw a shift; companies don’t just want to check a box. They want to create a pipeline and truly have equity in the workplace.
They’re changing the fabric of who they are as a company, but also changing the workforce and the future for workers.