By M.E. CAGNASSOLA
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NEWARK, NJ — Leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Gov. Phil Murphy, Mayor Ras Baraka and members of the New Jersey state legislature turned out to recognize the official opening of the New Action Network and New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s new facility on Bergen Street, which will include a new women’s entrepreneurship initiative.
Operation HOPE, a nonprofit dedicated to end poverty, will provide formerly- incarcerated women in New Jersey with free financial literacy and entrepreneurship training. Goldman Sachs and the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation are the funding partners for this collaboration, which will provide education, access and career opportunities for more than 150 women in 2020.
The New Jersey Reentry Corporation's program will be the first all-female re-entry program that will utilize Operation HOPE’s Credit and Money Management and Entrepreneurship Training Program, which teaches topics like business plan writing, research and development, advertising, budgeting and finances and access to capital.
“With all that we have happening in our world right now, these initiatives are more important than perhaps at any time in our history,” said Skip Dillard, Vice President of Programming at WBLS New York and Head of Government Affairs and Public Policy for Operation HOPE. “Our collective goal is to provide education, access and opportunity for women and men.
At the end of the program, each participant will have the opportunity to conduct a “Shark Tank”-style presentation with a financial mentor. The presentation will allow each participant to showcase and display their business plan.
Standing with her daughter beside her in front of the new Essex County Re-entry Facility on Tuesday, Newark native Rashida Smith, a participant, held back tears as she recounted her uphill battle to rejoining society as a mother of two following a 16-year prison sentence.
A few years into re-entry and feeling ready to secure a higher-paying job to support the second child that was on the way, Smith successfully made it through three rounds of interviews at another company and quit her job at Passaic County Community College.
But just when things were looking up, her new employer, upon discovery of her felony conviction, terminated her within a week of her start date.
“Needless to say, I was hopeless, I was jobless, I had an apartment and a new baby. I had my son with me for the first time after not being in his life for 16 years, and I had no idea where I was going to get any income to be able to provide,” Smith said.
It was former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the NJRC's board, who pointed her in the direction of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. Smith turned to McGreevey on Tuesday, thanking him and the nonprofit for saving her life. She’s now a project manager for a construction company, and four years later, she says the staff at NJRC continue to support her and her family.
Sharpton, the founder and president of the National Action Network, said as much as activists may push for change within the criminal justice system, those efforts will not be effective without pathways for the formerly incarcerated to return to society.
New Jersey incarcerates 407 per 100,000 of its residents, a higher percentage than many wealthy democracies, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“The next steps for civil rights is what McGreevey and those in this reentry program are doing, because without that we’re just recycling the problem and not solving the problem,” he said. “We cannot just open doors if we’re not preparing people to be able to walk through those doors. At the end of the day, if we cannot save some lives, then what are we doing?”
The Essex County site serves approximately 1,200 individuals annually with support from Aerofarms, Sansone Auto, UPS, and Wakefern Food Corporation.
This December, New Jersey restored the right to vote to 80,000 residents on parole or probation, re-enfranchising people with criminal records. Murphy emphasized on Tuesday his commitment to providing second chances in criminal justice reform.
“We’re not just talking the talk of reforming our criminal justice system to allow returning citizens the opportunities they deserve, we are walking the walk. We are honored in the fact that we have been able to put into our books laws that back up these efforts,” he said.