Season 12 closes in conversation with two people who’ve served time for felony convictions and are now working in tech to expand opportunities for all: Shaka Senghor, author and head of DEI for TripActions, and Teresa Hodge, president of Mission: Launch and co-founder of R3 Score which changes how employers use background checks.
- PERSONALLY REFLECT
Are we that bad?
The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Ask yourself the question Teresa wants us all to ask: are we that bad?
- BECOME INFORMED
Who is leading the spaces you spend time in?
Take stock of the companies whose products and services you use the most and the non-profits you may be supporting. Now go take a look at their boards and senior leadership. Do they reflect the experiences of the communities they serve?
While you’re in a learning mode, check out Shaka’s TED Talk, Why Your Words Deeds Don’t Define You
- PUBLICLY PARTICIPATE
Citizen with those who have felony convictions
The Last Mile is an incredibly effective organization that prepares incarcerated individuals for successful reentry through business and technology training. Support their work through donation, volunteering, or better yet, hire their graduates!
Redeemed Sole, an organization Shaka founded, highlights a number of organizations helping people avoid or return from incarceration. Find an initiative there, and donate, amplify, or join in some way.
Find out if your workplace, school, or even landlord uses traditional criminal background checks to determine someone’s suitability. If they do, encourage them them to join Teresa’s Bank on 100 Million initiative, and take the pledge yourself.
Baratunde Thurston 0:02
Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagines citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about tech and how it can bring us together instead of tearing us apart. We're bringing you the people using technology for so much more than revenue and user growth; they're using it to help us citizen. During this season, we've talked to some of the true tech OGs, who are out here trying to promote the narrative that tech can help us citizen, but for this final episode, we really wanted to talk to someone who was coming at tech from a completely different perspective, honestly, almost a different world. We were close with Audrey Tang, trust me, I like you thought she was from a different planet, but I have confirmed that the Digital Minister of Taiwan does indeed live here on earth with us. In a world that already leaves so many behind, we wanted to focus on those who are intentionally kept out of the technological loop, because if I learned anything from my conversation with Krystal, it's that rewiring systems to benefit the many, not the few, well, that can still leave out the few. We can't citizen until everyone can citizen, and that brings me to our first guest of this final episode. I met him back in 2012, when I got invited to Detroit by none other than the MIT Media Lab. They were collaborating with folks in the city on some kind of design workshop to help with the city's renewal, and I didn't have a lot of history with Detroit, in fact, I had no history with Detroit. So, I show up to this gathering, maybe it's 20-ish people, and it's different types of people. There's techy people who've clearly been doing tech a long time, there's designing people, there's entrepreneurs, and there's Detroit people who clearly lived in Detroit a long time, and this eclectic mix of folk was broken out into groups to help solve some problems. Even in that mix of people, even with all that diversity I just laid out, one dude stood up. He had dreadlocks, he had swag, he had a presence that was really undeniable, and that dude was Shaka Senghor. What's up, bro?
Shaka Senghor 2:39
What's going on, man? Super excited to see what we got going today.
Baratunde Thurston 2:43
Me too. I love that the way we hang out is on the podcast. This is good, this is good. I want to start with you introducing yourself to people out there who might not know much about you.
Shaka Senghor 2:57
Oh, first of all, just thanks so much for having me on. My name is Shaka Senghor. I am a writer. I am a dad, which is the favorite title I hold. I'm also a tech exec at a company called TripActions, based of Palo Alto. So, my official title is Head of Diversity, Equality and Inclusiveness; my real title is Director of Dopeness, because that's the only thing that I want to do is do dope stuff with dope people.
Baratunde Thurston 3:27
I love that you... I love the way you introduce yourself, and this wide variety of titles. A while ago in your life, the idea that you would be a tech exec might not have made that list. Just how does that feel right now?
Shaka Senghor 3:44
It's incredible, at this point, when you think back on my journey, a kid growing up in Detroit, growing up in a tough household, and to get caught up in our culture and experience all the horrors that come with it, a childhood friend been murder, being robbed at gunpoint, being beat nearly to death, three years later, being shot, then 16 months after that, shooting and tries to be the cause of a man's death, and subsequently being sentenced to 17-40 years in prison; yeah, tech probably wasn't the thing that would come to mind for most people that served a total of 19 years, seven of those years in solitary confinement. What a lot of people don't know about my life, as they see it now, is that a lot of the things really kind of took shape in solitary confinement, when I began to write out a new way of looking at life and giving myself permission to dream big.
Baratunde Thurston 4:41
During my 2012 Detroit visit, Shaka's role was as an ambassador to Detroit, but not only that, he was a reminder that any solution has to involve the people closest to the problem. A city like Detroit wasn't just some blank slate, but have people who've been living there for decades and generations that needed to be included in the process. A year later, Shaka and I would meet again, this time as Formal Director's Fellows at the MIT Media Lab, a program that connected academia to the real world, challenging the notion of what it means to be an expert. By bringing together people from all kinds of backgrounds, I'm talking chess grandmasters, and movie makers, and regenerative gardeners, all to address various pressing issues. Shaka has since written six books, including a memoir about his time in prison. He's actually working on another one right now. In 2012, he created the Live in Peace mentorship program, and has become a leading voice in criminal justice reform. Today, he continues to work on the ground in Detroit. Shaka's story may seem unique--I mean, he's literally been interviewed by Oprah--but his experience is something many Americans have faced. That's what we're going to talk about today: what does it like to be a returned citizen in our ever-changing digital landscape? What happens when we leave an entire population in the dark, and how can we better support them, so that we better support all of us? Today, we've got two incredible conversations lined up. Now, back to Shaka.
Because the title of the show is How to Citizen, and we take it as a verb, you're a returned citizen.
Shaka Senghor 6:45
Baratunde Thurston 6:46
You're a member of a community that we often banish from our concept of citizenship. So, can you define what a returning or returned citizen is for some of our listeners?
Shaka Senghor 6:58
You know, when I first came home and I heard that word, I was like, "wow, this feels great," and I was so full of optimism and hopefulness. What I thought, honestly, what would happen is that I would come home and basically confess my sins to my community, and say, "you know, I really want to get a job, that my dream was a writer," and what I didn't know is that there were so many barriers to reentry. You know, I didn't know that people would hold you hostage to something that had happened nearly two decades ago, and say that you're unworthy of employment. I didn't know that people would rule you out as being eligible to rent a house or rent an apartment, and it was not only disappointing, it was devastating, because I really wanted to become part of a contributing community. So, to have that taken away almost immediately, and to run into all these barriers out of the gate, it really made me think differently about citizenship. Even to this day, I mean, I've been out 11 years, and there's things that come up that would shock most people when they think about where I'm at at this point in my life and the things that I still have to grapple with. After a while, you get tired and it wears you down, and you're constantly having to explain to your child, we got to go around this corner, up this block, down this alley, and jump over this fence to get the basic things that comes with being a citizen. Despite that, I still believe that my role in American society is one of contributing in a meaningful way to make the world that we live in better, and it's one of the reasons I mentor and work with kids and schools throughout the country.
Baratunde Thurston 8:55
I can't imagine how much catch up you had to play just with technology, in terms of how long you were incarcerated. So, tell me how long were you incarcerated, and what was your technology relationship during that part of your life?
Shaka Senghor 9:11
Yeah. So, you know, I laugh when I think about technology in prison, because it basically did not exist. When I went to prison, you know, our cell phones was like those big cinder blocks. I went in 1991, so I came home June 22, 2010, one day after my birthday, so it's two decades of just innovation and things had took place while I was inside. You know, when I came home, everything was new. I mean, everything. You know, just an email, I had never heard of an email. What is this thing that they're talking about, but you need for everything, you need to put in a job application, a resume? I was so ignorant to technology that I used to get into a consistent bickering situation with my then-girlfriend at the time, because I used to think a Word document was the internet, so every time I had to save something, I will ask her if it was okay because I didn't want to give the computer virus. It's kind of funny now when you think about it, but it was a real pain point because I don't think that she quite understood the learning curve, that it was literally the equivalent of Fred Flintstone walking into an episode of The Jetsons, because that's what prison was, it was this cave-like, barbaric environment, and all of a sudden, I'm in the future where people can talk through screens.
Baratunde Thurston 10:40
I'm remembering when we first met back in 2012 in Detroit, the MIT Media Lab had this mission to help Detroit out, but before my visit, an earlier group had come to the city and you played a key role in revamping the program, right? So, tell me what happened on that trip before you and I met? I'm pretty sure that my visit was a lot different than the labs original plan, in no small part, thanks to you.
Shaka Senghor 11:08
What happened is, I was invited to this event for my work that I was doing in Detroit around literature and mentoring young people, and they had a group of people in a room that didn't quite look like the Detroiters that I knew. These were people who were transplanted Detroiters, they were just moving in, the real estate costs were low, and they were kind of reimagining what the city could look like. So, what they were telling the director then at the time was that, you know, Detroit was a blank slate, and that they can pretty much do anything that they wanted to. I took offense to that, because I thought about my parents who have been in Detroit ever since they were born. I thought about my aunts, my uncles, my neighbors, my friends, people who had never left the city, and what the city meant to them. So, I basically stood up, I just said to them, "you know, this isn't the real Detroit, and if you want to experience the real Detroit, I'm willing to take you on a tour." I took them all throughout the city and every section you can imagine. I took them to the areas that had some of the toughest struggles, but also took them to some areas where it was prominent people who had lived there all their lives and contribute greatly to the city. You know, I took them to urban farms, and I took them to Grandma's Backyard Gardens, because I wanted them to see that urban farming wasn't a new thing. From that experience was born this idea that they were bringing together people from all walks of life, and come and work in collaboration with the people of Detroit, to figure out if there was something we can build unique to the city's experience, so that's how you and I ended up meeting.
Baratunde Thurston 12:47
You left such an impression, bro, and you were an ambassador to the city for me. I leaned on that a lot. I remember valuing the grounded perspective you just shared, and I was so excited a year later when we were reunited in Boston as Directors' Fellows at the MIT Media Lab. So, talk to me a little bit about your experience. I mean, I know what it was like for me, but why did you participate? What was it like for you?
Shaka Senghor 13:12
I've never shared this with you. But I remember a day of us sitting at the table with some of the fellows and we were in in MIT Media Lab, and I was just trembling inside because I felt so out of place. You know, in my mind, you all were just like intellectual Titans and creatives, and all these things. I was like, "wow, I'm just sort of two years removed from prison," and I didn't quite think I fit in. I remember the first day going into the lab, it was one of those moments where I was like, "wow, like the future is like right here in this one space." I remember seeing these bionic legs and these robots, and I was just like, this is just so bizarre, but I was so curious to lean in and learn even more. Then, I started working with people there, and innovation takes place everywhere. I've been innovating my whole life. You know, if you grew up in the hood, you have to make the best of the tools at your disposal to improve the quality of life; it's something that never leaves you. So, when I got to the lab, I was like, "man, we was doing this with no resources in the joint. I think I'm onto something right here." So, that's when I began to get more comfortable with it, but, initially, I was really intimidated by being here. I'll tell you a quick story, if we have time, when I was at MIT Media Lab, one of the ways that I figured out that I fit in was when I did a prison hackathon. I came up with these five design challenges: how to make a tattoo gun out of a tape player motor out of guitar string in an ink pen; how to make a stinger, which is how we heated up our water, out of extension cord and nail clippers; and how to make a liter out of batteries. What I thought would happened was that these brilliant students would solve them. They couldn't solve none of these in three hours, and it made me think about the men and women inside who saw these things in 30 seconds to survive, and what would happen if they had unfettered access to the resources that create technology?
Baratunde Thurston 15:13
Hmm. How do you think the experience of incarceration would change if there were more access to technology inside of prisons?
Shaka Senghor 15:23
I think there would be a lot a lot of changes. I think that people on the inside will really be able to imagine a life for themselves beyond being in a prison cell. I met some of the most innovative people in prison, and there's an organization that I love that I just have a great deal of respect for called The Last Mile, and they're actually showing what would happen. There's men and women inside prisons right now, that's part of this program, that are actually building companies. I actually went to one of their demo days of San Quentin,
Archival (News) 15:58
...Every 40 seconds a child goes missing...
From an app that helps find missing children to one that lets parents track their kids grades...
...GPA, getting parents' attention...
...and how about a voice-coded trigger lock that can be traced by police if a gun is stolen?
There's not a positive like that on the market...
Shaka Senghor 16:19
Walking around and seeing what these men were creating, and how they were just so enthusiastic, and hopeful and full of light. I was just like, man, I wish I had that experience on the way out of prison. I could have accelerated some things, but to see it happening at this level now, to see people more open to it, is really inspiring to me. So, that's what I think would happen is more creativity, more innovation and more companies being built by system-impacted people.
Baratunde Thurston 16:50
Shaka Senghor, Director of Dopeness, a well-earned title, my friend, my brother, thank you. In a lot of ways, Shaka's story is exceptional. A man against all odds has been able to repent for his crimes rise to the top of his field and give back to his community in a big way. It's the type of story our society loves: inspirational, feel-good, comforting. If taken out of context, it's almost too comforting, because Shaka shouldn't be the exception and he'll be the first one to tell you that. There are more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States today. In fact, the U.S. is consistently ranked as the country with the highest incarceration rate per capita in the whole world. Given those numbers, how many Shaka's are in prison today? People who've been cast aside despite their potential, those whose perspectives can be a real asset to our society, but we'll never get the chance. So, please don't hold Shaka as an example that the system is working because someone like him became a tech executive. Instead, let Shaka be a reminder to us all of the potential innovators who are in prison today; that for every one of them who makes it, there are hundreds more who don't get the chance.
Teresa Hodge 18:29
I mean, what's really heartbreaking is I never heard one person say, I can't wait to leave prison to go back to prison. Not one, yet about 40% of the people who leave prison go back, and it's because we don't allow them to connect back to society in a meaningful way and have that human capital restored.
Baratunde Thurston 18:55
So, what does it take to change the system so that stories like Shaka's become the norm? After the break, my conversation with Teresa Hodge, a returned citizen who has dedicated her life to answering that question.
Teresa, what's up? Welcome!
Teresa Hodge 19:21
Thank you. It's so wonderful to be here with you today, Baratunde.
Baratunde Thurston 19:25
Teresa Hodge is the co-founder and CEO of Mission: Launch, an organization in the D.C. area that's dedicated to supporting individuals with arrest records and families impacted by mass incarceration. Now, Mission: Launch does this through an array of programs, including financial literacy workshops, a business accelerator for returning citizens, and even hackathons with the mission to improve post-prison reentry. In addition, Mission: Launch and Teresa have created R3 Score. This is an alternative to the background check that doesn't simply ask, "do you have a criminal record?," and end at that, because we all know people are much more dynamic than a simple yes, no answer. Instead, R3 Score is a more nuanced algorithm that asks a series of questions that are better able to determine how someone might perform as an employee, a resident, a borrower, or something else. Think of it as a credit score that actually makes sense. Wouldn't that be nice? Their current initiative, Bank on 100 Million, brings together both these efforts. This campaign helps companies and schools rework their hiring, lending and admissions practices, so they no longer exclude folks simply for having criminal records because that would exclude about 100 million people. Basically, look, Teresa's using tech and activism, and her lived experience, to improve the lives of millions of Americans. Can you tell me how the idea of Mission: Launch came about? What was the moment?
Teresa Hodge 21:08
So, the moment for Mission: Launch came when I was sitting in prison. I went to prison in 2007 and began serving an 87-month federal prison sentence--seven years, three months. It felt like a lifetime sentence, quite frankly, when it was given to me. The one thing I knew was, in order to be relevant, I had to do something that concerned prison, because after spending those many years in prison, the only thing that I would really know the most about was going to be prison. While I sat in prison and I listened to the stories of the women who I was incarcerated with, and I watched even more so, a lot of women go to prison and come back. I just really began studying and trying to understand why were people coming back, because what I knew was prison life was no way of living, and if people were coming back there was a strong disconnect.
Baratunde Thurston 22:04
Yeah. You've talked about how technology is essential in reentry for someone who's post-incarceration. What was the tech landscape like, as you remember it, before you were incarcerated back in '07?
Teresa Hodge 22:20
So, when I went to prison, just to kind of help you understand where technology was, Facebook was what young people were using. MySpace was around, and while I was in prison, a few days afterwards, Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.
Archival (News) 22:40
There is a major breakthrough headed to American consumers; it's the iPhone: an iPod, a cell phone and a portable internet, all in a little lightweight package.
Archival (Apple) 22:49
Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.
Teresa Hodge 22:54
While I was in prison, people start tweeting and I couldn't understand. What do you mean people are tweeting? What do you mean they're putting it in a atmosphere, but who's in the atmosphere? What's going on?
Baratunde Thurston 23:04
Teresa Hodge 23:05
What you understand is technology is a contact sport, so for the men and women who are incarcerated, we have disconnected them.
Baratunde Thurston 23:17
I can't even... it's hard for me to imagine. I stood in line for that first iPhone, and the idea that I would be confined during that time, and not even fully understand that that was happening, that's jarring. You know, like that someone changed the official language of your society, and you come back and you don't quite speak it. Am I capturing some of what that must have felt like for you?
Teresa Hodge 23:41
100%. There were a few things that I missed the most: technology was one, popcorn was another--I need to show you how shallow I am in that--and my family, I really missed, but it was the inability to use technology and I am a person who was an early adopter to technology. You know, I really emphasized to a lot of young people before incarceration the importance of technology and the digital divide, I was teaching about it. So, to find myself on the other side of the divide, it was just heart-wrenching.
Baratunde Thurston 24:18
Take me to the day you're released. What do you remember about that day?
Teresa Hodge 24:25
I was released from prison August 3, 2011, and I remember that day like it was yesterday. What did my daughter bring me? An iPhone, because I had been talking about technology.
Baratunde Thurston 24:41
Did she bring you popcorn? That's the real question.
Teresa Hodge 24:44
No, she did not bring me popcorn. She did not bring me popcorn.
Baratunde Thurston 24:48
Alright, so your daughter shows up, she brings you an iPhone, yeah.
Teresa Hodge 24:51
Yeah, actually, it was my daughter, my mother, one of my sisters, a niece, and one of my niece's girlfriends. So, it was two car-fulls of women who took me to prison and a car-full that brought me back. I am just one of the fortunate few that take family with them, and come back to family. So, one just have to acknowledge that privilege, but it was an iPhone. I'll be honest with you, I was so overwhelmed because I did not have that level of connection to technology, and just the phone ringing, and trying to text, and people calling, and pictures popping up, and I felt some anxiety and I didn't expect that. Yeah, I was in prison for five years, ten months away from technology, so all of those generations of technology that had taken place, but when I first came home, my daughter and I had made a commitment that we were going to work together while I was in prison. We had a conversation one day while she was visiting, and I had just read an article that said, "7 out of 10 children who have an incarcerated parent are likely to go to prison."
Baratunde Thurston 26:06
7 out of 10?
Teresa Hodge 26:08
7 out of 10 children. So, it speaks to how we are locking families into this cycle, and as a mom I was heartbroken. My daughter graduated from college before I went to prison, so we would sit, and visit, and have conversations, and we were able to maintain our relationship; but there were children that day playing outside who were visiting their aunts and grandmas, and mothers and sisters, and I said to her, "count 10 children, and you tell me which 3 deserve not to go to prison." At that moment, our partnership was formed. I already knew what I was going to do, but she decided that she was going to bring her skill sets to the table, and from there, we just started entering business plan competitions with me providing information and insights from the inside, and her applying to competitions on the outside.
Baratunde Thurston 27:10
I'm stuck on the 7 out of 10. You know, it's...
Teresa Hodge 27:14
It's by design. You know, when we look at racial wealth gap and all of these things, you have to look at prison. It's unfortunate, but so many people who go to prison, they come from under-resourced communities, and it's just the thing that happens.
Baratunde Thurston 27:37
We'll be right back.
Tell me what human capital means to you; I've seen you use that language in a lot of other conversations and in describing some of your work.
Teresa Hodge 27:59
Well, I feel like, for me, that, as humans, we all have been given God-given talent, we have strengths. It's the total sum of who you are, what you're able to do, how you see life in the world, and it's your ability to spin that in how you work, you live and play. So, for me, I feel like I'm on a mission to help restore that human capital that's lost when people are in prison, and help people reconnect back to society in a meaningful way. For me, what's really heartbreaking is, I never heard one person say, "I can't wait to leave prison to go back to prison." Not one, yet about 40% of the people who leave prison go back, and it's because we don't allow them to connect back to society in a meaningful way and have that human capital restored.
Baratunde Thurston 28:55
Yeah. When you use the word restore, that's a powerful term to use because it's there, it's ready for investment, right? It's ready for for the return on that investment, and you're sort of putting something back where it belongs, as opposed to, "oh, we got to go find some human capital and go figure this thing out." It's been figured, we just got to undo the harm that took it away from all of us collectively. What are some of the things high on the list that you consider missing areas, blind spots, whether on your side or on society's side, in terms of how we interact with people on their return?
Teresa Hodge 29:35
Well, for me, I think that language matters. We don't have a good way of talking about people who go to prison, and those same people who come back from prison. So, we use words that are so offensive, like ex-felon, ex-con. We label them as criminals--who wants to hire a criminal? Who wants a criminal to move into their apartment, right? No one. Even the language of "returning citizen," when does a person get to return? When is the punishment over? And when is that just another person that is occupying this world with us? So, for me, I think that we have to begin to humanize or re-humanize humans. We've turned over our prison system to our government, it is an out of sight, out of mind, and we have entrusted for far too long that they were doing what was best on our behalf, and that has not been the case.
Baratunde Thurston 30:37
Teresa Hodge 30:38
Today, 1 in 3 Americans have an arrest or conviction record. This is something we have to fix. By the year 2030, 100 million Americans will have an arrest or conviction record. That's 1 in 2 working-age adults. This is not the problem of the 70+ million people; this is all of our problem. So, I love your How to Citizen because this is something we all have to figure out. We're all stakeholders in this.
Baratunde Thurston 31:12
Yeah, we are. I remember the first time I visited Rikers Island. I had been living in New York for a decade, and I'd only seen it from the the planes landing at LaGuardia--which until I visited Rikers, I thought LaGuardia was the worst place in New York City. Then, I saw what we did to people who couldn't afford bail. I think what offended me most was I've been paying for this the whole time.
Teresa Hodge 31:36
Baratunde Thurston 31:37
And I didn't know I was investing in something, and had no idea until I spent just one day was enough. I was, like, "we got to stop this." The way you put it, when do people return? What's the language you choose to use, and how do you encourage us to refer to this population we've been talking about? It's clearly not ex-felon, ex-con, and maybe returning citizens isn't the jam, so what do you suggest?
Teresa Hodge 32:03
Yeah, I feel like it is time for us to evolve. I don't have the language, but I use human-first language always. So, what you always hear me say is "people with arrest or conviction records," right? Because we are people first, you know, and when in doubt, it's time for us to learn each other's names. You know? That's it.
Baratunde Thurston 32:24
Wait, hold up. I'm all for humanization, but that's a step too far. Everybody's names?
Teresa Hodge 32:29
You don't want to know 77 million people's names?
Baratunde Thurston 32:34
It would take five years to say a sentence. That's amazing, and thank you for that, because I heard you using it, and I was like, "I think this is a conscious choice." So, I will try to learn by that example. I know you've been championing Ban the Box initiatives. Can you explain what that means?
Teresa Hodge 32:52
Absolutely. There are laws in our government that make it where employers cannot discriminate against people when they are trying to get employment. You know, one of the economic pillars of our society is we want every abled body to be able to work. Well, when people have an arrest or conviction record, employers are able to discriminate. It's a silent discrimination. I used to run an HR department years ago, and it wasn't till I came home from prison that I thought, "oh, my God, I was trained to discriminate." I was told, "look for the best candidate. Find reasons to streamline 150 stack of resumes." The truth is, we would come up with our own matrix internally. So, there are internal policies that are often not written, but quite frankly, it's just culture, and that is we do not hire folks with records. So, banning the box means that you cannot put on an application the box that says "have you ever been convicted of a crime?" So, in one sense, we are just delaying the discrimination, but still, there's an opportunity for me to have a conversation and maybe a human connection.
Baratunde Thurston 34:18
When you use numbers, like 1 in 3 Americans currently have an arrest or conviction record and by 2030, 1 out of 2 working-age adults will meet that same condition, then it really is a we problem.
Teresa Hodge 34:33
Baratunde Thurston 34:34
And the discrimination is vast. You know, we get to 2017. You've been out for several years, and you come up with another way, a score, a different kind of credit score, a different algorithm. What is R3 Score technology?
Teresa Hodge 34:52
R3 score is a contextualized background check for the 1 in 3 Americans living with an arrest or conviction record. It provides dynamic data. I like to say it's a criminal background check that needs a credit score. So, when I was helping individuals who were entrepreneurs build their businesses, one of the things I recognized is, we could help them grow a business, but we couldn't get them access to growth capital because of their background check. A local community bank approached me. They were willing to make loans to individuals with arrest or conviction records, but they didn't know how to assess them. So, the proposition was, "hey, Teresa, if you vet people for me and if you 'okay' them, we'll take your word."
Baratunde Thurston 35:45
Oh, so they were outsourcing to you?
Teresa Hodge 35:47
Yeah, and I thought, "well, this is interesting, but it's not scalable for Teresa to do this on a regular basis."
Baratunde Thurston 35:53
Just call Teresa.
Teresa Hodge 35:55
Yeah, and what if they miss a payment? Am I now the collections department?
Baratunde Thurston 36:00
Teresa Hodge 36:01
But I understood the opportunity, and I thought, "well, could I take what Teresa knows and put it to technology, and can I scale that, and could I then create something where other people could be seen differently?" First, you have to understand that a criminal background check is a very static document. It only tells you if a person has a criminal record. That's all it tells you yes or no.
Baratunde Thurston 36:31
It's a binary thing, yes or no.
Teresa Hodge 36:33
Binary, yes or no, it maybe gives you citations. Well, if you don't know how to read all these citations, you maybe don't understand the difference between something as minimal as jaywalking and something that you might be a little bit more, you know, scared of. You don't understand the time away from crime and some of the other factors that might need to go in. So, when that banker brought his problem to me, R3 Score was born. So, we wanted to create a data-rich algorithm that allowed us to look at people are dynamic, you know, we are not static. So, yes, we don't hide the fact that a person has a record, but we add alternative data that we think is also important for you to know.
Baratunde Thurston 37:22
Teresa Hodge 37:24
Based upon my age, how long I've been away from the criminal activity, how long I've been home from prison, how active I am in my community, those are all factors that indicate that I am less likely to commit a crime than someone who has not committed a crime today. That is evidence-based research that is already out there, so we brought in all the evidence-based research that was out there, and then in addition to the evidence-based research, it's just the nuance of people. Because when you think of 70 million people with an arrest or conviction record, it's not a monolithic, it's not one person; yet, decision makers, when they see that a person has a criminal history, their mind goes to the worst possible offenses.
Baratunde Thurston 38:15
Teresa Hodge 38:17
They make decisions that they can't take the risk, and really all they're looking for is, give me a little bit more information about this person, and we are a third party validator of additional information. We sell context.
Baratunde Thurston 38:37
We sell context. You're doing so much with this, Theresa. First of all, I think you're using data to humanize people, and so much of our modern experience with data is the opposite. It strips us of our humanity, it puts us in these little market segments so that we can be auctioned off to the highest bidder, and I've had my own strong objections to that. I like seeing an example of data being used to restore someone's humanity. I also think that in a nation like ours, where we've criminalized so much, it's meaningless to have a criminal record. If we're approaching 1 in 2 working-age people, then what's even the point of the background check? Absolutely. I want to acknowledge you because I think what you're doing is brilliant and amazing, and it's restoring a lot of my hope and faith in the possibilities of what we can do with all this tech stuff. I want to ask you about one more initiative, which is called Bank on 100 Million. What is that? Why is it needed?
Teresa Hodge 39:37
Well, when you think of the criminal justice system, it's complicated, complex and convoluted. And I thought that just helping entrepreneurs was enough, but then I was like, "oh, I gotta create something for people to interpret them and understand." Well, now that we've created a tool, now it's like, "oh, my gosh, corporations need implementation and understanding, and they need programming." So, Bank on 100 Million is a platform, and I am so done after this. I'm, like, I've done enough.
Baratunde Thurston 40:06
Good. You need to kick back, enjoy brunch, enjoy family, enjoy popcorn.
Teresa Hodge 40:11
Retire and enjoy some life after prison after all of this. So, Bank on 100 Million, this is an opportunity for us to decide, collectively, the broader us, how are we going to treat our brothers and sisters who have an arrest or conviction record? It's a way that you can come on a platform and learn, there'll be educational information, case studies, we're going to provide all of that. If you're a corporation and you want to do better, be better, there's a pledge for you to take, and we offer consulting, and we offer the tool, and we can help you understand some policies and procedures. So, for me, I brought my body of work together on the Bank on 100 Million platform, and I'm inviting the stakeholders in America to come and let's solve this problem together, and let's put people back to work so that they can be productive and help grow our country. I think it's possible that the next big idea, the next solution, the next cure could be sitting inside an American prison, and that they can come home and be extremely productive. The question only is, will we let them?
Baratunde Thurston 41:27
Our major theme for this season has been: can we find stories that show us tech that actually helps us citizen? How do you think we should be using tech to help the lives of returned or returning citizens, rather than making it harder?
Teresa Hodge 41:48
So, for me, our goal is to become the gold standard, quite frankly, for how we vet and assess individuals who have arrest or conviction records. We have to stop turning this system over to our government. We have to get involved, we have to become active citizens around this, you know. If you're not sure how to do it, again, that's the reason why we're creating this platform where you can come and learn; one place you can come learn how you can get engaged, and just help put some of the folks who have served their time back to work, restore lives, and end that cycle of families going to prison.
Baratunde Thurston 42:28
Yeah, that is the wrong kind of family business incarceration. We've been asking people--and you've already started answering--what they would encourage our listeners to do. What would you want someone to reflect on or challenge internally on this topic?
Teresa Hodge 42:45
I throw data and statistics around, but if there's one piece of data, America has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. Are we that bad? Are the people of the country bad, or are our policies and how we've done this bad? If we do nothing else, just this is the time for us to see this issue differently. It costs too much, it destroys lives, and it is just time for us to see one another. I can assure you, every time I present, people like shocked and gasp at the statistics, but afterwards, someone comes up and when I hear their voice drop, I know what's getting ready to happen. They say, "my father went to prison," "my mother went to prison." It's time for this to stop being America's dirty little secret, period.
Baratunde Thurston 44:00
Teresa Hodge, you're the dopest. Thank you so much forgiving, for asking yourself that question and answering it every day with what you're doing, and for using tech to humanize us and help us see each other as people first. I'm so glad that we've had this opportunity to talk to you.
Teresa Hodge 44:20
Thank you so much. I am glad for the invitation and let's have brunch together.
Baratunde Thurston 44:26
Yeah, when I'm next in town, I mean, I live in California now... I was so thrilled to talk with Theresa because she's doing so much of what we talk about on this show. She's using her power to benefit us collectively, and specifically with tech, she's creating new algorithms that actually center justice. She's proof that tech doesn't have to rip us apart or de-humanize it, but that we can choose to use it to do the opposite, and she's reppin my hometown of D.C., so you know there's a lot of love there. We started this season asking where tech went wrong, but we intentionally spent most of our time with the people who are fixing it, who are building tech to help us citizen, and what they're building is so damn cool, but that's not even the most inspiring part. It's the people behind the innovation that inspires me. For too long, we've been living in a tech dictatorship, one where a select few get to call all the shots, but our guests are rejecting that narrative and are fighting to bring humanity back into tech. Even if you don't identify as a tech nerd, you got to admit that's bad ass. I thought I was making a season about tech. It turns out, I was making a season about rebels.
Esra'a Al Shafei 46:08
I've always been broke. They will never give me money, so now the gloves have totally come off
Pia Mancini 46:15
If you can't beat them, make them obsolete.
Sander van der Linden 46:18
...And then, at the same time, we have to radically reinvent the incentive structure of social media. So, nothing big, nothing big that I'm floating here.
Baratunde Thurston 46:25
Sander van der Linden 46:26
Krystal Tsosie 46:27
A seat at the table is not the same thing as a voice at the table.
Audrey Tang 46:30
I'm a politician, if you will.
Xiaowei Wang 46:31
You know, don't push the conversation. Take time, take patience. Move at the speed of trust and care.
Baratunde Thurston 46:43
Before speaking with all these incredible people, even I, Baratunde the-techno-optimist-Thurston, will admit I was starting to lose faith that we could reclaim tech for the collective. There's so much evidence, and news, and examples of that pessimistic point of view, but speaking with my big sister at the start of this journey, she reminded me of the magic my mother instilled in us to be critical, but most of all, to never stop imagining what's next. My mother never had the opportunity to thrive creatively at work. If she had, I know she would have created something spectacular. Seeing all these people using tech for beautiful things, it makes me feel like a little bit of her is still here. If I accomplished one thing this season, it would be to pass down my mother's imagination when it came to tech. Belinda described her as:
Belinda Thurston 47:41
Becoming. You know, dealing with whatever the past layers were, but always having the courage to continue to reach toward whatever it is that she could see, and that she wasn't done. She was not ending, she was still living and she was still becoming.
Baratunde Thurston 47:59
Just because tech has been one thing for us, doesn't mean it can't become something else, something better. Just because we think one way doesn't mean we can't become someone better. So, the question is, what are you going to become?
Now, for our crowd favorite, the part of the show where we put you in and give you ways to citizen. It's time for some action! All right, for personal reflection, the United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population. Now, ask yourself the question Teresa wants us all to ask, are we that bad? Next, let's get informed about who's leading the spaces we spend time in. I want you to take stock of the companies whose products and services you use the most, the nonprofits you may be supporting. Let's take a look at their boards and senior leadership. Do those people reflect the experiences of the communities they serve? While you're in a learning mood, check out Shaka's TED talk, "Why Your Worst Deeds Don't Define You." Finally, for ways to publicly participate, let's citizen with those who have felony convictions. The Last Mile, this is an incredibly-effective organization that prepares incarcerated individuals for successful reentry, and I want you to support their work with your money, with your time in terms of volunteering, or better yet, hire their graduates. Get your employers to hire their graduates. These actions and links are in the show notes on your device in front of your face, and also on our website at howtocitizen.com. Because this is the last episode of season 3, let me also say thank you to the team at Dustlight Productions. Y'all don't even know. This is a really, really, really, really dope group of people. I want to thank Alie Kilts, who writes for me almost as good as me. My assistant, Layla Bina, who helps the calendar not be wild. I want to thank Matthew Lai, who came in midstream as our apprentice, and stepped up and produced the heck out of things. I want to thank Sam Paulson, who was our apprentice on season 2, full-on producer in season 3, and delivered some stellar guests and great episodes to the mix. Stephanie, our editor who produced on season 2, edited on season 3--Stephanie, every time I feel like I'm a little lacking in the VO, I do jumping jacks. That's an inside joke, but you understand what I'm saying. Tamika, oh, my goodness, Tamika, our lead producer crushing it, thank you for especially your calm in so many storms. Misha and Arwen, thank you, thank you, thank you, who help run Dustlight and have provided valuable notes, guidance and insight along the way. There's another group that's been involved with this season. They're a group called Civics Unplugged, and we actually featured them in the very first season of How to Citizen. I don't remember the episode number, but go back and check them out. They've been really stepping up to help us out with the digital. If you've been enjoying the new @howtocitizen Instagram experience, that's due to the Gen Z-ers at Civics Unplugged, and we are going to collaborate with them even more. So, thank you, especially to Thanasi, to Chabu, to Julia, and to Josh over a Civics Unplugged. Last, but not least--I said this at the end of season 2, I'll say it again at the end of this season--to my wife, my life partner, executive producer, co-creator of the show with me, Elizabeth, you are the producer closest to my heart, and you have really helped elevate what we're doing here. So, to the listeners out there, you've heard my voice. There's a whole team of people behind it, giving me things to say, helping me find people, pushing me to be better, challenging me and pushing me to citizen. And especially, thank YOU. Thank you for listening. Thank you for engaging. Thank you for citizening. This is a team sport. Stay tuned to us at howtocitizen.com. Find us on Instagram @howtocitizen, tag us in your citizen practice, hashtag it and connect with others doing the same, or don't. We don't need you to find us on Zuckerberg property, the metaverse or whatever. We need you to engage with each other in the world. This thing that we're doing, as a collective, as a people, requires belief, requires faith and requires reminders that we can still do good stuff, that we're not just subjects in somebody else's kingdom. When it comes to technology, where we're spending so much of our time--all of our emotions, our money, our family connections, our politics, it's all there--it's very important that we exercise our power, that we determine how we're going to use this to meet our human needs, individually and collectively. That we use tech to citizen. So, I will see you somewhere in the world, and I hope you will see each other, as well. Keeps citizening, ya'll. Keep citizening, you. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Dustlight Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Euceph. Our senior producer is Tamika Adams, our producer is Alie Kilts, and our assistant producer Sam Paulson. Stephanie Cohn is our editor, Valentino Rivera is our senior engineer, and Matthew Lai is our apprentice. Additional production help from Arwen Nicks. Original music by Andrew Eapen, with additional original music for season 3 from Andrew Clausen. This episode was produced and sound designed by Alie Kilts. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Rachael Garcia at Dustlight Productions.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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