Michael Banks has experienced what so many young Black and brown men encounter in their lives, run-ins with the criminal justice system, justified or not. Arrested at age 17 for getting into a scuffle, the charges were later erased, and he emerged with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
“They say innocent until proven guilty but that’s not the case,” Banks said. “When you’re being led out in handcuffs and you’re going to the roundhouse and you’re standing before a judge and you’re being fingerprinted, there’s nothing that feels innocent about that process. Usually, if you don’t have the resources, good luck, and Godspeed because they force you to take plea deals. You just have to be the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, wrong place, wrong time, and everything falls apart. My crime was being poor.”
Banks, United Way’s Managing Director for Employment Opportunities and Entrepreneurship, says, however, he made it through only because he had a mother, lawyer, neighbor, and community that supported him, advantages many of his peers lacked.
That is the compelling background that has led Banks and The Promise, the Philadelphia Poverty Action Fund, to create the Record Sealing and Employment Access Challenge. The program is designed to provide the kind of support Banks received, but in this case with the full backing of the City of Philadelphia, United Way, a network of community-based organizations, and private donors like Comcast, which has invested a million dollars into the effort.
The model is based on an organized series of clinics for those trying to find their way in society after having contact with the criminal justice system. Through these clinics, community members will be provided access to services and professionals who will help to get their records sealed or in some cases expunged. This recommendation came from McKinsey & Company Consultants as having the highest impact of any program to move people in poverty toward employment.
At the top of this model are groups like Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and Community Legal Services. They run the record-sealing and expungement clinics. The community-based organizations help make people aware and drive people toward the opportunity.
The Promise funds the legal organizations and community partners, as well as workforce partners to attend the clinics and provide their services on site.
“This formula, combining record sealing and workforce development, is one that hasn’t been tried before,” Banks said. “Typically, you have a one-off clinic sponsored by an elected official on a Saturday, and if you miss that one, wait until next year.”
This “Record Sealing and Employment Access Challenge” plans to hold 30 clinics over 30 days in various parts of the city this spring with each clinic running at least two days.
“At this stage, we are identifying the partners through an RFP (Request for Proposals) process so we can begin to put the model into place,” Banks said. “Recruiting clients can be the toughest hurdle. Oftentimes, the individuals you need to interact with are not reading the newspaper looking for something like this to be announced. You often hear about it through word of mouth. We’re hoping that between the community organizations and the legal services groups we are more likely to reach that individual, make them aware of the opportunity and hopefully be able to serve them in a way that puts their life back on track.”
Banks, like so many others, has been dealing with this issue on and off his whole adult life. “It’s been a fascinating thing, even after my arrest was expunged. The question on a job application asks, ‘have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?’ Do I answer yes, and the record has been expunged or no and then explain if they ask me? So, it’s always a delicate dance.”
In developing the program model, The Promise received what Banks considers valuable feedback from City Council President Darrell Clarke. He felt the target audience was too narrow and should include the whole community, not just returning citizens, an astounding 91% of whom come home to those extremely low-income communities.
The logic is like the cut-out ramps on sidewalks, originally created for individuals with disabilities. They benefit the intended population in wheelchairs, but they also benefit people with strollers and shopping carts.
“The same can be true for this effort. Let’s not exclude other members of the community who need access to quality jobs. Let’s spread it out to let them know they’re also welcome and invited to these clinics,” Banks said.
Banks and his team spoke with people like Bilal Qayyum, who has run an antiviolence program for many years and Sultan Ahmad, who until his recent death, served as a member of The Promise board. Ahmad had tragically lost his son to gun violence. These are trusted messengers in the community.
“That trust plus additional resources can be much more impactful, so we need to make sure we’re talking to people in the community that the community trusts instead of us at United Way saying trust us; we’re here to do good,” said Banks.
The Promise combines City and private funding and the convening power of United Way, bringing the corporate and community partners into the same space to try to accomplish the same task.
Meantime, Banks has only recently become comfortable with speaking publicly about his journey, but he said his experience is what makes him believe in this program.
“Somebody believed in me. Someone gave me the opportunity. Someone said this is possible,” he said. “You hear so many nos. You’re going through this process getting to what you think is close to the finish line only to lose the opportunity in that last mile. We want to find business leaders who are willing to say, ‘we know that this is the audience that we’re going to be in front of and we want to hire individuals that are trying to put their lives back together.’ Having that buy-in from the employer side helps a lot.”
United Way has funded organizations like Uplift Solutions and PAR-Recycle Works that are working with this population.
“We’re going through a significant labor shortage in part because of the lack of investment in this sector of society,” Banks noted. “We could have avoided this labor shortage. If we can invest in this group of people and those initiatives, that’s how we change the narrative around a lot of the things that unfortunately negatively impact people’s lives.”
Why does Banks feel so optimistic about the chances of this program being successful? Because, he said, the conversation is happening out loud.
“This is the first time in my lifetime to see such a collective effort to solve the problem,” he said. “This is a city-wide movement to make sure the city is better because of this initiative. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that nothing will change if no one is willing to do something different and make a different kind of investment. If it weren’t for the investments in me, we’d be having a different conversation about my life.”