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The local group FirstFollowers is only two years old, but it is already making in impact in our community. In this interview Marlon Mitchell talks with Carol Inskeep about their mission and the ambitious range of projects the group is working on. Marlon Mitchell is the founder and co-director of FirstFollowers. He is currently pursuing his PhD in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. His work with FirstFollowers inspired him to pursue an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Policy Analysis at Northwestern University, which he recently completed
Who are the FirstFollowers?
Founded in 2015, FirstFollowers is a volunteer-run, mentoring program. “We provide services to individuals that are either returning to the community from incarceration or who have felony convictions. They may be finding barriers and challenges to getting back into school or employment or housing or other issues that many of us in society take for granted. We have plenty of goals but one of them is to just get people encouraged and motivated, and to provide opportunities to move past that felony conviction.”
“You’re welcome here” – Drop-In Center
A core FirstFollowers program is the Drop-In Center at Bethel AME Church (401 E. Park St., Champaign) which is open Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m. “We provide individual mentoring and assistance with employment searches, acquiring ID, family reconnect, finding education and training opportunities and more.” Mitchell says that the peer mentor model is key to what they do: “The mentors down at FirstFollowers are all volunteers who have been through those challenges. They’ve been through the system. They’ve had that transition back to their community, back to their families, so they fully have a front seat to what that challenge can look like.” Too often stigma and stereotypes keep people with a record isolated. “One of the things we pride ourselves on here at FirstFollowers – we provide an opportunity for a person to feel welcome. It shows a person that you truly care, that you fully understand what they’re going through. And it also provides that opportunity to encourage.”
Build Programs, Not Jails
Mitchell – and others in FirstFollowers – have been vocal opponents of the proposed multi-million dollar Champaign County Jail expansion project. “It blew my mind,” says Mitchell, to see a proposal to invest millions in incarceration instead of education and community programs, “just to see the human capital – the abilities of communities – to see a mass amount of people being snatched out of their communities and to see all the human capital that is lost through mass incarceration. And then to see them come home where there’s nothing that gets them back into the economy for their community or their family. One of the platforms that we really run on…is to build people, not jails; to build up people and not prisons.”
It’s not just about Individual Stories – Understanding Mass Incarceration
Though their work at the Drop-In Center helps many individuals, Mitchell says an important part of the work is “connecting the dots” to understand mass incarceration as a system of social oppression and social control. “Me, myself personally, I didn’t know exactly how all this worked,” says Mitchell. “I knew it was a social phenomenon that I saw in my community. I saw it in my own family. It’s something bigger than this, because there are so many black and brown and low income communities that are being ravaged by mass incarceration and by recidivism.” Community organizing is a key part of the work, he says, so that people “understand the history and inter-relation of issues. A system like this is not just built overnight,” and it takes real organizing to “redress that momentum” and “get people on board to connect the dots.”
FirstFollowers asked the Community: 90% say Access to Employment is Key
Last summer members of FirstFollowers reached out to the community with a survey asking about the barriers and unmet needs of those reentering Champaign Urbana. 90% of people identified the lack of access to good jobs that pay a living wage and provide opportunity as a top issue.
FirstFollowers has worked on this issue in a number of ways. They’ve reached out to employers, encouraging them to consider the skills and potential of individuals, even if they have a record. Building trust and relationships with employers can create more opportunities. FirstFollowers is especially interested in helping more people move into the trades – skilled work that pays well and provides a career path.
Mitchell says FirstFollowers mentors also work with people to “build their skill sets.” This may mean helping someone overcome a fear of technology. Mentors use laptops at the Drop-In Center to teach people how to search for jobs, complete applications, and upload resumes. But there may be a more fundamental need to build basic literacy skills. Mitchell likens illiteracy and under-education of people who have been incarcerated to the history of African Americans being shut out of educational opportunities. The goal, says Mitchell, is to help people identify their goals, get the skills and education they need, and then have opportunities to succeed.
Susan Burton’s new book Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women offers a “Blueprint” for Community Organizing.
Mentors recently read the book Becoming Miss Burton and they shared their reactions to it at a well-attended event at the Independent Media Center in July. Mitchell has had a chance to talk with Susan Burton on a couple occasions. “I had an idea about a reentry program before I even met her,” but Mitchell says she’s given FirstFollowers good advice and a “blueprint for training our mentors and addressing the underlying political issues.” Her reentry work moves beyond “one-off, one person’s experience to building a movement that has a strategic approach” for ending mass incarceration.
A Roadmap to Local Resources: A Resource Guide to Reentry in Champaign County
FirstFollowers has just begun distributing a clear and concise guide that helps people link to the most important resources they need upon reentry – including current, practical information about how to obtain an ID and where to access housing, health care, food, clothing and other services. (The guide was produced in collaboration with University of Illinois professor Ken Salo and his Urban and Regional Planning class.) They have begun distributing the guide to local social service organizations, libraries, religious institutions, and even to the Champaign County Jail. You can request copies of the guide by contacting FirstFollowers.
They Want to Stay Grounded in the Community
FirstFollowers is committed to this combination of community education, mentoring and political organizing. You’ll see FirstFollowers speaking out against tax dollars being used to expand the jail, giving out back-to-school backpacks at community events, and educating the public on mass incarceration at public events. Mitchell says an important part of the FirstFollowers mission is “getting back into the community, giving back to the community in a positive way, and being an advocate for the community.”
You can support their work
Come out to hear FirstFollowers September 30th at 4pm at the Champaign Public Library. A focus of the event will be fees and fines in the criminal justice system. You can also check out the FirstFollowers website (http://www.firstfollowersreentry.com) or follow them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/firstfollowersreentry) to see personal testimonies, photos from their events, resources and links to other information and other reentry programs, or to donate to their work.
Carol Inskeep is a local librarian and community member.