Working to Empower Previously Incarcerated Women with Kristen Powers - Ep 43

This episode of the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast aired on Tuesday, May 14th. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Lauren: [00:00:00] Well, welcome, Kristen. We're so excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you for having me. Yeah, it's such a pleasure. Just to start with, we'd love to hear a little bit more about your background. So what is your story and how did you first get involved with social enterprise?

Kristen: Sure. I, , live in North Carolina and had always been engaged in whether it's like environmental activism, mental health.

I grew up in a family with a lot of mental health issues. Challenges. And, , that really shaped my advocacy long term. And when I was looking at colleges, I was actually had heard this for phrase social enterprise, and was really curious about what that meant. , was didn't really know where I would go, but I went to college and then learn more about social enterprise and then came back home to work on advocacy efforts, , in the criminal legal space and.

I then was introduced to benevolence farm where I'm now the director, but at that point it was really immersed in what they had already created at the [00:01:00] time as a social enterprise and just kind of ran with it from there.

David: Yeah, so benevolence farm existed and you were attracted to them. Is that correct?

Kristen: Yeah, so I was working with formerly incarcerated organizers, , also to experience a friend of mine being incarcerated in both the criminal and immigration system, , which really just, , solidified my desire to work on criminal legal issues.

But I had also felt drawn someone had introduced them to me because of the work they had done with women. , I also grew up with, , partially on a farm. And so when someone was like, we're doing this work with women, we're working outside and on a farm. I know how much moving to a farm changed my life.

, so I was, I was intrigued and started off as a volunteer and then really it escalated from there. And now I'm, , on year. Yeah. Starting year five as executive director.

David: Okay. Awesome. So then let's dive in just a little bit more What is the history of [00:02:00] benevolence farm and their purpose and mission where they began and where they are now?

Kristen: No one's farm was founded by Tanya Gisa who is a social worker here in North Carolina who was working with a lot of folks affected by The criminal legal system and was talking to some formerly incarcerated folks, , about their needs, noticing that there was this massive increase in incarceration nationwide, and even more massive increase for women.

And when she was talking to formerly incarcerated women, they said, , when we get out, there's not really anything for us in the way of gender responsive reentry programming. And what we really need is a place to stay and a place to work. And when we're coming home, if we don't have access immediately to those things, we face so many issues and challenges and reentry just feels impossible.

And upon doing more complex interviews, interviewing the community across North Carolina, trying to figure out. What that response could [00:03:00] look like, that's when benevolence farm took place as a place for women to return from incarceration, have a place immediately day one to live, and then also have employment that is our social enterprise, which is a 13 acre farm where we now predominantly grow herbs and flowers that are infused into body care and candle products that we make.

And we also at this point do a lot of advocacy and try to do system change work because we don't want to hit our heads against the same problem over and over. We would like to change up these systems to better accommodate. Folks who are affected by incarceration.

Lauren: That's amazing. I love that. And I think it's cool that you're talking about, , just even the concept of working on a farm and like within nature and , it's clear, like that can be so.

Healing and, , and rejuvenating, I'm sure, especially after being incarcerated and not having access to any of that. Like, that's a huge, huge [00:04:00] difference.

Kristen: Yeah, , and actually one of the formerly incarcerated women that really guided the work to finding this farm, she had mentioned that one of the things in her many years of incarceration she missed the most was starlight, being able to look up at the stars at night.

And so a lot of the The work we do, we, we do see this pattern of folks actually wanting to work outside, even if the weather's not nice or it's cold or hot, because they have been confined, and we just talked about how prison's the antithesis of nature. It's cold, no sunlight, a lot of metal. Concrete barbed wire and then also just have the autonomy to choose when you go outside is another huge thing for folks Sometime we had one woman who was incarcerated for 27 years.

She returned home in December We had a rare snow out here in our area of North Carolina that December and she said it was the first time She's the first one to wake up and she went outside and she had not seen untouched snow in nearly 30 years And to her, that was incredibly meaningful [00:05:00] and impactful.

So there are a lot of those opportunities coming home to a little piece of rural North Carolina.

Lauren: Wow. That's amazing. That's so, yeah, that's so fantastic. Um, so As an organization that works and serves with, um, this particular population that has these barriers to employment and they're working on their re entry, um, what kinds of services and programs, you know, besides the ones that you mentioned, do you offer them to kind of like support their transition and their journey, um, and their employment?

Kristen: Sure. So when women apply to the program, our application is really more feels kind of like a first date. Like, are we a good match for one another? Because we, we do want to make sure people are not just, um, coming to us for the sake of it or someone recommended it. Like we, we want them to feel like they're confident in coming to us.

We're rural. There's no public buses out where we are. Um, for some people, that's not what they're looking for. And for other people that is. So [00:06:00] we do these interviews, make sure that, uh, we both part, both parties feel like it's a good fit. And then when someone's accepted, they do an interview That basically starts their onboarding process while they're still incarcerated.

And that's really getting to know what are some of your favorite things, favorite colors, foods, um, self care activities. And we start off by just creating a basket of those, those things like closing your favorite color, um, or your least favorite color. Cause wearing a jumpsuit of a certain color for years, usually.

Propels people from that color, um, favorite snacks. Maybe that they haven't had in a long time. And then as part of the onboarding, we do goal setting and we try as best as we can to respond to individual needs rather than forcing upon like a set curriculum. We do some curriculums we, we follow, but really it's like, what, what are you hoping to do in the first year?

Um, where do you see yourself in six months and, and where do you need support? And then from there, we, we, based on those answers, try to connect to community resources. Um, North Carolina [00:07:00] finally expanded Medicaid in December. So we're seeing the impact that's had on healthcare access. Uh, and we are really just trying Also advocate for more resources because we do see sometimes folks need something and it doesn't currently exist in our rural area.

And so that's something we'll then go to push, try to push legislators or local advocates or local government officials to address that need in their community. Um, and folks can stay up to two years. We, we accept people of all conviction types, all anyone who identifies as a woman coming from prison or jail in North Carolina.

And, um, and then even when we, the way we view our long term support is that a collateral consequence is lifelong. The collateral consequences of incarceration are lifelong. And so that's our support. For individuals should also be lifelong. It just looks different than when it was at the farm. So we may not be doing as intensive care or support, but anyone who's an alumni can always reach back out and say, Hey, I think I want to get my record expunged.

Is there [00:08:00] someone, you know, I can connect to or like, Hey, I just had a baby and I'm really excited and wanted to send you a picture of my new baby. Um, or I got this promotion or maybe I lost my job because someone found out about a record. So those are kind of the long term things. Um, we also try to do to create community.

Among formerly incarcerated folks as well.

David: You know, one of the things that's kind of fascinating to me as we're having this conversation is just how much, um, normal life feels privileged. Like there's like, I'm not thinking about, I do think it's really special when you go and see snow untouched. I don't think about that as a privilege because it doesn't happen that often, but it happens often enough where I can go do it.

It doesn't, it, it feels very privileged to not be thinking about like, These long term consequences and, and the ripple effects that, that, um, exists. So it's, it's really been interesting for me to hear your perspectives, how you're supporting [00:09:00] this population and just how privileged we all are without even recognizing how much privilege we have available to us.

Uh, cause it's just the things that we take for granted. How do you, So like with kind of with that in mind, like what are some initiatives maybe that you're doing to additionally support? So you're talking about like all the things that you're doing to advocate for the space at the state level. But I know that there's like, I'm hearing all these like subtle things that you're doing and paying attention to.

And I would imagine that includes some initiatives like the welcome home prod soap project that I know that you want to talk about.

Kristen: Yes, so one of the major challenges we face as a rural organization is Access to funding. Uh, I'm probably not new to any nonprofit or social enterprise hearing that, but I think particularly rural just faces a lot of infrastructure gaps that maybe perhaps more urban areas or more well funded areas take for granted.

And we, we actually pivoted in 2018. We used to do [00:10:00] predominantly produce production on our farm. And in 2018, we, we started to realize that wasn't really working for us in terms of sustainability. And it also felt like The stakes were really high. Like if someone learning how to farm pulls out, uh, I think they're pulling out a carrot and then maybe pulls out, um, a Echinacea root that took two years to set, like, we don't want to create that.

Like, Oh my gosh, like, no, it's okay. It's okay. But also be like, Oh my gosh, that was so much money. We invested into that. Like that, that tension felt really bad to us. And so we had an opportunity to work on these value add products being natural body care and candle products that we would then infuse herbs and flowers.

As we grow onto the farm. Into these products. So everything we make in the social enterprise is infused as, um, we developed that it, it started to grow really, really quickly. Um, so we had 5, and then 2020 came along. And we had no idea what to expect for our social enterprise. I started in, in January 2020 as director.

So, um, [00:11:00] we had to get really creative with how are we going to sustain ourselves if all, all of this goes, uh, down, down real fast, like what are we, what are we going to do? And so, um, As we were thinking about this, a, a advocate of a friend of ours reached out and was like, Hey, I'm seeing this problem with prisons and soap.

And then we had this resident come home in May, 2020, who was like, yeah, did you know, like when I was in there, they like, we couldn't get soap. Like people were bartering for soap on the, on the yard, as they call it. basically smuggling in soap as contraband. And, you know, we were seeing on the news in the prison that like, we were supposed to be washing our hands and doing all these things, but like, we can't get soap.

And the soap we can get is perhaps lye based or really, um, harmful to, to skin. And that got us thinking about perhaps there's a way we could support the social enterprise, the formerly incarcerated women we hire and the people that they leave behind when they come to Benevolence Farm. And so we created the [00:12:00] At the time was Soap for Formly, or Soap for Incarcerated People Project.

Where we worked with partners to get prisons, so for women in jails and prisons over time, um, it became increasingly difficult to ensure that soap was getting to the right people and that it was, um, being used in the, in the correct way. And obviously, as we learn more about cobit, I think, um, the urgency of unfortunately felt a little less dire to get people those so far.

So we actually then pivoted to. The Welcome Homes, Welcome Home Soap Project, which provides people with access to the high quality soap we create for free through partnership with local re entry councils and any groups in North Carolina who, um, support folks coming home from incarceration. And the way that we modeled it is that when someone buys a Welcome Home Soap, Bar on the website, they're paying for the full value of soap, but they're just not getting the bar that bars and getting donated.

So it's not like a one [00:13:00] for one model. It's in fact, like people are buying soap on behalf of. Folks coming home. So it still recognizes the labor and investment we put into making that. So, and in those funds, I'll go back to the women who make it. Um, and on top of that, they also support other folks coming home, who.

Hygiene when you return from incarceration, I think is another thing privilege. Like we take for granted of, um, If I just got 40 from the state of North Carolina, I got put on a bus, and now I've got to like figure out what to do with that 40 soap is probably not topping the list, but to feel clean also on your own, right.

And to take a shower for the first time without someone timing you or without other people looking at you and just being able to feel clean is an opportunity that that's really meaningful to folks. So we, we do a lot of different. Value add and kind of mutually beneficial projects like that. Um, another one we launched was an affiliate program, but only for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated people.

And [00:14:00] so we, whether it's our residents or alumni or other people in the community, we have, um, still probably in beta, I would describe it, but an opportunity for them to earn some commission on sales that they promote no cost to them. If they don't sell anything, they. Don't lose out if they sell something, they get a percentage.

And so that's been really neat. Cause again, mutually beneficial helping grow our social enterprise, but so many of folks are want to brag on when they come home, they're like, look at the soap I made or the candles. I'm so excited. You should buy some. And then they can be like, and you can use my link. And so they get some additional income and that's, that's the program we hope to scale and grow.

Um, I think we really do it nationally to, to again, provide more

Lauren: flexible income for folks coming home.

Wow, that's awesome. I it's just like very, you know, it's just kind of the whole idea of social entrepreneurship is you get deeper and deeper into an issue and you [00:15:00] just continue to see more and more need and more and more opportunity to like address that need um, within the population that you serve in the, then even to like the, Community, um, that they're a part of.

Uh, so I just think that's, yeah, that's awesome. That's really powerful. Um, I'm just kind of curious to what would you say are like the unique needs of serving specifically previously incarcerated women? How do their needs compare to, um, just in general, like the reentry population?

Kristen: So nationally. The estimates are 85 percent of women incarcerated are mothers and, um, for mothers coming home, child reunification can look different, um, than perhaps for fathers.

And, and sometimes they're, uh, Our unique needs with that, that I think you really need other mothers to support you with or other family, um, family [00:16:00] advocates to also just think through what does it mean to reunite with my kid if that's even possible, like some of our moms cannot reunite with their kids or their kids got adopted out, um, while they're incarcerated and, and so there's a lot of immense emotional need and so.

For support there. And so that, that's definitely a huge thing. I think the other benefit of being an organization led by women for women is that we can have pretty open and comfortable conversations about things like reproductive care or menstrual cycles. Uh, we're actually working with, um, the deltas or the sorority that's local to us, their chapter locally, and they're doing a menstrual, um, pad and tampon drive for us.

And so another thing that like, Along with soap, like that makes you feel clean and dignified is having access to those types of products. And so, and they're really expensive. And I know people talk about the pink tax and, and all of that. And so, so that's another thing. And then. You know, a lot of [00:17:00] women also who are incarcerated is a really tough topic for people to talk about, too, is like the, just the history of sexual and physical abuse survivors of being, um, domestic or sexual violence.

And so I think that's important again to have peer support, um, to have people who are trained in supporting that, who perhaps have similar gender identities, um, because that's, that's a huge safety thing. And, and even we see that, like. We had to work with a local other nonprofit who is providing budgeting classes and the person, just, you know, just not thinking again about like these, um, small things that are big to the folks we serve, but like slam the slam the door behind her.

Um, and that, like the person just was so startled by that was like, please open the door. I like, like, I'm not comfortable with us having the store closed. And we had to explain like the many reasons how like a slamming is really. Triggering or even just being stuck in an enclosed space with someone they're not familiar with.

So those, those are a lot of different resources that require [00:18:00] more gender responsive care.

David: Yeah. It's, it's again, continues to be fascinating in this, uh, conversation. Um, you know, like I'm trying to put myself in someone else's shoes that's been incarcerated, like, like I were coming into your program. And, you know, the reality is for me, I can't even emotionally wrap my mind around, um, what.

Things that they would have to deal with in terms of like kids and adoption and, and menstrual cycles and reproductive health and privacy and abuse. Normally we ask the question, and I do want to hear this, your answer to this, but I have kind of a second half of it. What do you wish you had known before you got started, but what do you wish people like me also knew in this space?

Because like, I'm just learning so much right now and I, you know, my heart kind of breaks to hear some of these stories. I, and I know that, [00:19:00] uh, I'm, I'm having a new awareness of how important the work that you're doing really is.

Kristen: Yeah. Thank you for that. Yeah. I think in terms of, I don't even know if it, maybe not even what I wish I knew, but like just, I think, I think back how little I knew maybe, um, is the way I'd phrase it or like just the unique complexities for each person.

And I think like, like folks have, like I said earlier, I think I'm not formally incarcerated, but I've had a loved one incarcerated. And even just the dehumanization of the criminal legal system, like calling. To inquire about my loved one's status and hearing a person on the other line be like, who's the inmate?

And I was like, I think you mean like, who's the person, um, or being like, what's the, what's the, a number, um, or in here in North Carolina, what's the opus number? Um, and people coming out and being really like, I'm defined as a number. Um, and, and so I think like, in terms of what I wish people knew, I think one, like, our goal is to Rehumanize like, be like this, this, these [00:20:00] are people we're talking about and they perhaps have caused harm, but also some of these, these convictions we have, I'm like, is this really a harm or is this how we would want to solve harm?

Um, and I think what I would hope for people to do is just like, keep it complex. No, like to, I think part of the challenges we get with the carceral system is we oversimplify and think, oh, they are in prison. They must be bad. Um, and it's not to say. That will get to an answer that is simple, but I think by keeping it in the gray, it allows us for a lot more openness and recognition of dignity and being curious.

But I also want to remind folks too that incarcerated people could be any of us, and I think some of us feel very distant from this issue. But many of these people that grew up in environments or in under resourced communities. Or marginalized communities, perhaps their neighborhoods are more targeted in certain ways, or they didn't have resources, um, but we've, we've also even have people who, like, have been in our [00:21:00] program that that had this perspective of, like, people going to prison or bad.

And then some. Incredibly unfortunate thing happened where, um, particularly for women when it comes to self defense against again, people who cause abuse, um, are defending themselves and there's not great laws to address that and they end up in prison. And then this is a person who is like, wow, I, you know, I didn't think that would ever be me.

Um, and so I think it's, again, important to keep, keep it complex, keep learning, be, you know, this is from Brian Stevenson, who says, be proximate to these issues. Because again, if you step away and look at the picture from afar, it's easy to like blur it out. But when you're up close and personal. Um, it gets a lot more crystallized and I, I particularly for legislators or policymakers or, or making those making decisions, whether it's a big business or hiring people, or whether you're, um, in a school talking to a kid whose parents incarcerated, like you don't have to be a, the president to, um, have understanding of these issues and to [00:22:00] see how it affects people.

So, um, I would challenge folks to again, just like get into it and, and hear more from formerly incarcerated people. Each person's story is different. And so even with formerly incarcerated people, you can't have a. overarching theme. Like, each person is their own person with their own story. So, um, uh, that's what, what I wish people took more time to, to know and even just to explore.

Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Um, oh, I'm sorry. I'm gonna sneeze

or not. I don't know. I have allergies. Um, sorry. No, I think that's like so, so important. And I think Yeah, it's hard because I think there's a little bit of human nature that's like, let me just simplify this. Let me try to make this as easily digestible as possible, but that's not how really any issue works because as human beings, we're complex and we know and understand a lot of times [00:23:00] our own complexity and we don't often apply that complexity, um, to others and to their situations too.

So, um, no, I think that's amazing. That's such, yeah. That's such good wisdom. Um, so for our listeners, uh, couple questions. Where do you see Benevolence Farms headed in, you know, this next season of your development and how can our listeners support you shop, get involved, all those things.

Kristen: In terms of where benevolence farm is going, we're, we're, we're ambitious, but we also, um, I think we're a little unique in how we want to scale. Like we actually really want to keep it rural and small, but scale the ideas that, that we've learned or concepts we've learned from this experience. So I do want to keep growing the social enterprise to.

Recognize the financial needs of formerly incarcerated people while we do a do a living wage here or [00:24:00] what's considered a living wage in North Carolina. I actually think when you're coming from prison and there's no funds or savings and you've had your credit destroyed, like. The need for money is a little bit greater in terms of getting started.

So I'd love us to continue to, um, get to a point where we can provide truly meaningful living wages for formerly incarcerated people, um, and invest in that way, and then continue to scale out in, in like, in formats like these podcasts, share out the ideas and concepts we're learning. That other people could perhaps, um, borrow from and expand upon in terms of how folks can help.

We have our body care products and candles are on our website at benevolencefarm. org. There's a little shop button. You can also make a general donation. We are a 501 C3. Um, we also, this year, this is our year. I'm claiming it of wholesale. We've got a few local wholesale partners, but we're really excited for that.

And then we've even for like adventured into corporate. Um, partnerships of providing gifts for [00:25:00] corporations, um, doing some white labeling. And so if you've got a creative idea, we've even done weddings and baby showers, which is fun. Um, we had soap bars where we made little tags that said from our shower to yours, uh, which was the person who ordered it, creativity, not ours.

But, um, yeah, we can get really creative with our products and that's really fun. And so. Um, that way you can reach out to set enterprise at benevolence, farm. org, or benevolence farm on Facebook or Instagram. And we'd be happy to work with y'all.

Lauren: That's awesome. Well, and I can attest to someone who has bought and used your products that they are wonderful.

So listeners be aware, go and shop.

David: Yeah, yeah, this has been just so fantastic and I think really helpful eye opening. Um, you know, the work of all social enterprises are really diving in deep like you guys are in terms of tackling real issues that not that many people are aware of. Um, but, uh, again, like, What I'm walking away with [00:26:00] so much is just how much energy and effort, and I think success, um, what I'm hearing success in is the rehumanizing process.

Like to, to not look at another person as human, um, you know, just because of a system is really just, uh, it is heartbreaking. And so I, I applaud, uh, What you're doing and the passion that you have for that. And, um, just really grateful for the work that you all are doing. And, and I'm thrilled to be able to share this message to other people.

And, uh, you know, hopefully the idea continues to spread to other communities as well.

Lauren: Thank you. I appreciate that. Awesome. Well, Kristen, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom with us.

Kristen: Thanks for having me.