Anna Kohn is the Chief Impact officer at RecoveryPark, where she works to create jobs for people with barriers to employment. Some might refer to Recovery Park as a non-profit, and Anna, its Director—but they’d be wrong.
“Rather than branding ourselves as a nonprofit, we consider ourselves a for-impact company. We didn’t come here NOT to make a profit. We came to make an impact.”
Thus, Chief Impact Officer or CIO.
The way RecoveryPark makes an impact is by launching food-based business on the Eastside of Detroit—the first of which was Detroit RecoveryPark Farms, which grows specialty produce for the restaurant industry.
How Anna specifically does that is by making sure that her workforce “never has a reason to not come to work” — a difficult enough task for any employer but she’s dealing with people transitioning out of drug prison and drug treatment centers, people who are coming in with documented disabilities.
And when she says, never, she means never.
Anna is the person employees call from jail, from the streets when they’ve lost their housing situation, when they’re in the hospital or in bed too sick to get up. Why are they sick? It doesn’t matter? Anna’s job is to make sure whatever it is that’s holding them up, doesn’t interfere with them holding their job.
And it works. Over the four years this program has been in place, not a single person has returned to prison.
We caught up with Anna to talk inspiration and challenge—and we barely skimmed the surface.
CVh: How did you get involved with Detroit RecoveryPark, and what’s a Chief Impact Officer?
I met RecoveryPark’s president and CEO, Gary Wozniak, through my prison education initiatives. I taught entrepreneurship at a state facility,and knowing Gary’s reputation and success as both a business owner and returning citizen, I brought him into my classes to be a guest speaker and a business pitch judge. It was clear that we were closely aligned with how we envision justice for all, and Gary poached me from my last job managing the Downtown Synagogue to help launch an innovative support platform (the Associate Support Platform) that provides quality-of-life services to our hardworking Farm Associates.
I manage the nonprofit, which we affectionately refer to as a “for-impact company”. We’re not here NOT to make a
profit – we are here to make a lasting impact. It is my job to ensure that our positive impact is not just felt in the community, but among our talented workforce.
CVh: Tell us about your hiring process.
We are an equal-opportunity employer,however,we have a special focus on hiring those with barriers to employment. A barrier to employment can be any number of elements that make a person ‘traditionally unemployable’ – think criminal history, housing insecurity, substance abuse/addiction, low literacy, citizenship and more – and we welcome them with open arms, committed to ensuring that they not only grow professionally (and ideally stay with RecoveryPark for at least three years) but also prioritizing housing, transportation, health, basic needs, and much more through our Associate Support Platform (which I manage). The majorityof our workforce are individuals with a criminal history – current PC terms are either returning citizens or justice-involved – and we have a close working relationship with MDOC, SHAR House, and Michigan Rehabilitative Services to source our employees.
CVh: What do you look for in a job candidate?
We seek individuals whose personalities are a fit for the team. Our work is trainable – of course, it’s a benefit when candidates come with horticultural or agricultural backgrounds. We’re fortunate to have a partner in the MDOC, as eight prisons in the State of Michigan have high tunnels (outdoor growing structures) that mimic the ones we have at RecoveryPark. We are actively working with the MDOC as we speak to help launch a pilot program in one of the state prisons where our hydroponic setup would also be replicated, further preparing a workforce within two years of their release.
CVh: What has your work with RP taught you about being a boss?
I’ve had so many ups and downs here at RecoveryPark – our whole team has. This is my first position at the C-level and as a female, I felt like I had to climb to attain that. My team and my boss are compassionate servant leaders, so I rarely get pushback, but as a woman trying to manage both clients and staff members who are predominantly male, I end up fighting a lot of stereotypes. The criminal justice system is fraught with social, racial and economic disparities. It’s not always easy to find people who are doing the right work for the right reason. I’ve been in countless meetings where a group is trying to represent the voice of returning citizens without any returning citizens in the room, and it is incredibly frustrating. If, as a leader, I spend my time working on putting returning citizens on the front line to represent, speak for, and elevate themselves, I feel like I’ve been successful.
CVh: Biggest challenges returning citizens face when seeking employment?
The biggest challenge returning citizens face is their belief in themselves. I have never met a totally driven returning citizen, so fully committed to his or her cause, that hasn’t made substantial waves and become successful. It is incredibly hard to come out of an institutionalized mindset and expect yourself to function like the general public. The way we do service delivery is in two tiers – the top tier of service delivery includes housing, jobs, and health; and upon reaching that level of independence, we get into the finer points that still become triggers – relationships, legal needs, budgeting and finance, family reunification, and more. I encourage returning citizens to consider their rehabilitation as a map, and not to expect everything to fall into place at once. It never has, and it never does. The ‘everything at once’ attitude is dangerous for someone who is coming out with very few resources.
Of course, there are many other external barriers for our population – the two most relevant being jobs and housing. You can’t get the job without an address, but you can’t get the house without a job. It is a vicious cycle that can be stressful enough to send a person towards past bad behaviors to get by. However, watching a returning citizen sign their first lease, or accept their first paycheck makes the stress of reaching that goal extremely sweet. I take pride in being a professional who is known as someone that the community can contact to get referrals for housing and jobs – no matter what is in your criminal history.
CVh: Advantages of hiring returning citizens?
Returning citizens are some of the most valuable talent you can find in the workforce. The MDOC deserves credit for the new vocational programs they have been piloting, which put incarcerated individuals within two years of their release in a “Vocational Village” where they can get skills and certifications in a multitude of fields. While still incarcerated, you have an opportunity to study the skilled trades, get hi-lo certified, obtain OSHA certifications, join the optometry training program, the horticulture program, the cooking programs, and so much more. Twenty years of experience, even in an institution, is incredibly valuable. Think about barbers and cooks – both professions are in demand in the economy, and you have hundreds of people who have decades of experience in these fields. If they have served their time and we as a society are preparing to welcome them back to our communities, does it not behoove us to ensure that relevant opportunities are available?
Further, some of the brightest entrepreneurs you’ll ever meet are behind the walls of Michigan prisons. They know everything there is to know about buying, selling, supply chain management, customer service, promotions, and so much more. The biggest difference between a Fortune 500 executive and a street dealer is the product they offer (typically illicit) and whether they file tax returns. When you realize the skills are transferrable, a person can really start to take advantage of what they’ve gained – good and bad – to get them to this point.
CVh: Advice to returning citizens seeking employment?
Don’t give up. It’s easy to say and harder to do. Ten doors will be slammed in your face for every one that opens for you. Take the open ones, no matter what they are, because they will always branch out and take you to the next opportunity. Pull your rolodex together. Identify your support team. Be kind to those who offer you support and keep in touch with them. Nobody coming out of prison is expected to do it alone, but so many feel isolated when trying to balance doing the right thing with being set in their ways.
Believe it or not, most restaurants, manufacturers, plants, and landscaping companies hire returning citizens. There are great tools to access online for jobseekers, including Michigan Talent Connect, DetroitAtWork and JobsForFelons.com. And FYI, The City of Detroit is also a felony-friendly employer!
CVh: Tell us about Ciao Line.
I have spent years working closely with service providers and employers to try and direct relevant talent their way. I have found one of the more effective avenues for this was what began as a very small group of returning citizens and service providers I know personally in Detroit, and has since grown to include over 500 returning citizens. On Ciao Line, I post felony-friendly jobs, vocational training, housing opportunities, financial coaching, entrepreneurship classes, resume building, and anything else that might support the returning citizen population feel a little more at home in our community. Would love for any interested folks to join here! https://www.facebook.com/groups/ciaoline/