When President Obama spoke about criminal justice reform last week at the NAACP, I learned that I had something in common with him. We both know that second chances are critical for anyone's success.
When the president "slipped up," he was forgiven, he said. Like him, I've had people in my life who were willing to take a chance on me.
I am one of the nearly one in three adults in the United States who have some type of arrest or conviction record. For too many of us, it's almost impossible to navigate all of the social and economic barriers resulting from a record. But I've been able to overcome that lifetime sentence to poor job prospects and little opportunity.
My story is one of hard work and being given a fair chance. Over forty years ago I was released from prison. I knew I'd have limited job options, but I was determined to take every opportunity to avoid the lifestyle that got me in trouble. So I started out doing manual labor in the field of construction. After years of back-breaking work, my body couldn't take it any longer, so I broadened my job search.
That's when I first encountered the check-box asking "have you ever been convicted?" After being turned down repeatedly, I finally landed a job with a company that was impressed by my work ethic and commitment. They never regretted looking past that check-box.
When the president referred to the "growing number of our states, and cities, and private companies who've decided to ban the box," he was referring to removing that box-barrier. Tossing people's applications out simply because of their past hurts our economy and damages our communities -- that means all businesses suffer.
That's why the movement has gained so much traction. Oregon just became the 18th state to adopt a policy to delay conviction inquiries and there are more than 100 cities and counties that have also done so. Some of the nation's largest employers -- Walmart, Target, Koch Industries -- have removed the conviction question from job applications. Fortune 500 companies should be out front, but the voice of small business needs to be loud and clear, too.
I now own a laundromat in Eatonville, Florida, and I'm proud to be part of the Main Street Alliance of Florida, a network of local small business owners that advocates for common-sense solutions, like fair-chance hiring. That hiring reform means, in addition to "banning the box," that if a person's record is considered, then there must be clear evaluation criteria such as the age of the offense and its job-relatedness. Also, employers should give the person the opportunity to explain themselves with any evidence of rehabilitation or context. The need to weigh these factors are actually required by our civil rights laws, but that's too often not on employers' radars.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which supposedly acts as the voice of small business, opposes fair-chance hiring. NFIB doesn't speak for me.
As a small business, it's critical for me to hire the best person for the job. It's an ugly stereotype that if you have a record, then you don't have the skills or characteristics needed to excel in a competitive work environment.
I'm proof that a person with a conviction record can have business acumen and be extremely successful. Formerly incarcerated workers can bring a maturity, life perspective, and work ethic that is uniquely borne through overcoming obstacles.
Along with members of Congress and nearly 200 groups, Main Street Alliance has joined the call on President Obama to take executive action on fair-chance hiring to ensure that qualified job-seekers with past records aren't automatically shut out of opportunities with federal agencies and contractors.
To this date, the White House has failed to take executive action and become a model fair-chance employer. As the president's term slips away, this opportunity can't be wasted; the federal government is the nation's largest employer and it could pave the way. That would help create a culture of fair-chance hiring that would support businesses, like my own, that are trying to do right by our community. I'm proud of being a leader on fair-chance hiring, but other private companies need the positive reassurance that they won't be lone voices.
Eatonville, my home, is a small town that has been devastated by mass incarceration, with over a quarter of the town living below the poverty line. Running a business here isn't about just profit - it's about providing a service and building community. Every day when I open the doors, I am reminded that even though I made a mistake 40 years ago, good things still happen to me. I know the President feels grateful, too. Now I'm asking him to take action.
Charles McKinney is the owner of Trinity Laundry in Eatonville, Florida, and a member of the Main Street Alliance of Florida.
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