10 Nov This movement aims to help ex-cons find jobs — and turn their lives around
When Kirn Kim was 16, he was part of a group of four teens who killed an honors student who attended their high school in Fullerton, Calif. Kim had been along for a ride with a pal who was known for his big talk and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison for having been a lookout in the murder.
Today, 23 years later, Kim is one of an emerging class of individuals — the formerly incarcerated — who are struggling to make a life for themselves after they’ve paid their debt to society.
“What happened was a tragedy,” Kim told me. “But I was determined to make the best of a bad situation and be that one exception, if I ever managed to get out of prison.”
To that end, Kim used his time behind bars to earn a bachelor’s degree in business and became active in rehabilitative programs where he could counsel and help struggling inmates. After 20 years and two tries, Kim was finally granted parole.
He moved back home with his parents and, taking back up with a childhood love of computers, delved into coding and computer programming courses at a local college.
But he hit a brick wall when it was time to find work.
One of Kim’s professors, who had been impressed with his work ethic and high grades, put him in touch with a STEM industry recruiter who told him to just forget it.
“He said ‘I’m sorry, but, look — the big companies aren’t going to hire you. With your record, your best bet is going to a startup,'” Kim recounted.
So he did. Kim found a job with a video game startup. It came to an abrupt end, however, when the company made a move to get licensing for a game they had been developing and were told that if they had someone like Kim on staff, there would be no deal.
From there Kim tried for temp work but no one would even interview him. “I signed up at temp agencies but obviously because of the box to check, I couldn’t get anywhere,” said Kim, referring to the question on most hiring applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record. Checking these boxes almost always leads to an ex-offender’s employment application being tossed away.
“At one temp agency, the interviewer refused to talk to me so I came back the next day and I just sat there for eight hours waiting, hoping he would give me an interview,” said Kim. “But my case was pretty high profile and, being back home, some people actually remembered my case and flat-out told me ‘I will not hire you.'”
Frustrated, but undeterred, Kim started volunteering at organizations seeking to serve others facing the same challenges and found that he was a powerful role model for both those still incarcerated and those who were back on the outside and looking for ways to not get themselves back in jail.
Luckily for Kim, the Ban the Box campaign, which started in 2004 and has since persuaded government agencies in more than 45 cities and counties to remove the question regarding conviction history from employment applications, is making gains.
A year ago, the California Endowment, a private foundation focused on health, hired Kim as a communications coordinator. The “Ban the Box Philanthropy Challenge” is now an official campaign sponsored by the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and calls on nonprofits to implement hiring policies that don’t automatically disqualify applicants because of a conviction or arrest.
So far, 47 foundations including the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others have joined corporations like Starbucks, Facebook and Target in giving ex-cons a better chance at making something of their lives after prison.
“I’m really appreciative about the fact that the endowment and other organizations are recognizing we do have a place in their organizations and have value to contribute,” Kim said about his happy ending. “This movement has opened people’s eyes to workers who want to give you their blood and sweat to prove they want something better in life.”
Ban the Box estimates that one out of four adults in the U.S. has a conviction history. Here’s hoping the new Philanthropy Challenge can enable happy endings for them, too.