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Home arrow Law arrow The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change

Job Search Strategies

“Be in the Game”

The first theme encompasses the practical job search strategies instructors provided to the Empowered for Change participants. Specifically, instructors encouraged the participants to focus on opportunities rather than barriers during their job search process. As one instructor stated, “failure is only present when you’re performing.” Instructors therefore suggested that the participants “get out of the stands of [their] life and into the game, because how [they] do anything is how [they’ll] do everything.” In other words, if you don’t try, you can’t fail.

One of the initial job search strategies to facilitate “being in the game” was to develop a career goal. Through lectures, videos, and program workbook assignments, the instructors assisted the participants with identifying and developing goals in several life domains (e.g., career, relationships, finance, travel, and family). In particular, instructors discussed the importance of developing goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, responsible (ecological), and time-bounded (S.M.A.R.T). As one instructor expressed, “when you know where you’re going, it’s easier to get there.” Participants were therefore asked to develop and revisit their goals during the study period. Yet throughout this process, the instructors often belittled participants’ concerns regarding employment barriers. In the following excerpt from our field notes, two instructors from the historic civil rights nonprofit organization used the personal barriers of one of the instructors to illustrate that their most significant barrier to employment lies within themselves:

Two instructors from the non-profit organization, Mr. Jimenez, a mixed race man, and Mr. Gonzalez, a Latino man who used a wheelchair, facilitated an hour-long session focused on career goals, resume development, and interviewing. They also talked to the participants about developing a unique selling proposition. To help the participants with develop a unique selling proposition, they asked each of them to stand up and introduce themselves in 20 to 30 seconds without sharing any personal information about themselves. Each participant therefore introduced themselves by talking about their past work experiences. However, an African American male participant, prior to introducing himself, mentioned he’s never worked before, and had either only been incarcerated or “on the streets.” The instructors expressed to him and the other participants that “everyone has barriers to getting hired.” Mr. Gonzalez shared that he has a criminal record with two convictions and a disability.

He talked about identifying barriers as a first step, yet encouraged the participants to try to understand how focusing on barriers can contribute to fear. Mr. Jimenez echoed this statement, saying, “the way Mr. Gonzalez works and gets his job done you would never notice his disability or barrier.” Mr. Gonzalez ended the discussion by reading a quote by Rosa Parks. After reading the quote, he said, “she [Rosa Parks] had fear; however, she still persevered to carry out her mission. Barriers are what we put in front of ourselves.”

While the instructors’ messages here concerning barriers to employment can be understood as empowering, the underlying message was that these barriers are personal, rather than structural. Using Rosa Parks’ quote as a motivating example also acknowledges the racial composition and experiences of the participants as is fitting with the civil rights organization, yet within the context of the program, still maintains the focus on removing individual and mental barriers to “get in the game.”

Quotes and affirmations included in the participant workbooks, such as “successful people overcome their excuses,” supported the instructors’ messages of personal responsibility for change. In nearly all program sessions we observed, the instructors recited these quotes and affirmations to remind the participants that they are solely responsible for the direction of their lives, regardless of the barriers they have or will continue to face. Thus in advising the participants to develop S.M.A.R.T career goals, instructors insisted they would be equipped to “play the game effectively,” as they will eliminate their excuses and “remain loyal to [themselves] and not a game [they] did not create.”

The job search strategy of “practice winning” provides another example of “getting in the game.” In particular, participants were advised to reward themselves for activities that support goal attainment. To assist with the practice of rewards, the instructors introduced the “Mental Bank Program,” a hands-on self-improvement activity that is based on the assumption that individuals can achieve their goals if these goals are reinforced. Through the mental bank process, participants developed a “Mental Bank Goal” (anticipated annual salary), identified “Value Events” (for example, applying for a job) that are productive toward their goals, and, each day, recorded completed value events on a “Mental Bank Ledger” worksheet included in their workbooks. Participants also developed an hourly rate to pay themselves for completing value events, as this was to ensure they completed the activity with a positive “Mental Bank Balance.”

Although some participants raised concerns about the time-consuming nature of this activity, instructors encouraged them to commit to the process. For example, one instructor stated, “you have to get in the game and do the work in order for us to help you.” In the following excerpt from our field notes, Mr. Thompson used a movie analogy to assist the participants with understanding the value in committing to a process of personal change:

Following the mental bank video, some participants expressed concerns about the level of commitment required to complete the activity, as they mentioned they have a lot going on in their lives. Mr. Thompson responded to their concerns by expressing that while he is the instructor, he also struggles like them. He talked about having bills and even shared he has a disabled son. He concluded his response by saying, “while I have many things going on my life, I’m committed to excellence! You need to decide what game you’re playing ... going to jail is easy. Just do the work and don’t worry about the how.” He then referenced the movie “Karate Kid,” and discussed how the young boy became frustrated by doing what he perceived as meaningless tasks his instructor told him to do. He also recited a line the karate instructor said to his young boy: “If I taught you karate the way you knew it, you’d manipulate the system.”

To further assist the participants with their efforts to “practice winning,” instructors told them to “under promise and over achieve,” as presumably this strategy would set them up for success and not failure. For instance, Mr. Williams, a volunteer and life coach who attended every session we observed, informed the participants that they “must develop a format for how to successfully complete their goal.” He viewed this as critical to their job search process, because “people who do 60 percent of what they say they will do will be successful.” Mr. Williams further suggested to the participants that if they set a goal to call 10 companies each week to inquire about jobs, yet actually call 15, they’ve achieved 150 % of their goal. Instructors also reminded participants throughout the study period that the goals they set are personal, as a way to encourage them to practice winning.

Overall, in framing their job search strategies as “being in the game,” the instructors attempted to help the participants to identify and build upon their own strengths and assets. Moreover, although the instructors utilized a strength-based approach in their reentry discourses, the message of personal transformation as the key to facilitate postrelease employment opportunities was most prominent. The process of personal change and growth was thus framed as an essential step to the participants’ building resistance against employment barriers, as the scope of their employment opportunities, whether wide or narrow, could be increased overtime though mental positive reinforcement.

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