The following is a conversation between Sheena Meade, Chief Executive Officer of Clean Slate Initiative, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The Clean Slate Initiative‘s vision is that everyone in America should have a fair opportunity to work, have a safe home, take care of their families, and contribute to their community. They seek to achieve that vision by uniting people across the country to ensure that conviction and non-conviction records are no longer a life sentence to poverty, and past mistakes will no longer define our futures.
And here to tell us about this vital work is Sheena Meade, the Chief Executive Officer of Clean Slate Initiative. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sheena.
Sheena: Thanks, Denver. I’m happy to be here this morning.
Denver: Well, it’s wonderful to have you. Tell us the story behind the founding of Clean Slate Initiative, which was back in 2019. What inspired you to establish this organization?
Sheena: Well, actually, I can’t take credit for the founding of the organization which, now, we are taking the organization to definitely new heights and visions. But really this organization came together because it was a vision of some partners in Pennsylvania to help people of Pennsylvania who were having barriers trying to get back to work.
And so were our partners, community legal services, who were doing some legal services with people who had arrests and convictions… who were coming into their offices looking for a second chance. They were finding that they could not get a job because their conviction or their arrest was holding them back.
And our partner, Sharon Dietrich, was actually processing these applications for these folks. And she was seeing that the majority of the applications that she was filling out and submitting to the government agencies were getting approved.
And so, her thought was, “Wait a minute. These applications for the people who are eligible, all getting approved, they’re not getting shot back… there’s got to be an easier way to scale this.” And she moved legislation and got bipartisan support to move legislation to automate the process for the people who were eligible, who will remain crime-free.
They were able to pass that legislation in 2019, and then a group of stakeholders came together and said, “How can we scale this, and how can we make this possible in maybe two to three states?” And that’s when I came at the helm in 2020, and I had a vision that we could do this in more than two to three states.
I thought that this was a beautiful idea, and that there are millions of people who needed relief. And, so far, we’ve been able to see 12 states in that Clean Slate policies or passed the policy, and we’ve been able to help seven states make this a reality.
Denver: That’s incredible. That’s a Herculean achievement in over a couple years. It really is remarkable. And dig a little bit deeper into that in terms of having a record. How does it impact a person’s life? And you would know a little bit about this, I guess.
Sheena: Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s the emotional mental toll that takes on anyone who has a past record or conviction or arrest. But there are things like getting access to housing, employment, and education that serve as a barrier that I think that the common person may not realize continues to haunt a person with a conviction or an arrest.
In America alone, there are over 44,000 regulatory restrictions alone for a person who has an arrest or a conviction… as simple as being able to get a license to do barbering or cosmetology. So, if you’ve been arrested or have a conviction in certain states, you’re banned from automatically getting access to get those licenses to be able to get that type of employment.
Denver: And in those states, that ban, is it a lifetime ban?
Sheena: Every state has their own bans, but I would say that in some states, like in the state of Florida, a few years ago, we worked on occupational license restrictions. And, at one time, you will have to go to appeal or go through a process to get your license.
And, you know, when you think about it, in most prisons, for people who have been incarcerated in the state prison, this is one of the jobs that are usually easier to get; it’s a skill that people learn, how to do hair, how to do barbering, and they try to bring that skillset on the outside of the prison back when they come home because they know it’s going to be hard.
So, they try to start their own business, and they may be restricted from getting a license or they try to work inside of a hair salon or a barbershop and then find out that, wait a minute, this skill that I’ve learned to attain and got really good at it, I’m not even able to get a license or employment.
Denver: Yeah. And that’s just going to put them back in a bad place when they can’t support themselves. This is just a crazy system.
Sheena: It just contributes to recidivism, and that’s why Clean State is a public-safety issue. We believe if people have access to jobs, housing, and education that they’re less likely to go back to prison or to jail, or to resort back to the offense that might have got them into that situation in the first place. And there’s even research behind this.
Denver: Yeah. Well, you mentioned before that you have had clean slate legislation passed in 12 states. I’m very excited that New York was the most recent one of those 12 states. And that, as I mentioned a moment ago, is a Herculean achievement in such a short period of time.
Denver: But there’s still 38 states out there.
Sheena: Remind me, Denver– 38 states. I know. It feels like we’re getting closer. And it’s so funny, you said that as I was texting folks from the plane, excited about New York, and someone actually texted, my colleagues said, “Well, 38 more states to go.” And I was like, “Let’s get it.” We’re closer than we were a few years ago.
“And so, really, right now, it is trying to get the states and the lawmakers and the public to understand that there is a solution to giving people a clean slate.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I think some of the mindset for that, when I think about it, is not counting up to 12. It’s counting down from 38 and 37 and 36 because as long as there’s one state out there, you still haven’t completed the job, and you have really picked up a lot of momentum in what you’ve been able to do.
This is an issue that has bipartisan support… that’s far and few between. What is the challenge or the hold-up in some of these other states that have not passed this legislation, which at least intuitively makes such common sense.
Sheena: It is a common-sense policy, Denver, and I don’t think that it’s a whole challenge that’s preventing us from going into the other 38 states. It is time and opportunity and education that we have to do. So, you know, again, the Clean Slate Initiative is a very new model and policy. And so, it is just getting traction. It is educating folks on the opportunity and also the barriers.
You know, you have over 114 million Americans that have an arrest or a record. That is about one in three people having an arrest or a conviction. And so, when you have so many people who are impacted by this, it hits really close to home. And so, it is just taking that time to educate our lawmakers, our community, on what these barriers look like.
It is amazing, the amount of times that I have sat down with people and just talked to them about the barriers that people face who have an arrest or a conviction. And they are kind of just stunned.
Sheena: They’re like, “Wait a minute.” Yeah. I believe that once a person has, you know, remained crime-free… they paid their debt to society, they should have access to all the things, or they should never have lost those things, because we want to make sure that our communities are safe. We don’t want people resorting back to the same things.
And so, really, right now, it is trying to get the states and the lawmakers and the public to understand that there is a solution to giving people a clean slate. Another thing I would say is that it takes also a sense of technology for people to actually implement clean slate policies the way we talk about it. Because the way we talk about it is making it automatic.
Sheena: Meaning, that the process right now in most states, just about all 50 states, have a process that you have to initiate. It is on the person who has the arrest or conviction. You have to initiate a petition-based process. You have to fill out paperwork; you have to pay fees; you have to wait a certain amount of time, and the process that we’re introducing will cut through all that red tape and make it automated.
Meaning, that the burden is no longer on the person, it is on the government, that once that person has met the eligible criteria, remained crime-free, that their record will be automatically cleared, given the offenses that are already eligible for their state law.
“And that was really exciting to hear, and we hope that governors across the country will see that governors… whether they’re in a red or blue state… see that this is a common-sense policy.“
Denver: Yeah, that’s fantastic, removing the friction. I mean, I know how much friction exists. I mean, I think about the friction of trying to change phone carriers, you know what I mean? I’d imagine trying to go through this labyrinth has got to be out of sight. And, you know, we mentioned New York as a blue state, but this is also in red states such as Oklahoma. Tell us about the impact that Clean Slate has had there.
Sheena: Yes, actually we just left Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is where we convened over 250 of our advocates, directly impacted people and folks who are fighting for a clean slate. And we left Oklahoma City, and we decided to come to Oklahoma because Oklahoma was one of our states that passed Clean Slate last year.
Sheena: And we are seeing bipartisan support in red states, blue states, and, I like to say, purple states.
Sheena: All over. And we were really excited that a state like Oklahoma can model why second chances are important. And we were actually welcomed by the governor, Governor Stitt, who came to our Convening to welcome us. And he talked about a lot of the CJ policies that he has championed and lifted up as he’s been the governor but also around the importance of Clean Slate.
And that was really exciting to hear, and we hope that governors across the country will see that governors… whether they’re in a red or blue state… see that this is a common-sense policy. So, really excited about that! And, you know, even Utah’s with the Utah governor who also passed this.
So, we are seeing that this is a common-sense policy. We are seeing governors see that this is a business sense policy. You know, how we’re getting people back to work is an economic issue. It is a workforce issue. It is not just a criminal justice issue.
Denver: Yeah. Talk a little bit more… what are the benefits? Because, you know, when we think about this, we’re thinking about the individual, but I would imagine the societal benefits really can’t be understated.
Sheena: Yes. Well, right now, you know, an arrest or conviction record reduces a job seeker’s chance of getting a call back or a job nearly by 50%. And so, you know, we’ve been dealing with the unemployment issue across our country for a while, but yet we see that there are like over 70 million people who are waiting to get access to better jobs.
And so, the economic value is that when we put people back to work, we have a better tax base, and that tax base goes better for our schools, for our communities. And so, our communities are not winning when we have people locked out of jobs and access to housing and education. And so, we’re definitely pushing the economic argument as well and the workforce argument.
And that’s what we saw in Utah. We saw in Utah that the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Chamber of Commerce, was a big advocate for this issue, and a lot of businesses like JP Morgan in Utah and New York. So, we’re seeing that this is not just a criminal justice issue across the country, that this is a workforce and economic issue.
“It is not about socioeconomic status. We’re not just clearing records for people who can afford to get their record clear. It doesn’t matter what zip code someone lives in. It doesn’t matter their race, their color, or their partisan background. Everyone deserves a second chance.
Denver: Yeah. Looking at your website, I see that you really highlight the importance of some of these success stories in terms of really trying to rally support and get momentum. I guess that’s what a great advocate does. Tell us about how you use these success stories to champion this cause and get people to step up and take action.
Sheena: You know, the success stories, I guess, talking about Pennsylvania, letting folks hear that since Pennsylvania passed the law, they have been able to impact over a million and a half people, being able now to have access to second chances. And Michigan, on April 11th when the law went to implementation, over a million records got cleared in that one day.
And I got a call from a young lady named Elvina, who has been fighting for her record to be clear for over 18 years from a past mistake that she made over 18 years ago. Lovely mother, hard worker, who made a mistake 18 years ago, and she said it was the first and only mistake that she ever made, and it had impacted her in more ways than one.
She couldn’t even volunteer in her children’s lunchroom at that time. And when her record got cleared, she sent an email to me showing that she couldn’t believe that her record was not popping up. And she was like, “I think I finally have a chance.”
Sheena: “I finally have a chance of being able to, you know, get employment in the area of my degree.” She was big in finances. And so, I’m really excited about her. I think about Destiny out in Utah, who got her college degree and finally is able to be a homeowner now and is looking forward to getting her record cleared.
You know, she dealt with issues of incarceration and addiction and has changed her life. And now, she’s the executive director at a non-profit, which is the Clean Slate of Utah.
Denver: There you go.
Sheena: And we’re seeing all these success stories, and there are so many more that we don’t get to hear. But we hear the human impact, but we also see the impact, and hope to start seeing the impact of communities and economic impacts. And so, you know, the estimated loss in gross domestic product every year resulting from shutting people out of the workforce is like $78 billion to $87 billion.
Denver: Geez. Yeah. Yeah.
Sheena: And, we’re looking to just change that. And so, it’s just a big issue that impacts millions of people in America. And, you know, we love to hear these stories at a human level, and we’re starting to hear them come in, and we heard a lot of them at our Convening in Oklahoma. And so, I think we’re going to have some stories that we’re going to be able to post on our website as well.
Denver: Yeah. And these are over such, in many cases, inconsequential things. I think you had your issue with an $87 bounced check?
Sheena: Yeah. It was a returned check, you know, like you say, it bounced, and it returned, and that was in 2004. That was my first time being engaged with the system. And, you know, I was just trying to feed my family.
Sheena: You know, I was a single mom of four kids at that time. And I was on government assistance and, you know, I tell people I was operating on faith and a lack of financial literacy. So, I went to write a check, and back in the day, you know, we knew that we had a two-day window at least to write a check.
Denver: Oh, yeah, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.
Sheena: You’ve been there too, Denver. I think we’ve all been there, if you were anyone in the early 2000s or ‘90s, writing a check.
“I always say that I turned my pain into purpose…”
Denver: You know, what happened too is that you would write a check, you’d get a two-day window, but if you deposit a check, it’d take them 15 days to have it clear.
Sheena: Right. To clear, we didn’t have all the technology that we had then. And so, I was really banking that, you know, I had a few days for, you know, my check to get deposited from my workplace, and that check had bounced and then it got returned. And ultimately, like, you know, the corporation wanted their money back.
But I do want to say, you know, I paid my debt, I paid that check back, but let’s like really talk about it, $87.26. The DA prosecutorial discretion… they didn’t have to prosecute that. There were other ways for that corporation to get their money back, could have been a civil matter, but $87.26, I had two police officers show up at my door and arrest me in front of my children.
Sheena: For that check, because I didn’t pay it back. And so, they locked me up and, you know, I went to jail. I got out. I paid that check back, plus I had to pay back fees that were more than the check.
Denver: Oh, yeah, I know about that too. Yeah.
Sheena: Yeah. And then, I mean, I pay back the fees for the check, but I also had to pay back fees for being arrested.
And then, you know, the taxpayers had to pay the money for me getting arrested and getting two police officers. I need to probably do a study on how much it costs for me to go to jail that day for $87.26. But the thing I stick with, Denver, is I went through that, but I don’t feel like it was in vain.
Sheena: You know, I always say that I turned my pain into purpose. And, yes, I went to jail for $87.26 that day. But most recently, I was able to be a part of an Audacious program, Audacious cohort that was awarded $75 million for me to be able to do this work across the country.
And we’re now looking to create a pathway in all 50 states through that Audacious commitment in the next six years to unlock opportunities for 14 million people, to be able to get 14 million people a second chance. And, you know, that commitment is a validation of the importance of having directly-impacted people leading this work.
And so, I’m really excited about that, and also about us doing some work on the federal level because there’s no mechanisms for people to get their records cleared on the federal level. And, just circling back to the state work, you know, we were in Oklahoma, and we had advocates from all across the country representing different states, and we actually had a young guy from Alaska.
And in Alaska, there is no way to get your record cleared at all. You can’t even petition. So, I believe, it’s like that in Alaska and Hawaii. So, Alaska and Hawaii, shout out to y’all!
Denver: There you go.
Sheena: We are coming to help you all start with a clean slate!
Denver: It is funny, Sheena, how a return check of $87.26 can sometimes just change the trajectory of your life. As you say, there’s always some purpose behind this. And look what you’re doing now! And I’m sure that act really had some kind of influence to it. You’ve always been an activist though, and an advocate, and I think you got a lot of that from your mom probably.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about that.
Sheena: Shout out to my mother, Yolanda, who contributed and planted plenty of seeds in my life as an activist and an advocate. And it started very early on as a child, seeing my mom advocate for worker rights, or advocate for people of color… or black people… or for voting rights… or people just having a voice in their communities.
And so, I learned early on, you know, not like she pulled me aside and said, “I want you to be this great activist when you get older.” But I was seeing the things that she’s done or, you know, how she advocated for people, whether it was in a workplace. My mom was actually a state worker. And she worked in mental health for years out of the state of New Jersey and advocating for people with mental illness as well.
So, I saw my mom advocate on so many different fronts, and even times where maybe it was not a structured advocate, but just being there for people, whether it was opening up her home to folks who were about to get unhoused, or feeding people, or taking care of people, just loving people; that has always been my mom thing, even till today.
Sheena: Now, I tell my mom sometimes it is like on the spectrum– of being on people business versus helping people. So, I don’t know, but it’s always helping folks.
“The other thing is that people closest to the pain are closest to the solution.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. What were some of the lessons you learned along the way being a great advocate for causes? Again, this isn’t a course you took, this was pretty much day in, day out of your life, just observing it… What would be two or three things that you would advise people who want to change systems, what they need to do to be successful?
Sheena: It wasn’t discriminatory. It wasn’t based on the color of the skin. It wasn’t based on the sexual orientation. It wasn’t based on the economic status. I have seen my mom advocate for folks, whether they were part of the LGBTQ community, whether they were white or black, whether they were folks who had more money than her.
Sheena: Had less money than her. Those are the things that I took that it was the humanity piece that I think, at the core, is what I saw, is that my mom saw the human element of people.
Sheena: And I think that’s what has resonated in this work with Clean Slate as well. It is not about socioeconomic status. We’re not just clearing records for people who can afford to get their record clear. It doesn’t matter what zip code someone lives in. It doesn’t matter their race, their color, or their partisan background. Everyone deserves a second chance.
And so, those are one of the key takeaways. The other thing is that people closest to the pain are closest to the solution.
Sheena: And, you know, making sure that people who are directly impacted are at the center of this work in our states, on a national level, that we’re hearing from them, that we’re listening to them, and making sure that we’re passing policies that, at the end of the day, are going to help them and not hurt them.
“…making sure that people who are directly impacted are at the center of this work in our states, on a national level, that we’re hearing from them, that we’re listening to them, and making sure that we’re passing policies that, at the end of the day, are going to help them and not hurt them.”
Denver: What’s your philosophy of leadership and change? Heading up Clean Slate, you got your team; you built your team. Give us a little idea in terms of how you approach leading that organization… and particularly your staff.
Sheena: I want to give a shout out to my team, Denver. When I say I have, I don’t know if I can say this on air, but I’m going to say, you could bleep me out, a kick-ass team, I have a kick-ass team, and they are a great team. And I’m a person who is just, I guess, I would say, I’m very transparent.
People just say I’m just straight-up, kind of down-to-earth and I’m trying to lead that way. I just want folks to just lead with their passion. One thing I always tell my team, “This is not about your titles, about your egos.” And that’s the same with me.
This is about the people. I make sure that I center our work around the people who we’re doing this for. And I remind them of that. And whether, you know, we are seeing victories or frustrations that I try to remind my team: This is bigger than us.
Sheena: At the end of the day, this is not about just a policy number or a bill number or Senate number or legislators. This is about the 114 million people. And so, I try to center my team around the people. I try to bring real stories to the people that I hear in the field to our staff. You know, just recently, and I’ll say his name now, Ramiah Whiteside, who was someone who did 22 years. He was in prison for 22 years, and he was a leader inside the prison.
He was a part of EXPO organization out of Milwaukee and, I believe, we were his first conference he attended. He was out just two years. And he came to our Clean Slate conference last year, and he left on fire, ready to like pass Clean Slate. Even if he was not eligible for it, he wanted to fight for Clean Slate for the folks who were eligible in Wisconsin.
And he was so excited when he left that conference. He was fired up, and Ramiah passed away last year, and we honored him– his name, and him– and his legacy at Clean Slate Convening, and it was a reminder that some folks are trying to do this because they don’t want to die being defined by their record.
That this thing is bigger than just employment and all the barriers that we see, but it’s about dignity and about human dignity and being seen, not as damaged goods, but as someone who has potential.
And so, you know, there was also someone I saw, I believe his name is Marvin, our New York Clean Slate partners were lifting up his name as well because he was a fighter for Clean Slate, and he didn’t get to see Clean Slate pass into existence.
And so, there are real people out there who really want to just see this happen. And so, that is how I try to lead with my team and just my team, that we should always lead with people first, that this is about the people that we’re trying to help.
“This is about the people. I make sure that I center our work around the people who we’re doing this for.”
Denver: And when you keep them at the center, it makes your decision-making a lot easier.
Sheena: And makes that decision-making a lot easier. Yes.
Denver: Talk a little bit more about The Audacious Project. You know, you said it in passing, but we just can’t let it go with that. I mean, that is one big deal. Tell us a little bit about it and what you plan to do to leverage it and really, exponentially increase your impact.
Sheena: Yes. Well, for all the listeners, I want to say that, you know, we were able to be awarded $75 million through The Audacious Project that help us bring our vision alive and be able to expand this work into all 50 states, at least putting all 50 states on a pathway for the next six years, and open up second chances for 14 million people.
We are still fundraising. You know, this work is not always the easiest, and it takes finances to be able to move legislation. And so, we are still fundraising for at least $25 million more to be able to make this a reality for people across the country.
But where we’re going to be able to do… we’re going to be able to resource our partners on the ground who were already doing this work. And I would just say that that money’s already accounted for. We had to put out an “audacious” plan and put out an “audacious” plan together. So, it’s not like we’re just sitting in this money, just rolling in it… like this money’s already accounted for for the next six years.
And we’re feeling so fortunate at CSI, we’re feeling so blessed to be able to get these resources. And like I said, it is validations of the importance of this work and seeing that, you know, we’re able to go in states like Florida, states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, and get them on the pathway because we know that it’s probably where a lot of impact can happen… but the work takes a little longer.
And so, it’s not where the low- hanging fruit, as we like to call it, is laying. And so, with this Audacious award, maybe myself will be able to have a clean slate. Because right now, under the law in Florida, I’m not eligible to get my record cleared.
“Seeing that bipartisan support, I think, is a future where Clean Slate is not going to be a whole conversation, it’s just going to be common sense.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That’s an aspiration, my goodness.
Finally, Sheena, I was going to ask you about your vision for the future. We know part of it through The Audacious Project, but you know what? I bet you saw some of those glimmers of the future at the Second Annual Convening. Share with us a moment or a couple moments when your team, the 250 people who were out there got together, that basically just lifted your spirits and let everybody know that the future for this initiative is indeed a bright one.
Sheena: Gosh, Denver. I’m going to try to do it without crying, but I mean, I’m still processing, like I said. I’m just getting back from the conference, and I’m trying to process everything that I heard. It was folks feeling empowered, feeling excited about what the future may hold for their state, what the future may hold for them and their children.
I had people who were there on behalf of their parents, who were children of incarcerated parents and whose parents are home now, who they’re trying to make sure that they have access to jobs and housing and services.
I had a young lady from Connecticut who was an Ivy League scholar who went to school at Ivy League schools who is in Connecticut, who is looking for a clean slate and looking for implementation, so she could live, move on with her life.
I just saw states that said, you know… who saw states like New York and like Oklahoma and Utah, and in Delaware passing, and they’re like, “If they could do it there, we could do it in our state. How do we get started? Where do we sign up?”
Sheena: And so, I just saw so much inspiration and engagement amongst peers and people talking to each other and telling people to continue to “keep your head up,” like it’ll happen, you know?
And so, knowing that we’re going for the long game and not just short-term wins, you know– like New York… New York’s been pushing for three years. And shout out to those partners who never gave up, and folks in Minnesota, who thought it was possible, and those partners who are waiting for that law to be signed by the governor. The sky’s the limit for the future.
Sheena: And I’m excited about the work that can happen on our national level, and that there’s so much momentum happening on the state level that I’m looking for the Clean Slate Act that was introduced this year by Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester from Delaware, and also from Representative Nancy Mace, who is out of South Carolina.
Seeing that bipartisan support, I think, is a future where Clean Slate is not going to be a whole conversation, it’s just going to be common sense.
Sheena: That’s what I see for the future.
Denver: Yeah. And what you just said there that really touched me are the kids on behalf of their parents. Because even in some of the cases of their parents, they may not need the job or housing or whatever, but it’s just about their dignity.
Sheena: Their dignity.
Denver: To get this cleaned off their record.
Hey, for people who want to learn more about Clean Slate Initiative, become involved in some way, or financially support this work, tell us a little bit about your website, Sheena, and what they’ll find there.
Sheena: Yes. Thank you. Listen, we put financial support behind the importance of advocacy work. It can have a transformational impact on people’s lives.
And so, if folks want to support the Clean Slate Initiative, they could go to every.org/cleanslateinitiative. You can also go to our website, cleanslateinitiative.org. Go follow us on Twitter, on Instagram, on LinkedIn. Our marketing comms team is a great team. They make sure we keep folks updated.
We have great blogs. We have a newsletter that you can sign up for to keep you informed, and we’re always putting out new information. If you have a story to share, if you’re someone who’s directly impacted and you’re like, “You know what? I want to share my story.” We want to hear from you too. Please reach out to cleanslateinitiative.org, and we’ll love to capture your story.
Denver: Well, great stuff, and thanks so much for being here today, Sheena. It was such a delight to speak to you and have you on the show.
Sheena: Denver, thank you so much, and it’s been a delight being on here, and thanks to your listeners.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.