Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Denver: Today we will visit with team members at The Clean Slate Initiative, or CSI. The Clean Slate Initiative passes and implements laws that automatically clear eligible records for people who have completed their sentence and remained crime-free, and expand who is eligible for clearance.
We’ll begin with their CEO, Sheena Meade.
Sheena: 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.
A foundation of CSIs culture is how they go about the planning process and the impact it has on the organization as revealed by ST and Jesse.
ST: Well, I want to start at my favorite place, which is how we plan as an organization. The team will laugh because they know I like my spreadsheets, I like my planning, but really at Clean Slate Initiative, it’s about having an intentional place where we daylight how we’re relying on each other to achieve our goals, where we have space to talk about strategic issues that are coming up, things that we need to be creative together to try to solve, where we reflect honestly on how we’re learning and how we’re going to take that learning into the next phase of our work. And so every quarter, we bring all of our staff together in person for at least 2 days. And it’s a big lift. It’s a lot of time we ask of people and, it’s a lot of time that we’re spending together, not out in the fields doing other things, and it is absolutely 100 percent worth it.
Jesse: When we were talking about change broadly, it really made me reflect on how we come together to talk through strategy and I think it’s like assembling like a 5000-piece puzzle and like, I may have the corner pieces, Sheena is bringing like all the vibrant colors, Morgan has the core pieces that we need, and we all have to sit down and figure out what piece of the puzzle we have at a given moment to make sure we’re creating the prettiest picture.
Interdependencies are a key piece of this planning process as ST and Morgan explain.
ST: We call it interdependencies. And we’re all interdependent, but we daylight those so that everybody knows this is where my work fits into your work fits into the other person’s work. And you’re just absolutely right about that. We are interdependent, but we make that transparent so that there’s no misunderstanding, so that we really realize the benefit of what we’re doing together instead of what could be otherwise silos or one person going and doing their own thing.
Morgan: I think the biggest way that that kind of bleeds through the organization is the way that it allows us to collaborate together. So, we know our interdependencies and we know who we need to collaborate with in order to get things done. And I really think that that is such a big part, especially in this environment where we work remotely for the most part. Having those clear interdependencies and clear collective understanding of our organizational goals for the next three months is something that allows us to kind of break down the silos and be able to work together, which is really important here.
Learning is of paramount importance at CSI in all its different forms and shapes as Kierstyn and Morgan illustrate.
Kierstyn: And one practice that we also do is taking time to do retros or reflecting on time that we’ve spent together, whether it’s leadership training, convenings, getting feedback from the staff, that’s just very strong process and practice that ST has implemented, and she wants to hear from our team very consistently on how things can be done better, even down to the, you know, what kind of food do you like to eat, or do you have any allergies, or just you know, really taking time to reflect on the different things that we do consistently, and getting feedback, and then implementing that feedback into future things that we’re doing.
Morgan: And I think the fact that we are all people who really enjoy learning, not just about the work that we’re doing, but about each other. And so, again, in this theme of like, there’s not really moments, it’s just kind of baked into the fabric of our culture, is that diversity and equity. We are constantly learning about each other. We are constantly learning about each other’s backgrounds and that is helping us to gain different perspectives with each other and learn a little bit more about experiences and cultures that we might not have ourselves.
There are other things baked into the culture as well such as celebrating wins or trust based on competency. Sheena and Stacey will speak to these.
Sheena: They celebrate each other, like we don’t have to name wins. I remember some of our, like, when we was a smaller team, we used to actually put on an agenda, “Let’s celebrate wins.,” and I think the reason why I kind of moved away from that was not because I didn’t want to celebrate wins, but it was already embedded in our culture that we would do it anyway.
Stacey: Earlier, I was thinking that another really important thing that exists at Clean Slate Initiative is trust, and it’s trust that everyone is smart and works hard and wants to achieve the same goal. And I feel like that is always an underlying understanding, which helps everything else. So. No one is second-guessing the other person’s work or commitment or thought and everyone is very much differing to people that we know to be the expert on a thing. And I think that is really great and it comes through. So, even when there is room for disagreement, there’s still that underlying understanding. “Well, yeah, she probably knows what she’s talking about because she’s a smart person and works hard, right?” So, that is always there and I feel like it’s unspoken but it makes a big difference.
Through collaborative empowerment and their storyteller series, CSI keeps the people who are directly impacted front and center as Jesse and Morgan reveal.
Jesse: Our campaigns team goes out to states, meets with different stakeholders, diverse stakeholders, and specifically and at the forefront, people who are directly impacted by a criminal record. So, not only are we collaborating with people who the legislation we’re advocating for is going to benefit. They have an active voice and role and drive in our campaign and coalition. So yes, we work as an internal team to sort of map out what states we think are feasible for change, but then once we engage with state partners, we very much are just sort of steering their ship and lending them resources to ensure that they’re successful in the way that they want to be successful.
Morgan: One of those ways that I love because of my role here is our storyteller series. So, we have a video series of storytellers so directly impacted people who have agreed to come on camera and talk with us about their experience living with a record and some of these people have had those records cleared, some of these people still have their record and they talked to us about it and let us share that story with the world, because those stories are going to help change people’s hearts and minds about the stigma surrounding folks with records. And the way that we have really made that project a core part of our work on the marketing and communications team, uplifting and amplifying the voices of those directly impacted people, I think speaks to the culture of equity here.
One thing great work cultures have in common is that they are egoless. Jabria and Essence tell us that is the case at Clean Slate.
Jabria: So, the reason why I can honestly and wholeheartedly say that mission is at the core of our organization is because egos have no place here. Egos do not show up here. That’s because when we come in, it’s a heavy lift at planning, we don’t come with attitudes or heavy hearts. We come because we understand that we are standing on the forefront in the lives of people who actually need the redemption. I can say this personally from my heart because I am one of those people. I have never seen a time where we have come to a quarterly planning or have engaged with an outside organization with the ego or chip on our shoulder, even our CEO. Our CEO is so relatable. Also, if I can paint the picture, just a little bit more about the mission really being at our core is a lot of people have it written in their goals like, “Oh, we are going to stand in the front lines and we’re going to actually have goals that reflect our mission.” That’s what I’m trying to say, excuse me, goals that reflect our mission.
Essence: One of the first few things that ST and I do when we’re onboarding or when somebody signs or even the interest of working with Clean Slate is like making sure that they have a full general understanding of our mission and then we jump into our approaches and we jump into our vision and how we achieve that and then even circling back and closing it full circle, how we even plan for that and how we identify our priorities throughout the way.
Wellbeing and being able to show up as your authentic self are pillars of any good workplace culture. Sheena and Stacey speak to these at CSI.
Sheena: Well being, self care, and as much as possible work-life balance is very important to me and I have explained that to each and every staff. I speak to every hire that comes on. There’s not one person I do not have a conversation with or try to even be in proximity to. But, I know what burnout feels like. I’ve had burnout to the point that I’ve been in the hospital multiple times, and I’ve taken that experience saying that I was making a commitment to myself that I will not have that happen again to myself. But as much as I can, I wouldn’t want that to happen to any of my team members if I want to be a thoughtful leader, a caring leader, and so for most folks to tell you that, I’m always like, “Are y’all okay? Are you doing too much?” You may not have to do that. And they’re like, “We’re good.” And so we try to make sure that we honor that, and just wellness and when you asked about how do you scale a culture?
Stacey: For me, the biggest thing that stands out about our culture is that you’re able to show up as your human and full self. And I think no matter where you are in your life journey, career journey, personal journey, that is respected and welcomed here and you don’t have to feel like you have to put on a show or put on a mask or put on a face when you come to work that you often have to do in other settings and I’ve lived them. So that for me is such a meaningful thing because then without having that layer of angst and you’re thinking about all of the ways in which you might have to show up differently, that’s all taken away and then you can then focus on the work and supporting your colleagues and amplifying the mission. So, for me, that is like something that I think is precious, it’s intangible. But for me, the organization, and I feel it every day.
A final thought from each of our participants. Essence on Bipartisanship, Jesse on Confidence, ST talks about Curiosity and Change, Sheena on in-person time, Kierstyn discusses onboarding, Jabria on Culture, and Morgan speaks to second chances.
Essence: Bipartisanship between employees, bipartisanship between stakeholders, bipartisanship between our campaign strategists and the campaigns that they manage is just a collaborative work environment all across the board internally, externally, And that is what I would tell somebody who’s interested in applying with us is that it’s a space for you to develop even if you don’t know the skills I came in here not knowing half of the things that I guarantee I’ll be leaving or not to say that I’ll be departing Clean State when the time comes. So, bipartisanship is what sticks to me as the sauce.
Jesse: So when my colleagues feel comfortable and secure, I think it increases everyone’s individual confidence in their ability to do their jobs, in their self-esteem, which in turn does lead to this trusting culture, but also it leads us to a more effective path towards reaching our goals, which is why I’m here.
ST: And so I feel like that curiosity about each other and about the work and about the world we live in means that change feels really easy inside the organization. And I feel like that has to do with what each of us brings, what we hire for and kind of how we’re oriented, such that, I never hear from somebody, “Well, we do it this way. Reading like, “Why would we do it a different way?” It’s always like, “Well, we do it this way, but I hope you got a better way of doing it and I can take too much time.
It’s not going to disrupt anybody. Like, that’s cool if you’ll do it a different way,” you know, within reason and within structure and in a way that advances us.” So, I want to be thoughtful to say, like, “I guess if you change too much, you’re just like spinning in circles at some point.
That’s not us, like we’re changing to evolve and to keep moving forward and to kind of keep doing things better. And so, I think because of that core component that each of us brings, which I think is related to our curiosity, I might be wrong about that, but I feel like that’s where I would locate it. It means that change is just expected, and so we don’t have any, there’s just not a lot of big concern.
Sheena: If you create a good culture, toxicity cannot last in it, right? So, your team would know if there’s something off, and it is the responsibility of us all to make sure that we correct those issues and make sure that we don’t let things fester and that’s why it’s important as we are a remote team, but even in person, time and a human connection and energy is very important to me, and I think it’s important to my colleagues as well. That’s why we honor the in-person time.
Kierstyn: My very first day was, Essence and I, we spent the whole day together. She walked me through everything that might’ve taken, you know, we have the benefit of being in an office together so that is a plus, since a lot of us are remote, but she just took the time with me and explain all the processes, got my computer setup, just did it with such a great attitude and smile, and it was wonderful. It was a wonderful experience.
Jabria: But aside from that, the first thing we do is we definitely bring them into our culture. We set the tone firsthand because our culture doesn’t shift. It won’t shift. If it does shift, it’s because we all collectively bought into it. It’s because we all collectively went back to our mission and said, “Okay, does this fit? Is this a part of this?
Morgan: I think the secret sauce of the Clean Slate Initiative is second chances. You know, internally, we offer grace and second chances to each other every day that we show up and maybe one of us had a bad day before or we had a tough conversation and when we bring those second chances together, we bring those second chances to our colleagues when as we work toward actively pursuing policies that will benefit their lives. And externally, second chances is the name of the game. We are working to give 70 to 100 million people in America who have a record a second chance at life, and so I think our secret sauce is definitely second chances.
I would like to thank all those who participated in this piece: Sheena Meade, ST Mayer, Morgan Kelly, Jabria White, Jesse Kelley, Stacey Ferguson, Kierstyn Bishop and Essence Torres.
You can learn more about the organization at cleanslateinitiative.org or visit denver-frederick.com and listen to my earlier interview with Sheena Meade, the CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative.
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 Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.