A recently announced agreement is expected to help returning citizens break a cycle of struggle that’s historically been reinforced by a criminal justice system advocates say is set up to make them fail, said Kyle J. Benson-Smith.
The Kansas City District SBA Office and two local nonprofit organizations held a public signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon to finalize two Strategic Alliance Memorandums (SAMs) that will provide microloan financing opportunities and other resources to formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.
The two memos ensure that Determination, Inc. and Reaching Out From Within can connect the formerly incarcerated population and individuals soon to be released from incarceration in the Kansas City area with products and services from the Small Business Administration and its partners.
Benson-Smith, executive director of Determination, Inc., said that many SBA products and services have been available previously, but this partnership will allow all parties to come together to make sure the resources are more accessible to formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.
“The first step in the relationship was working to discuss, ‘Are there products or services that [SBA and their partners] offer that we could more intentionally target to formerly incarcerated people, or over time, could we build better solutions to support this population?’” Benson-Smith said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who attended the ceremony as a special guest, commended the organizations’ commitment to reducing recidivism and opening pathways to employment and entrepreneurship for individuals re-entering society.
“I am proud and I am inspired by the commitments, the connections to our community that we are seeing here,” Lucas said.
“It is the community uplifting itself fundamentally,” Lucas added. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Lucas also urged the formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs in attendance to share their stories of success so that others re-integrating from incarceration may be inspired to pursue their own entrepreneurial and employment goals.
“I would like to deputize all of you as ambassadors of connection,” Lucas said. “When you are hearing from … folks who are returning citizens, folks in any position who are saying, ‘I’m back and nobody wants me.’ Let them know that, ‘You are always wanted, you are always appreciated, and we know folks and opportunities that will work for you.’”
Benson-Smith said that the alliance comes at a good time for Determination, Inc. as the organization works to focus more on connecting its community of “second chance entrepreneurs” to microlenders.
“For the evolution of our Rise Up, Get Started program next year, we had already behind the scenes declared  the ‘Year of the Loan,’” Benson-Smith said. “So [that means] better preparing the entrepreneurs we serve to take advantage of microloan opportunities in the area … and being able to partner with existing SBA microloan providers will be a great way for us to pilot this new initiative.”
Building awareness among formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs about microlending is the first step, Benson-Smith said, but he added that it’s also critical to find lenders who understand the uniqueness of each individual’s situation.
“It’s also about finding stairstep capital that will meet people where they are,” Benson-Smith said. “Maybe someone’s not in a position to get a $10,000 or $20,000 loan to put directly toward their business, but they are in a position to take on a smaller credit-building loan in order to improve their credit score while they’re working on their business plan and growing their business, so that eventually they will be ready for those small business loans that exist.”
Determination, Inc. is a Kansas City-based nonprofit that aims to empower formerly incarcerated individuals to seize employment and entrepreneurial opportunity in home improvement and residential construction, with the ultimate goal of reducing recidivism and ending mass incarceration.
Reaching Out From Within (ROFW) is a nonprofit that currently operates in 10 correctional facilities in Kansas — with plans to expand to other states — offering incarcerated-led programs that empower participants to transform themselves and heal each other.
Jim Echols, executive director at ROFW, said in a press release issued by the SBA District Office that the initiative “is truly an opportunity to enhance the pathway to a productive life going forward” for formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.
Benson-Smith said this commitment builds on other positive efforts from organizations throughout Kansas City that help individuals re-integrating into society from incarceration, specifically noting the Second Chance Risk Reduction Center, Journey to New Life, Connections to Success, and the Transition Center of Kansas City.
Ultimately, though, he emphasized that the work is far from finished.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that the truth of the matter still seems to be that the system itself — our criminal justice system in the United States — is set up to suck the very life out of people, and is set up for people to fail,” Benson-Smith said.
“So there is still a lot that we can be doing as a society to find alternatives to incarceration that actually put people in a better spot, that heal communities, that keep our communities safe, and provide dignity to victims,” he continued. “I think we can be doing better than what our criminal justice system and incarceration is doing right now.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.