How Austin Became the First Southern City to 'Ban the Box' for Job Seekers With Felony Histories
This past March, Austin, Texas passed Fair Chance Hiring, a city ordinance that requires private employers to delay questions about a criminal conviction until later in the hiring process. Austin is the first city in the South to do so.
The movement was led by formerly incarcerated people who came together to fight discriminatory hiring practices in the heart of Texas, a state more known for its racialized and social control than its compassion. I was proud to help lead the campaign.
If I drew a map of our steps over the months leading up to our win, it would look blurry. Much of our strategy was estimated guesswork at best, and we often walked through the unknown, bumping our heads in the dark. But perhaps more valuable than a detailed list of our campaign steps is an understanding of how we came to this work and why.
Identify the Problem
So much precious time is wasted misunderstanding the problem. Our country has become a prison state where 1 in 3 people have a criminal conviction on their record because of mass incarceration. We didn’t end up here by accident, and so it follows that changing courses, even slightly, will take a coordinated outcry from the people harmed by our current policies and practices.
I used to believe that public policy could solve the issue of over-incarceration and the criminalization of people of color. In the time of my reverence for a top-down theory of change, I earned a master's degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon and didn’t speak of my past incarceration. Like so many, I paid homage to the proverbial bootstraps that would help me earn my worth. That is until I was fired, from the place where I had earned my graduate degree, for a 15-year-old felony conviction that came up during a routine background check, which was required for a promotion.
After all that education, hard work and practiced assimilation into the gatekeeper’s kingdom, I realized I was disposable. And until I accepted my past I would continue to stand in the way of my future, not only for myself, but for the hundreds of thousands of others who share my situation across this country.
My “I am what I am” Gloria Gaynor coming-out-of-the-closet moment came once I understood that real change could only come from movements that put those who have experienced the struggle firsthand at front of those movements. Over time, I’d hear policy analysts say that there are more important criminal justice reform policies than Fair Chance.
But this advice came from people who had never served time in prison, or seen the perpetual defeat of a loved one’s attempt to find meaningful employment because of a decade-old criminal conviction. They couldn’t see this issue as a momentous gain because they were clouded by privilege and ignorance. They had never had to beg for a job, undersell themselves or blindly accept workplace abuse because of their past.
The Fair Chance Hiring, or Ban the Box movement was started by All of Us or None in 2004, a grassroots organization of formerly incarcerated people based in California. It was the exemplary work of these and other community organizers directly affected by the issue that shifted the national conversation to include the idea of second chances and earned opportunities for people with criminal convictions. And so it follows that any change in the South would take significant work of organizers in our own communities.
Lay the Groundwork
Last summer, the city of Austin facilitated community stakeholder meetings to discuss Fair Chance, an initial effort that resulted from conversations between community activists and councilmember Greg Casar. For transparency, I should add that if it were not for the bridge Casar’s office created between their work and community members, Fair Chance could have died before any of us had the opportunity to take part. The people we elect to our local offices matter.
Thanks to synchronicity or coincidence, my personal journey to explore life outside of the closet aligned with the growing Fair Chance movement in Austin. So when the the city delayed Fair Chance to work on the budget, I volunteered to draft the ordinance and present the issue to council, with the support of four other advocates. After all, freshly fired for having a felony, I had time on my hands.
There was nothing unique to our initial work, but by stepping into that space we laid a path for others to join. Anyone can recreate these steps in their city, with the help of the Fair Chance/Ban the Box toolkit on the National Employment Law Project’s website or the Ban the Box toolkit on the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children website. Both include steps on how to start a local campaign and sample language.
What started out as a handful of friends and advocates pushing for Fair Chance quickly grew, and by November we were a formal group with bylaws and a name, Second Chance Democrats. We choose to align ourselves with existing, accessible, local institutions of power, and in the end the unwavering support of the Travis County Democratic Party greatly influenced our win.
Yes, we are a Democratic club on the surface, but functionally we are a community organizing group. Our mission is to work toward a more equitable Austin, with a focus on restoring hope and dignity to the poor communities and people of color impacted by the carceral state, and we are led by formerly incarcerated people. We exist on a tiny budget and anyone is welcome to join, regardless of ability to pay membership fees.
How we worked toward our goal was as important as the goal of passing Fair Chance. The praxis we developed over time was what I was looking for, but could never find, in public policy organizations that believed in a top-down theory of change. Instead of coming in and telling communities what they need, I was a part of a community that told our representatives what we needed to succeed! Inherent to this work are the values of accountability, patience and compassion that keep us “right-sized” and are refined through the sometimes painful process of growing up in public.
Part of being right-sized, of practicing power with versus power over, means that we try to move beyond the typical hierarchy structures that exist in groups, though there’s always work to be done to ensure true collaboration and equity are met. We make all important decisions as a group and no one member acts as the sole decision-maker. Practically speaking, that means we meet in person often—during the campaign we met three times a week for weeks in a row. When we were not able to meet in person, we found another way to communicate effectively. This structure allowed for us to represent the views of the many, even when some members could not be present to negotiate amendments for example.
By coordinating an informal Fair Chance Coalition to work with our allies in Austin, we were able to successfully orchestrate direct calls to action, regularly communicate with the press, write rebuttals, op-eds and one-pagers, conduct outreach, and cultivate relationships with strong local representatives. In the course of six months, we made a total of 21 visits with city council members and the mayor and presented testimony at four public hearings. On the surface these visits and hearings were to persuade council, but more than that they were a chance for us to tell our story and talk about the issue in our words.
We had allies who worked alongside us to offer institutional support and create an informal coalition: the Equal Justice Center, Youth Rise Texas, Grassroots Leadership, Prison Justice League, Texas Advocates for Justice, and others. We are deeply thankful for the support of local representatives and the business community. The eight worthy Austin city council members, Mayor Adler, the Travis County Democratic Party, the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Young Chamber of Commerce, and Flux Resources, all supported Fair Chance in the face of significant opposition and pressure.
Change the Narrative
We’ve all heard the labels “superpredator” or “heinous criminal,” to name a few. Imagine how challenging it is to prove your worth with those words looming above you, constricting the imaginations of everyone in the room. Many well-meaning advocates and allies advise formerly incarcerated people on how to engage within the confines of existing stereotypes: “Mention that you are a mother or a daughter,” or “Introduce yourself as someone who has a graduate degree,” as if to prove you are somehow worthy.
Radical change means a shift in how we think about crime control policies and how we treat the people whose identities and lives were erased by the carceral state. Radical change is something much more meaningful than moderate policy wins that can be replaced the following legislative session. And the shift first starts with the stories that we tell.
We must embrace the counternarrative if we want to see radical change. The counternarrative allows us to tell our story without a transformational spin. I don’t have to say “I went to prison and turned my life around, and now, ta-da, I’m worthy!” Because I was worthy before, during and after prison. Moreover, not everyone "fell from grace." Many people are criminalized for being a person of color, mentally ill, poor, or all of the above. They should not have to prove their worth by fitting their story into someone else's narrative to be heard.
Embracing the counternarrative is always uncomfortable, especially in the South. Instead of proving our worth with our stories, we tried to look oppression in the face and speak honestly without trying to impress our audience. After all, staring oppression in the face and compassionately standing ground with direct action is the true Southern way, taught to us by civil rights leaders and community organizers long before us.
What I am most proud of is that after a year of working alongside the people I love, the dominant narrative, the stereotype, no longer dictates me, and I am free from my obsession with a top-down theory of change. What guides me instead is the authenticity and healing found through activism that continues to be our goal. I hope to hear more people use their voices to unapologetically say, “This is who I am, and comfortable or not, it’s time to make room for me.” Those words, I found, will lay the first stones to guide any seemingly hopeless path.