America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. This is the third of four columns in which I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award.
A New Orleans group helps those "coming home" from the infamous Angola Prison Farm start new lives--through their own businesses.
If she were inclined to be bitter, or even just pessimistic, Kelly Orians, the beating heart of two New Orleans organizations which assist those she refers to by the shorthand FIPs (formerly incarcerated persons), would seem to have ample reason. One of her greatest success stories, Derrick—a former drug dealer whom she'd helped start his own optical shop and who worked as a "peer mentor" for her—had nearly been killed in a drive-by shooting meant for gang members shooting a rap video outside his shop. When he called the police and stayed at the scene to be a witness, they noted his prison record—and handcuffed Derrick. Absent her intervention, with the combination of UCLA law school training and New Orleans experience, he'd almost certainly have gone back to the Angola prison farm—perhaps for a life term—chopping cotton. Her advice to Derrick—keep your cellphone line open—led her to overhear the arresting officer say, "I know who you are, and I'm sending you back where you came from."
At the First 72—the organization named for the crucial first hours someone "comes home" from prison—none of the 148 ex-offenders it's assisted have returned to a cell, save one who was caught up in a drug raid targeting his brother. He'd been about to obtain his certificate as a dental hygienist, a plan put on hold while he awaits trial.
There was a time when such stories would have focused Kelly on activist approaches aimed at exonerating the innocent and reducing “extreme sentences.” After 10 years at work on criminal justice issues in New Orleans, however, neither is today her main focus. She's intent, rather, on forging ways for ex-offenders to build new lives. Those ways are informed by the perspective she freely says she's learned from the FIPs themselves. "No matter how tough your situation was, or is, there's always a dimension of personal choice."
Such are the discussions in the two small-frame houses—literally in the looming brutalist shadows of the Orleans Parish Prison and the city police department's headquarters buildings—which house the operations of the First 72 and Rising Foundations. It is under their umbrellas that FIPs get the sort of practical help which appears to making a dent in what Kelly darkly refers to as "the incarceration capital of the country.” There is no shortage of those to assist. Crime has long been rampant in the Crescent City; as many as one in seven African-American male residents have criminal records. At one point, just one zip code in the Central City neighborhood, where the heroin trade mingles with creeping gentrification, accounted for 8 percent of all the inmates in Louisiana state prisons.
Historically, however, services for the newly-released have been limited, focused on such issues as addressing their historic drug problems rather than on building a full, non-criminal life. In the small Rising Foundations/First 72 office on the ironically-named Perdido Street ("lost" in Spanish), the approach is different. It can be as basic and practical as help in reducing monthly child support payments—which can be so large as to leave virtually no legal wages remaining—to cleaning up the charges that pile up on uninsured vehicles. And it can be as elaborate and unusual as the services offered by the "business incubator": helping ex-offenders to become entrepreneurs—owners of everything from electrical and HVAC service firms to a barbershop that offers free haircuts to young men who do well in school. Those getting back on their feet can live, for a time, at the “transitional housing” building—a small frame house with two beds in each of three bedrooms—adjacent to the office.
To say that Kelly Orians is an unlikely candidate to have built all this is understatement. She’s a perky Colorado native who attended law school in California—and only found her way to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was then that she began to volunteer her services at Citizens for Second Chances, a project to assist juvenile offenders serving life terms in the Angola prison. Her focus, at the time, was on “extreme sentencing” reform. Over time, she was drawn toward the goal of “effecting change in a real way,” rather than focusing on public policy change. For her, that meant helping to create avenues for those released from prison to avoid returning to a criminal life.
Crucially, there were other changes afoot in Louisiana on which she could build. Notably, a local judge began a “Reentry Court”—through which those sentenced to the Angola prison could, if they agreed to both mentoring and occupational training programs when behind bars, qualify for early release: Those sentenced to 10 years might be released after two. Important, as well, is the fact that Angola—a long-infamous prison—has inaugurated a series of what are considered to be quite effective vocational training and GED programs (for that 20 percent of its population not serving a life term). The court, what’s more, looks for programs in which the newly-released could be required to participate. So it is that Rising Foundations, notwithstanding the fact that it relies entirely on private philanthropic support, has the stamp of approval of the Reentry Court. That court’s “case manager”—who oversees individual FIPs—puts it this way:
“I’ve never met anyone like her. She is truly the definition of an unsung hero. Day in and day out she dedicates her life to the cause of helping others. She never falters, she never gives up on anyone, and she never turns anyone away. … The men you meet through the business incubator literally have had their lives transformed because of Ms. Orians’ relentless help.”
That level of help is very much on display during a day at Rising Foundations. While driving to the site of the Reeal Gentlemen’s Barber Shop—run by two graduates of the foundation’s incubator—Kelly’s regularly taking calls from Uber, arranging rides for residents of the transitional housing to go to the local department of motor vehicles. But she works, too, with the head of that agency to make sure that a new law easing the terms on which ex-offenders can requalify for a driver’s license is actually being implemented. Later, she will check in on the progress of the rehabilitation of Keller House, an abandoned Central City building that will be a new transitional housing building for her programs. She exchanges friendly greetings with men on the block, including a few truly desperate-looking guys hanging out on a block infamous for heroin overdoses. The work day continues into the evening with a business incubator meeting. The owners of Flight Night, car window tinting service, All Pro Maintenance, an electrical wiring and insulation installation service, Gentlemen’s Barber Shop and more will all begin a series of sessions on how best to present themselves to customers. All have benefited from legal help to incorporate—and from small start-up loans from Rising Foundations. Those who needed occupational licenses received help in obtaining them. And if it were Friday, there would be fish fry—that helps raise the total $210,000 budget. Other major contributors: the Echoing Green Foundation (whose president nominated Orians and Rising Foundations) and an anonymous New York donor who contributes through the Jewish Communal Fund there.
That budget’s impact is much amplified by a series of partnerships between Rising Foundations/First 72 and other organizations to provide services Orians thinks they are better equipped to provide. Credit counseling and no-cost checking accounts, for instance, are provided courtesy of New Orleans’ remaining major local bank, Gulf Coast. The business owners benefit from sharp-looking business cards designed by a boutique graphic design firm in a gentrifying part of Central City.
The overriding sense one gets from a day with Kelly Orians is less, however, about the originality and effectiveness of the programs at Rising Foundations or the First 72. It is, as the court case manager notes, a sense that this is a woman who combines passion and practicality, who is carrying a small staff and the life chances of many on her shoulders with cheerful and deep dedication. That she has built a reputation and two organizations in a city where non-natives have historically had difficulty establishing themselves—and in which the currents of race and fear run deep—make her all the more impressive.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.