It Takes a Community to Effect Change

by Sarah J. Stephens
June 2008


“We are like children, who stand in need of masters to enlighten us and direct us; and God has provided for this, by appointing his angels to be our teachers and guides.” Saint Thomas Aquinas

In a small church basement in Cincinnati, Ohio that houses the Literacy Center West, Stephanie Dunlap is fighting an ongoing battle. 

Dunlap is helping young men and women re-enter society from incarceration by giving them hope. As a program manager with the non-profit, community-based agency, she created and continues to manage a program designed to help men and women between the ages of 19-21 form a plan of action to make positive changes in their lives. The center provides services to Greater Cincinnati adults.

Effecting change in one’s life is difficult. The men and women in Cincinnati that end up in incarceration have an even more difficult task if they want to make a better life for themselves.  Some of the major challenges they have to overcome are illiteracy, lack of education, unemployment, and often problematic generational lifestyles.

The “Next Level” program, which Dunlap facilitates, is a job readiness program that combines goal setting, education, life and job skills training, and job placement for formerly incarcerated men and women. Many of these individuals are just now re-entering society. According to Dunlap, the most important step in this program is creating a plan of action.  The plan of action begins by setting realistic goals and then figuring out how to accomplish those goals.

But, a major challenge to overcome when setting these goals is the generational lifestyle that inhibits young people from moving forward in their lives. “It becomes a generational thing when no one in their immediate family circle has been able to break the cycle, and one of the major problems with that lifestyle is that there is no long run, there’s only day to day,” says Dunlap.  “When I talk to them [in jail] they’re as about as discouraged as they can get, I think they find it very encouraging and they get pretty excited about their long term goals.”

Once goals are set, the next step is to find the center’s clients steady employment. The Literacy Center West has two full time job placement experts that work within the community to find places of employment that will foster positive job skills and accept the background of its program members. Despite the help of the job placement specialists, a lack of education among clients makes it a great struggle for an individual to pursue an honest living, Dunlap says.  

According to the most recently published intake survey from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), 56 percent of prison inmates at the time of their arrest were unemployed. The survey showed that over 14 percent did not have a high school diploma or GED.

Although the center has the resources and makes it part of the client’s plan to get a GED, there are no resources for adults who exhibit signs of learning disabilities. According to Dunlap, “By the time they get to us, and GED classes there are some people who are never going to be able to get their GED, they test at a second or third grade reading level. What are they supposed to do with their lives?” 

Although she can not diagnose disabilities, she has seen signs of Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.), and dyslexia. An important step toward positive change in this segment of our population is to secure financial and staff resources to diagnose and help those with learning disabilities available.

An individual’s lack of education, along with a criminal record, makes it nearly impossible, for that individual to return to life after prison and find a job that will support them and often their families. 

“When the choice is to take a job paying minimum wage, or hit the streets to make money, a minimum wage job loses every time,” says Dunlap. The only means of survival, she says, is to hit the streets and deal in drugs and guns. By the time someone reaches 18 or 19-years old and has a felony conviction on his or her record, living a straight life is nearly impossible. 

“The way we sentence people, and the way we approach our drug laws really needs to be re-thought. Making someone a second class citizen, as a felon, for the rest of his/her life for a drug charge when they are 19, I think that that’s a tragedy,” Dunlap says, when asked what we need to do to make a change in the lives of young people who enter her program, “We also need some kind of hope that doesn’t reside in becoming a famous rapper or sports star - specifically for the young men.”

In order to make a significant change in the life of young people who end up in this program, several things need to change. The system they end up in is confusing and extremely difficult to manage, especially for those who already have trouble managing their lives. “It’s almost a full time job to schedule these appointments,” according to Dunlap, because they “get caught in the system.” Between seeing parole officers and welfare case workers, and applying for aid, among other urgent needs, many young people fail simply because they can’t manage it all.  Transportation becomes an issue as well when one attempts to work out a schedule and find a job.

The Literacy Center West contracts with the adult probation department to provide GED classes on site. For individuals that have conditions of parole or are mandated in their sentencing to attend GED classes, the on-site classes make it possible for them to fulfill those requirements. Another benefit to the on-site classes is that the center is able to “form relationships” with parolees, Dunlap says. “They are able to see that they can make academic progress, and we form a long term relationship with them that keeps them coming back for help. Especially if they have some work to do before they can get their GED. They definitely benefit from it and are grateful for that.”

Hope seems to be the main staple of this program. Success is measured not in monetary gains or in how many people get their GED, but in instilling in its members a sense that if they make the human connections, never give up and keep asking for help, then ultimately they can succeed at living a better life.

“The youth know where to turn when they need help and they come back. That to me speaks to our success, but also it speaks to a willingness in the youth to keep trying for themselves to make their lives better,” Dunlap says. “And that willingness itself is really important. It’s those human relationships that are going to effect the fundamental change that’s needed to break the cycles and ultimately lead to a better life for young people.”

The Literacy Center West - http://www.litcenterwest.org
ODRC/Ohio Department of Corrections Intake survey - http://www.drc.state.oh.us/