That’s when Slack reached out to Kellogg for its expertise in racial equity. Black and brown (but especially black) people are locked up at far higher rates than white people.“Incarceration, in some ways, that’s a symptom,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, the CEO of the Kellogg Foundation. “The more fundamental issue: racial inequality and racism.”
Slack also coordinated with The Last Mile to ensure that students’ learning would mirror the actual work of a start-up, and started to navigate some choppy regulatory waters. “There are a lot of restrictions about what people with felonies can touch with regard to customer data,” Rohatgi said. “We were able to find a role for them that is technical and very important to Slack, but allowed us to follow the law.” Then—because there’s quite a difference between being politically opposed to the prison system and being open to sitting next to someone with a conviction for armed robbery on his record—Slack gave trainings to managers, invited Tamboura to speak, had one-on-one meetings with Leal.
“There definitely was some fear, and I think that is perfectly understandable,” Rohatgi said. “But we’ve gone from that to people are just damn excited about this program.”
Leal might be the most excited. He’s come a long way personally and he’s ready to scale his success. “We’re partnered with Slack, but if we can get five more companies, we can get 10. If we get 10, we’re going to get 100. If we get 100, we can get 500,” he said. “I can see it snowballing.”
The most obvious critique of the program is that it is just small: three guys, when California alone has roughly 115,000 prisoners. But that’s not the only one. Offering an apprenticeship rather than a permanent job may not seem like a huge distinction, but multiple advocates for formerly incarcerated people called attention to this part of the program design.
“I think it’s all a great idea in concept, and I’d love to see the end result,” said Pat Mims, who was incarcerated for 20 years and is now the director of the Reentry Success Center. “The end result is getting guys employment—and not just employment, but careers in the field where they are working. To train them and have them ready for work but not be able to get them a job in the field they trained for is concerning to me.”
That’s not exactly how Slack’s Rohatgi sees the program’s goal. She said that the apprentices don’t need to end up at the company for the program to be a success. “Of course, they’ll get an interview at Slack,” she said. “But success to us doesn’t necessarily mean they join Slack, it means they are successful within technology and in their communities.”
Carmen Rojas, the executive director of The Workers Lab, which invests in organizations that empower workers, shared Mims’s concern that an apprenticeship is not guaranteed employment. And, of course, working on this scale, the program cannot address the deep causes underlying mass incarceration. “The challenge with this program is that it places a burden on returning citizens to navigate training systems without guaranteeing employment or addressing the systemic causes of poverty that can lead to incarceration,” Rojas told me in an email.