To address the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impacts upon LGBTQ+ individuals, Omaha, Nebraska–based Black and Pink has piloted a reentry program that serves system-impacted LGBTQ+ people in need of critical support upon release from prison or jail. Entirely staffed by system-impacted individuals, the ReStore, Embolden, Amplify, Power (REAP) program offers housing assistance, employment readiness training, and other services, while providing roles of power and leadership for LGBTQ+ people. Through a transformative justice model, REAP addresses the complex and layered reentry process. Even before a criminal record, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be isolated from support networks and encounter bullying, harassment, and discriminatory treatment. These challenges do not go away while in prison or jail, and can be an even greater struggle upon release. Black and Pink responds by reframing the reentry challenges facing LGBTQ+ people through a lens that is both trauma-informed and culturally appropriate. At the program’s core is the belief that system-impacted LGBTQ+ people have the capability to envision and drive their own success when given the physical, mental, and emotional safety they need. As Black and Pink affirms: “The program is a catalyst for its participants, not a solution. They are the solution.”
The REAP Reentry Program addresses the erasure of LGBTQ+ people and people who are living with HIV/AIDS who have been system-impacted. From education to housing, we know that people within these identities are fighting daily for equitable experiences and access to opportunities they deserve. Through REAP we delve into work that restores our participants, empowers them, amplifies their voice, and supports them in exploring their foundational power as people. We believe that investing in the overall development of individuals based on their vision of their best self will shift the paradigm.
My lived experience inspired my idea. I was released from prison after eight and a half years with nothing but a set of clothes and the songs I had written in 18 months of solitary confinement. I had managed to acquire an associate’s degree in culinary management by working ten- to twelve-hour days in the prison kitchen. I had no success plan. The leader and changemaker that I am today happened by grace. I believe that my responsibility in this work is to create systems that respect the beauty of grace but remove the uncertainty of it. I believe that the journey from trauma to resilience to thriving should be a transparent and accessible process for everyone.
My biggest challenge as the leader of this project is that I am the first in most situations I have been in. Every day I have to trust my gut and my instincts, which can be scary. When we are successful we are celebrated, but if we fail, then I have to hold the truth of failing the people who are looking to me to lead and change this culture in which LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS are often intentionally erased. This work is literally life or death for my community.
Brenda J. Council is one of the most amazing women I know. She is an innovator and changemaker in the state of Nebraska. The reasons I look to her as a beacon for the type of leader I aspire to be can only be known by experiencing her warmth and power in person. Her ability to see everyone completely, dig into their strengths, and then support them in elevation to that greatness is beautiful. If all that people say about me when I leave this world is that I saw the best in others and fought to support them in accessing that, I will have no regrets.
David Booth is the current Director of Policy and Advocacy for Black and Pink. I would say that they are one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Their identities of queerness and being system-impacted were foundational barriers to accessing employment and spaces of leadership. We have been able to support them not only in seeing the totality of their greatness and offering employment security. When we remove barriers of inequality—the myriad phobias and biases of the world—people have the opportunity to flourish.
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