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Two of the best methods to increase economic prosperity are post-secondary education and workforce development, particularly among incarcerated individuals and formerly incarcerated individuals. To help make these pathways more accessible, elevating the voices of justice-impacted individuals can ensure their expertise and experience inform policymakers. Additionally, research analyzing best practices for post-secondary institutions to retain and support formerly incarcerated students is essential.

With this reality in mind, the Michelson 20MM Foundation is proud to announce our cohort of Smart Justice Spark Grantees, who will take the above challenges head-on, turning them into opportunities for students. Please join us in celebrating the four Michelson 20MM Smart Justice Spark Grantees and their projects:

California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy

California Competes’ California Postsecondary to Prosperity Dashboard has been used to understand uneven opportunities across the state. Since economic prosperity is a multifaceted issue, the Dashboard aggregates twelve datasets, including demographic information (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.), educational attainment, income levels, and other indicators. As a result, stakeholders can better understand systemic discrimination across California and identify opportunities for substantial change. 

Leveraging the success of the Dashboard, California Competes will use their Spark Grant to update the Dashboard with disaggregated data related to incarceration. The inclusion of incarceration-related data will enable the State to visually identify and analyze broken opportunity pathways for incarcerated individuals and it will uncover opportunities. Ultimately, the Dashboard will provide policymakers and advocates with a tool that is greatly needed.

The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP)

FFRP helps formerly incarcerated wildland firefighters permanently join the forestry fire workforce in California. To do so, FFRP provides training, job coaching, and connections to employment as a means of assisting formerly incarcerated individuals with serving their communities while also embarking upon gainful, family-winning  careers. 

Aided by a Spark Grant, FFRP is poised to expand into the Bay Area following its proven success in and around Los Angeles County. Approximately 15,000 Fire Camp parolees have returned to the Bay Area in the past 10 years, with an average of 1,600 returning annually. By expanding into the Bay Area, FFRP can serve its population of returning firefighters as they prepare for fire season and seek to embark upon their careers, while also providing private homeowners and land stewards with the much needed work to prepare for fire season and manage fires when they begin.

Project Rebound

One of the greatest challenges formerly incarcerated students face is securing housing. Through a Michelson Spark Grant, Project Rebound will develop a data-informed toolkit to aid their students in finding and guaranteeing housing opportunities. The toolkit will leverage basic needs assessment data gathered by the Project Rebound Consortium and housing insecurity data among California State University Students. 

With detailed knowledge of the challenges formerly incarcerated students face, Project Rebound will provide search tools for campuses to identify housing needs, ways to find and secure grants, how to establish off-campus partnerships, and other available resources. In the near term, the effort will provide useful resources for Project Rebound campuses; in the long term, all 14 CSU campuses will have a robust structure for lessening student housing insecurity among formerly incarcerated students. 

Underground Scholars at the University of California, Irvine 

The University of California, Irvine (UCI) has demonstrated a commitment to making post-secondary education more accessible to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students through UCI LIFTED, which was supported by a 2020 Michelson Spark Grant. In addition to establishing the first UC bachelor’s degree program in a CA state prison, UCI is also supporting formerly incarcerated students through Underground Scholars. Using a Michelson Spark Grant, UCI will further expand the Underground Scholars program via outreach, retention, and policy efforts.

By pairing the Spark Grant with other funding sources, UCI will hire an Outreach Coordinator and Retention Coordinator to work alongside the existing Program Director. Concurrently, UCI will participate in a statewide, year-long Underground Scholars Policy Fellowship Program. Together, they will assist incoming transfer students with UCI LIFTED, provide retention services (tutoring, technology support, internship applications, etc.), and train students in state and system policy activity. 

Over the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing a series of blogs highlighting each of our recent grantees and the important work they are doing.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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