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By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

The year is coming to an end and I’d like to recap what my first year with the Michelson 20MM Foundation consisted of as we look forward to 2023.  

We kicked off the year by awarding grants to the following Smart Justice Spark Grantees: California Competes, The Project Rebound Consortium, Underground Scholars, and The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP). Their projects will result in a data-driven dashboard for the state of California to identify and analyze broken opportunity pathways for incarcerated individuals and uncover opportunities; establish and share resources for the California State University campuses to combat housing insecurity among the formerly incarcerated student body; expand the University of California, Irvine’s, Underground Scholars Program; and broaden FFRP’s hallmark program into the Bay Area.

During the month of April, we hosted a webinar to discuss how to support higher education faculty members who teach inside prisons. Our panelists consisted of faculty from different areas of the country and they provided guidance, advice, and best practices. A recording of the webinar is also available on YouTube.

Earlier this year, the Smart Justice Think Tank finalized California’s Best Practices: Pathways From Prison to College. Throughout the year the Think Tank, along with our Smart Justice Fellow Danny Murillo, disseminated these best practices via conferences on higher education in prisons around the country. To further bring awareness of these best practices, we created a webinar series where we not only introduced the best practices, but also broke them down into separate webinars that included a closer look at best practices inside prisons. Next year, we look forward to continuing the series by hosting webinars on transitioning from prison to college and thriving on a college campus. 

During the month of October, hundreds of individuals from institutions, organizations, foundations, and more reconvened for the National Conference on Higher Education in Prisons (NCHEP) to learn and share their experiences navigating higher education systems. Michelson 20MM was honored to present the best practices and sponsor this conference. A topic of interest to me was the innovative options and models different institutions from around the country are exploring in order to provide education within prisons. I also learned about the necessity of classifying postsecondary education and education-centered reentry programs as an “evidence-based practice” as opposed to a “promising practice” nationwide. 

Also during the month of October, our Spark Grantee, FFRP inaugurated their Northern California Headquarters in Oakland. It was a great experience to be able to witness firsthand how this Spark Grant was put to use and all of the lives that will be impacted. Additionally, we provided RAND with a grant in order to collaborate and disseminate their findings on employment barriers for those with criminal records. We will be kicking off this 18-month project early next year with the hopes of educating industries and other stakeholders on the barriers and disparities justice-impacted individuals face; ultimately, RAND will prepare recommended solutions to ensure the barriers are broken down. 

We are now at the full circle moment of ending the year right where we started it—with our annual Spark Grant cycle! We just closed our Letter of Interest intake and will be presenting applications to those who are passing on to the next level. Needless to say, it has been a great year for the Smart Justice Initiative. We’ve continued to collaborate and strengthen partnerships, as well as create new and exciting ones. We have also introduced a new set of best practices that will hopefully make the academic experience a smoother one both inside and outside prison. We couldn’t have achieved these wins, however, without our incredible partners. It is the season of gratitude, and that is how I would recap my first year with Michelson 20MM: A year of immense gratitude for the space I am working in, the many individuals who inspire me and my work, and the great lessons I have learned both professionally and personally. 

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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