Winning a Fair Chance in Austin
In March 2016, a fight led by formerly incarcerated people passed Fair Chance Hiring in Austin, making it the first city in the South to require private employers to delay questions about a criminal conviction until later in the hiring process. Since then, this growing movement has fought to keep the ordinance from being repealed or amended at nearly every turn.
Monday was the last day of Austin’s legislative session, securing this win for formerly incarcerated peoples and all communities who face criminalization and discrimination from unjust systems. This win affects over 4 million Texans who have criminal records, and points to the larger problem of mass incarceration and hurtful discriminatory practices in the US where 1 in 3 people have a record.
The Fight to Keep Fair Chance Hiring
Opponents like TX Representative Paul Workman and think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been aggressively working to attack Fair Chance, including introducing House Bill 577 (HB 577). In response, various groups of formerly incarcerated people, including the Reentry Advocacy Project, Second Chance Democrats, and Texas Advocates for Justice, along with ally organizations formed the Fair Chance Coalition to defend Fair Chance Hiring in Austin. Jorge Renaud explains this was an opportunity “to build a coalition of people who would speak to the history of peoples who’ve been othered in these cages.”
Rather than focus on the usual cost benefit analysis, they spoke about these discriminatory practices as an extension of incarceration. In addition to clarifying the specifics of the
Fair Chance ordinance and its financial benefits, formerly incarcerated advocates contributed their personal stories and insider perspective to form a radical narrative around their fight.
After doing 8 years in prison and 12 years on parole, Lewis Conway, organizer with Grassroots Leadership, knows firsthand the personal and social consequences of discriminatory hiring practices. He says, “I don’t want anyone else to have to squeeze eight years into a two by two box. If you’re going to expect transformation from people who have been incarcerated then it is incumbent on the employer to transform themselves and their hiring practices.” Conway breaks it all the way down: “If you have no problem receiving slave labor while they’re in prison, when those people come home you should have no qualms with providing them fair access to employment.”
“If you have no problem receiving slave labor while they’re in prison, when those people come home you should have no qualms with providing them fair access to employment.” – Lewis Conway
This past January, multiple groups of formerly incarcerated people and allies from across Texas participated in a press conference against HB 577 and SB 4 at the Austin capitol to show the pressing need and desire for Fair Chance Hiring. Formerly incarcerated leaders also worked with advocates on the capitol to ensure legislative offices took their input on strategy, tactics, and information as bills were constantly amended. Conway explains, “HB 577 died on the calendar because there were enough legislators in the Senate and House that recognized the importance of public safety and how it’s tied to people not being able to access employment.”
Nothing About Us Without Us
From learning the ins and outs of the legislative process to mobilizing people and actions, formerly incarcerated people modeled the leadership and empowerment necessary to win, setting a historical precedent in which the leadership of people formerly in cages defeated a seasoned politician and the 75 elected officials that co-sponsored HB 577. “What’s most important is formerly incarcerated folks led a political legislative effort that was about power building. It was about forwarding the narrative, ‘Do nothing about us, without us,’ [and] we were able to get a victory by people who were not even supposed to be involved in the process,” says Conway, point person for the Fair Chance coalition. This was his first legislative session.
Conway emphasizes that “This is about the most impacted leading the charge and finally being recognized as experts, as equals. If formerly incarcerated folks hadn’t led the fight it would’ve become more about local control instead of about morals, transformation, and equity. Which all adds up to power–they won’t give it to us, we have to take it by being leaders in these kind of efforts.”
Next, the campaign hopes to support other groups of formerly incarcerated people in passing more Fair Chance ordinances across the state and the U.S.
Sofia Campos is a warrior, healer, undocumented, resister of borders. She’s also a Capricorn who loves reading, dancing, and hot chocolate. Follow her at @campoSOFIA or @soulfiyah on IG