The city of Boston hosted a resource fair Saturday to connect people who have recently been released from prison to services that may help them successfully restart their lives.
About two dozen organizations had set up tables highlighting services like housing, voter registration and mental health care — as well as employers willing to hire someone with a criminal record. More than 100 people attended the event hosted by Northeastern University, the first large-scale resource fair the city's Office of Returning Citizens has convened.
Executive Director David Mayo said he does not want the office to become a service center that provides continuing assistance. Instead, he said, the goal is to provide a launch pad for people returning from incarceration.
"I don’t want to keep sending people out with little pieces of information and little pieces of gift cards. I want you to be empowered to have the tools for you to handle your life," Mayo told the crowd. "To be career leaders. To own your own business. To take your life by storm.”
Conan Harris, a management consultant who helped the city create the Office of Returning Citizens,said he was proud to see how many of the organizations represented at the event were started and led by formerly incarcerated people.
In August, the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting published an investigation showing that state agencies have left much of the burden of assisting returning citizens to an array of small, underfunded non-profits, many of which are run by formerly incarcerated people.
Harris is married to Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a leading Congressional voice for improving the nation's approach to incarceration. Harris, who was once himself incarcerated, has been advising Mayo on the program—and offered encouragement to attendees Saturday.
"When I think about the resources that returning citizens are running — I'm in love!" he said. "You are killing it!"
Harris warned that the work can be exhausting and said the leaders have to also take time for self-care.
"We’ve been in those cells, holding onto ourselves, not showing any vulnerability, not any weakness, and then that becomes a small part of how we operate out here," he said. "Find your joy! We deserve to be OK out here."
The event had at least one concrete outcome: Ron Bell of the civic engagement organization Dunk the Vote said he registered 38 new Boston voters, and got their forms to city hall to meet Saturday's deadline for voting in November's city council elections.
This story is part of Life After Prison, an ongoing GBH News reporting project.