Sometimes, correcting injustice is as simple as recognizing a problem and having the willpower to make a change.
That’s what the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program did in California, where prisoners are encouraged to volunteer to fight wildfires but struggle to get jobs as firefighters after they’re released. It’s a familiar problem for advocates of criminal justice reform: Despite receiving valuable training at minimum security “fire camps,” a criminal record can make it practically impossible to obtain the required credentials to turn their skills into a career.
The founders of the nonprofit program realized they could make a difference by providing the resources to help formerly incarcerated people transition from fire camps to full-time employees of California’s firefighting force.
Now the FFRP is one of three groups being recognized by The Workers Lab, an organization that funds experiments to build power for low-wage working people, with an Innovation Fund grant of $150,000.
The Innovation Fund is a competition that gives cash prizes to test new ideas for building worker power. Winners are picked three times a year, and receive 12 months of support as they try out their ideas.
For the Spring 2020 Innovation Fund, The Workers Lab partnered with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The three latest winners, which will each receive $150,000, are:
- The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, which has been helping incarcerated people turn their fire camp experiences into post-release job offers since 2018. With this funding, FFRP will scale up its programing model, provide additional training and support for underrepresented communities, and combat the increasing threat of wildfires in California.
- Leap Fund, which addresses the issue of the “benefits cliff” for low-wage workers. Sometimes low-wage earners decline pay raises or working more hours in cases where that income bump may be offset by losing government benefits. Leap Fund has built a calculator to help people understand when they’ll come up to that cliff, and with this funding, they’ll pilot two digital programs with workers in New York City that aim to help workers avoid that quandary, possibly by deferring income until they earn enough to replace what they’ll lose in benefits.
- FreeFrom, which focuses on supporting workers who are survivors of gender-based violence. Financial insecurity is a major reason that some survivors stay in or return to abusive situations. With the Innovation Fund money, FreeFrom aims to pilot a survivor-designed paid leave program that works with employer partners and which will be tailored to survivors’ needs for “flexibility, privacy, and confidentiality.”
Since it was founded in 2014, The Workers Lab has invested $3.5 million to 46 projects nationwide. These three projects highlight just a few of the many ways people around the country are trying to build worker power; for this Innovation Fund cycle, the Lab received ideas from 378 applicants across 43 states and eight countries.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of workers across the country lacked support and resources to drive change in their workplaces. Now, as many Americans struggle with the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, these initiatives to build worker power are even more important, The Workers Lab says. The Lab previously announced a COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, which gave no-strings-attached checks to gig workers across the country. The three latest winners of The Innovation Fund are another way to invest in workers in this moment and beyond.