This summer, with the generous support of Tuck Gives, I participated in the Urban Leaders Fellowship (ULF). ULF is a concentrated leadership practicum focused on developing skills through hands-on policy crafting and practice. ULF, which was founded in 2011 by Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, now operates in nine cities across the country. Fellows spend seven weeks working with local organizations and elected officials to help bring about real and lasting change in the communities in which they work.
Our Denver cohort consisted of twenty-six teachers, graduate students, and mid-career professionals. The fellowship was split between two different jobs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon: in the morning, fellows worked for our “partner organizations” -- companies or non-profits committed to social justice and social impact. Organizations like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Habitat for Humanity, and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition all hosted Denver fellows. My partner organization was a newly created division of the City and County of Denver called North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC). NDCC is a special initiative of Mayor Michael Hancock, who created the cross-disciplinary taskforce to coordinate critical public works and infrastructure investments in five historically underserved neighborhoods in North Denver. Over the course of the summer, I identified an array of funding opportunities to help NDCC grow its budget and increase its impact on the community, from social impact bonds and federal grants to corporate sponsorship opportunities.
In the afternoon, a group of three other fellows and I supported Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod with a bill to help formerly incarcerated people more easily secure employment. Representative Herod is a longtime criminal justice advocate who successfully passed “ban the box” legislation in Colorado last year. Our team began by investigating the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), a federal program that provides tax credits to employers who hire formerly incarcerated persons, veterans, SNAP recipients and other protected groups. Representative Herod asked us to evaluate whether a similar program at the state level would also effectively and meaningfully improve employment outcomes for formerly incarcerated people in Colorado. Our research and stakeholder interviews revealed that although well-intentioned, the WOTC and many similar programs often fail to significantly improve employer incentives or the prospects of formerly incarcerated people seeking employment. More successful programs begin with basic skills training and education for convicts while they are still incarcerated; this preparation, coupled with proactive housing assistance and other social services, is a powerful method of reducing recidivism.
On the last day of our fellowship, we presented our policy recommendation in the Colorado State Capitol to Representative Herod and a room full of stakeholders, including members of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Governor Polis’ office and the many criminal justice advocates who informed our proposal. My team and I are hopeful the outcome of our research furthers Colorado’s standing as one of the most progressive states for criminal justice in the nation.