On July 19, 2017 Grand Central Tech and Defy Ventures gathered for an internal screening of the powerful documentary They Call us Monsters, a film showcasing three young boys being tried as adults, facing decades, if not a lifetime, behind bars. The film provides viewers with an honest portrayal of life inside the high security compound. Breaking down stereotypes, They Call Us Monsters gives these youth a voice and a creative outlet to tell their story through screenwriting.
Defy Ventures has a similar dialogue, as they harness the natural talents of formerly incarcerated individuals and redirect them toward the creation of profitable and legal businesses. By engaging top corporate executives, investors and entrepreneurs, Defy catalyzes broad scale personal and economic opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, shattering perceptions of one of the most stigmatized and overlooked populations in America. Defy celebrates a 95% employment rate for released Entrepreneurs in Training (EIT) and a less than 5% recidivism rate, compared to a devastating 5 year recidivism rate of 76.6% for inmates released from federal prisons across the United States.
After the viewing, Jason Wang, a Defy Venture EIT, led an emotional and thought-provoking discussion surrounding incarceration in the United States. The crowd was lucky enough to have nearly 10 EITs who were eager to share some of their experiences within the justice system, as well as answer questions that were raised by the rest of the audience about reintegrating into society and starting their own businesses.
Notable was how little support, if any, former inmates are given when released from prison. One EIT shared that for many, the largest struggle is receiving identification, something that can take months. The $2.75 it takes to get to the DMV on the subway is often out of reach for those who are just released, as they may have lost all of their connections while inside. It’s a catch-22 really. You can only get a job if you have identification, but how can you pay for this process without a job?
After the film, the atmosphere in the room shifted and audience members were moved, shocked and driven to do something, anything, to support this cause. Often people feel helpless to create and spark change. “I am not a lawyer, nor a judge. What can I really do?” This evening proved that simply speaking about and engaging with these sensitive, controversial and powerful dialogues is critical in creating change and breaking down stereotypes.
Megan Goddard, Program Manager from Defy Ventures noted, “In just a couple hours, two seemingly different groups of people were able to build a community, signaling the effectiveness of engaging in dialogue before forming opinions on any individual or group.” She expressed that the EITs were surprised by the support they received from these strangers who listened to their stories with genuine interest and open-mindedness. The EITs emphasized and spoke of their focus on living in the present, moving on from their mistakes and building on their future.
We strongly agree with this sentiment at Grand Central Tech, and believe in supporting diversity in all of its forms, especially those who come from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds. In order to spark change, it’s critical to engage in these controversial and tough conversations.