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The business of a new life

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Robin Doussard
Monday, July 06, 2009
The two dozen women inmates incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville stared at me ravenously; cubs eyeing the thing they hoped would feed them.

OK, a bit purple. OK, a lot purple. But I have to redeem myself by at least using one metaphor here, since I couldn’t give the group a decent example during a writing class I recently taught at the prison. There I was going on about great writing and how they should use metaphors for power and persuasion, when one of the women asked for an example. My mind went as blank as a subpoened bank accountant. (Now, had they wanted a simile, I would have been ready.)

I was volunteering for a program run by Mercy Corps Northwest under the affable direction of John Haines, Mercy Corps Northwest executive director, and Doug Cooper, assistant director. It’s a smart project, one of several around the country that use entrepreneurship as a way to give prisoners a new start.

The 26-week program helps teach the women inmates, who are all within 18-24 months of being released, the business skills and financial literacy that could help them start their own business post-prison. It’s no surprise that it’s hard to get a job if you have a record, so this program aims to help the women support themselves, and interest in self-employment in that group is high.

And the focus on women is smart. According to Mercy Corps, incarcerated women typically maintain closer ties to their children and extended families. Help these women and you help their children, their family and the community. There are about 1,100 women prisoners in Oregon. Factor in their children, families and friends, and the lives they touch are many thousands more.

The class was structured around having the women write a description of their business idea, sort of a soft run up to writing the executive summary of their business plan. I had no information of any of their backgrounds, or what they hoped to do when they were released. All I knew is that is was the most fiercely focused group of writers I ever had the pleasure to work with. They were also an enthusiastic bunch of budding entrepreneurs, full of ideas. Even at this early stage, some described their business with a great deal of clarity and passion.

Imagine the impact on the struggling Oregon economy if they all walked out of Coffee Creek and opened their coffee cart, or their salon or their pet-grooming business.

Imagine. No metaphor needed.

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