Did you know formerly incarcerated people fought back (and won) in Texas? You should

After long battles in both the Texas Capitol and Austin City Council, formerly incarcerated people and their allies won a major victory for Fair Chance Hiring here in 2017. We celebrate this victory as a landmark event for the people who have been dehumanized by incarceration to advocate for their rights and to be seen and hired by employers for who they are.

The Fair Chance movement is a nationwide campaign to end employment discrimination in the hiring process, and to restore civil rights in our society. The Fair Chance process requires employers to consider candidates on their merit prior to asking about criminal convictions, moving the background check to the end of the hiring process. This ordinance is the only one of its kind in the South, and took effect in Austin on April 4, 2016.

Austin City Council voted in March 2016 to pass a Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, becoming the first (and still the only) Fair Chance Hiring City in the South. Led by formerly incarcerated advocates and their allies, Grassroots Leadership worked in partnership with Second Chance Democrats of Austin, who played a crucial leadership role in the campaign, Equal Justice Center, Youth Rise Texas, Council Member Greg Casar and his staff to win this crucial victory.

Legal employment discrimination against individuals with an arrest and/or conviction history is far reaching, and disproportionately harms the poor and communities of color. In Texas, despite making up only 12.5% of the population, African Americans account for nearly 35% of individuals locked up in Texas prisons, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Gainful employment is one of the most critical steps to prevent recidivism.

Lewis Conway, criminal justice organizer with Grassroots Leadership, knows firsthand the personal and social consequences of discriminatory hiring practices after spending eight years in prison and 12 years on parole.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to squeeze eight years into a two by two box. If you’re going to expect transformation from people who have been incarcerated then it is incumbent on the employer to transform themselves and their hiring practices.” Conway said. He also speaks about the enslavement in the criminal justice system. “If you have no problem receiving slave labor while they’re in prison, when those people come home you should have no qualms with providing them fair access to employment.” Conway led the Fair Chance coalition in organizing people directly impacted by employment discrimination to transform our hiring system.

Despite the clear imperative for Fair Chance hiring and the ordinance’s popularity in Austin, opponents in the Texas legislature filed to repeal the ordinance with House Bill 577.

Refusing to give up, formerly incarcerated people led an advocacy campaign that included a ground-breaking Advocacy Day in February that brought together people working to stop deportations with formerly incarcerated folks. That day in the Capitol, formerly incarcerated people and their allies used music, art, and personal storytelling to bring their message to the Texas legislature.

“This is about the most impacted leading the charge and finally being recognized as experts, as equals,” Conway says. “If formerly incarcerated folks hadn’t led the fight it would’ve become more about local control instead of about morals, transformation, and equity. Which all adds up to power — they won’t give it to us, we have to take it by being leaders in these kind of efforts.”

After several months, the coalition led by the formerly incarcerated won and the bill died on the legislative calendar. “There were 76 legislators who lined up against us to sign on to that bill,” said Jorge Renaud, Texas Advocates for Justice organizer. “So the fact that we prevailed in the end was not luck or circumstance. We proved, again, the power and the necessity of formerly incarcerated people leading the fight.”

In a state where the TDCJ numbers show that more than one in three adults have a criminal record, we believe that Austin’s victory is just the first step for the Fair Chance movement in Texas.