Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Denver: On this edition of The Paths Forward, we’re going to speak to the good folks from Recidiviz. Their mission is to accelerate progress towards a smaller, fairer criminal justice system using modern data infrastructure and thoughtful product design to empower agencies to safely and sustainably improve outcomes for people. We’ll begin with their CEO, Clementine Jacoby, and then hear from other members of the team.
Clementine Jacoby: Recidiviz tends to see itself as an experimentation platform. If we can just take the good ideas and help people see whether or not they work, that’s victory. And so, for us, COVID, this giant experiment, was a pretty big acceleration of I think all of the learning that we’re hoping can be fruitful for the system.
HIRING AND BRINGING PEOPLE ON BOARD
Denver: Recidiviz brought on more people during the pandemic. That meant hiring and onboarding virtually. Julia, Humphrey and Zach tell how they went about it.
Humphrey Obuobi: But another big part of what hiring means for us, it was also just building up a really diverse and inclusive team. And so doing that remotely is something that was definitely like a little bit of a challenge, but we all came together and thought of “How can we make sure that this is something that we really focus on within the organization and not just make it something that is kind of like a general directive, but it’s something that we all participate in?”
And so, I remember working early on with Zac on a framework for how we can really incentivize, encourage people to recommend their friends or recommend or refer, other candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. And so, that was a big part of what we implemented early on, and as we were kind of forming the organization and hiring a lot more people to the point that we are now, which is maybe about like 40 people, 45 people. And honestly, one of the most diverse teams that I’ve had the pleasure of working with
Zach Katz: A model that’s worked really well for us during the pandemic in particular and I think should remain a part of the way that we operate afterwards is the way that we have individuals who are newly onboarding shadow those who have been in the organization before and are currently in the role that they are meant to grow into.
And then what normally happens is you have the new employee shadow either the manager or their peer in the department and then you debrief afterwards. What went well, what didn’t go well, what did you observe from that conversation that might be useful for the work that you are going to be doing going forward.
And then over time, as the new individual onboards, the shadowing reverses. So, the person who was being shadowed before starts to be a little bit more passive and shadow the new employees, and continue to debrief and say what went well on the conversation that you, the new employee, may have led with our state partners
DIFFERENT WAY OF THINKING ABOUT WORK
Denver: Working remotely got Recidiviz to think about work in a completely different way. Evan, Andrew and Juan explain.
Evan Green-Lowe: I think before the pandemic, things were the way they were and they just had to be, you had to come into work, you had to be there. And now, that more things are possible instead of just saying, “This is the way things are.” We’re saying, “How can things be?” And so, for all sorts of professionals who have young children and who are taking care of elderly parents, statuses that change at different points in your life, we’re able to say, “What’s right for you? When do you want to be able to come into an office? And when do you need to be at home or to be able to have flexible hours?” And we’re a lot more open-minded to that
Andrew Warren: And the thing that I noticed a few months in, this was probably right after masks started becoming something that was done during the pandemic and some of these pieces, but we were a few months in and people started establishing routines, like new routines of this is my exercise block. I’m not working during this part of the day. Or this is when I’m spending time with my kids or when I’m giving my spouse a break from X or Y or Z. And I think that that was the point where it suddenly felt like things flipped to being sustainably productive. There still wasn’t a loss of productivity over what things were like in the office, but it was starting to feel like this might actually be a new normal, or a reasonable place just to land after coming out of that
Juan Agrón: And so I think one way we worked around that was– this touches on speed a little bit that, you were asking about– but when we were making things, we usually are very transparent and put things in front of people often and early. And so, I think that helps with creating trust. And so it’s hard to get trust when you’re a little square on a screen and you don’t really have that human connection. But just being vulnerable in that way and sort of showing, ‘Hey, this is sort of what we got so far. What do you think about it?” and sort of implementing their feedback right away really helped with that
HOW COVID ACTUALLY HELPED RECIDIVIZ FURTHER THEIR MISSION
Denver: When COVID hit, Recidiviz realized that state governments were going to need tools to understand how COVID-19 would spread in their facilities. They built a tool to model the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, which helped the state leadership see how early releases would help flatten the curve within their facilities. Within 3 days of being launched, the tool had been downloaded by 34 states across the country.
Serena Chang: And because of that kind of quick adaptation and working within new constraints, we were suddenly working from four to 34 states, and we built a very big team of volunteers, and we learned that, using scenario modeling, even when all you have is public data, is very useful for decision-making. And so, as a result of that COVID modeling, we ended up expanding that effort to use publicly available data and a big volunteer force to create a project that generally projected the impact of criminal justice legislation on overall prison populations, costs, and life years. So, expanding it beyond the scope of COVID. But a big reason why that project came to be was because lockdown initially forced us to adapt and work a little bit differently
Zach Katz: And we were able to be flexible enough to shift gears and use this COVID model to really further our mission in the long run, not just in the short run, because it became a great business development tool for us. It made us a lot of friends in state agencies who then were able to come back to us later and understand some of the value of what we did.
And I think that that really attests to the fact that at Recidiviz, we can be a little bit adaptable and flexible because we have the same long-term vision, and that allows us to work remotely more effectively as well because we’re not constantly trying to micromanage the next steps. We all have enough insight into what
each other are doing but also enough flexibility that we can kind of play the right tactical role on our own. I would think of it a little bit like an orchestra. Every person has their own part, but in concert, we work together really well because we have the same long-term mission
HUMILITY AND LISTENING
Denver: Humility is a Central tenet to how Recidiviz approaches it’s work. That requires active listening as Julia and Serena explain.
Julia Dressel: And I think that’s a really key part of what makes this organization so incredible is that we have really low egos, really low hubris and really high listening skills. And we come into a room, whether it’s a room with each other or with our state partners or with advocacy org, we come into rooms, assuming that there’s a lot that we need to learn. And we never present ourselves as being the expert on anything that we aren’t the expert on. Technical pieces of it, we are experts on and we are strong in those conversations on what we do know and know really well, but anything that we don’t have expertise on, we’re super honest about and really intentional about listening to the people that know best in the areas that we’re talking about
Serena Chang: So one example is we produce policy memos that project the impact of criminal justice legislation on fiscal and carceral outcomes. And it was only through talking to advocates and listening to them and the legislature that we made the memos one page long because they told us “No one’s going to read more than 300 words. And so, that was a thing that we wouldn’t have learned if we hadn’t listened to them. And I think with remote work, listening just becomes even more important because a lot of the usual signals that you have in person like body language or hallway interactions, they’re totally gone
STAYING CONNECTED AS PEOPLE
Denver: It is so easy to lose our humanity in a virtual world. These are some of the steps the organization has taken to remain connected – as people
Andrew Warren: And then we had this very strange little [slack] app called Donut that kind of autogenerates chats for one on-one or one-on-two people to catch up with one another.
And a lot of these things, although they were very small pieces, you know, having a Slack channel, just dedicated to people who wanted to talk about plants now that suddenly several people had lots of them, all of these were very small. But I think they created the space for folks to actually start to get to know each other a little bit more as human beings, even if they had started when they were, fully remote and no one was in the same place
Evan Green-Lowe: We have a colleague who’s a wonderful human whose name happens to be [Terran.] And when Terran was unfortunately leaving our organization to go to law school, we made a celebratory video that collected lots of photos of him and some of his work. And we played it to “Tearin’ Up My Heart” by NSYNC. And there is just an unlimited number of video e-cards and virtual celebrations. We do virtual talent shows that are a lot lower production cost but easier to pull together, and to be a fun way for people to express themselves, to celebrate one another, to find common hobbies with one another. And that’s been a really cool way that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of producing that video if you had to gather everybody in a room to watch it, but if everybody’s going to be on a screen, it’s easy to pull those digital assets in and have people have a good time with it
Juan Agrón: And so, whenever that happens, which it usually, it’s not planned because you can very easily get caught up in the meetings about work that are back to back to back. So whenever those moments do come up, I do try to spend time just kind of like casually talking to my coworkers. And even if that means that I’m going to have to do some extra work later in the day or earlier tomorrow, I enjoy that and I find that valuable because we no longer have those interactions that we would normally have in the office
Serena Chang: And now, my conversations with partners are about how people are struggling to find mental health resources and fight their drug addictions. And it can be hard, and I think the people at Recidiviz really do acknowledge that.
And we established a teammate support channel where people can come and talk about when they need support or provide space when they have bandwidth to support others. We have a signal where anyone can give just to say they need to stand down in front a particular conversation and kind of back off and focus on themselves for a moment. And having the space to do that and put our wellbeing first very much helped us become closer as an organization and also become more resilient during the pandemic
TEAM AND THE INDIVIDUALS THAT MAKE IT UP
Denver: Finally, it’s the team that makes Recidiviz tick. But less we forget teams are made up of individuals. We’ll hear from Humphrey and Andrew to close the segment.
Humphrey Obuobi: I think one of the things that I really appreciated about this team as well is the fact that everyone hops into things and like participates in a way that really brings their skills or their perspectives or whatever it might be to the table. And so whether that’s like the fact that we have a lot of internal courses that our own staff run in some sense, whether that’s on book clubs, on any like papers that have come out on financial
interventions or we have like a working group that works on data ethics. We have a series of internal courses on just understanding the history of the system and grounding people in that knowledge. All of those things are things that are just things that our own team has just come up with and continues to run. And I feel like spirit really does help the organization to just work effectively and , feel that everyone has something to contribute.
Andrew Warren: And so, I think a lot of these different pieces and a lot of– in fact, all of these different pieces of what I think is a pretty amazing team culture come from individual contributions that folks here have brought us. And I think that that’s something that’s pretty amazing and that has been fascinating for me to watch, is what every individual has brought into Recidiviz and kind of what we’re able to do.
Denver: I’d like to thank all those who participated in this segment: Zachary Katz, Andrew Warren, Julia Dressel, Evan Green-Lowe, Juan Agrón, Humphrey Obuobi, and Serena Chang. And for more on Recidiviz, come visit denver-frederick.com where you can hear or read the transcript of my full interview with Recidiviz co-founders Clementine Jacoby and Andrew Warren.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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