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JPMorgan Chase’s $2.25M grant gives hope to females returning from prison

Photo caption: JPMorgan Chase gives more than lip service when it comes to helping returning citizens. They have invested $2.25 million with the Chicago Solidarity Collective to help advance wealth creation for formerly incarcerated Black women in Chicago. Pictured are members of the Collective along with Alicia Wilson, JPMorgan Chase Head of Global Philanthropy (center). (Photo by Chinta Strausberg)

They went from prisoners to entrepreneurs, and through networking and collaborations they now have their own workspace, the ChiFresh Kitchen, at 400 E. 71st St., where they prepare food for the community and, with the help of JPMorgan Chase, will now be able to expand their business.

According to Joanna Trotter, Executive Director of Global Philanthropy in Chicago for JPMorgan Chase, the Chicago Solidarity Collective, ChiFresh Kitchen was one of 200 applicants applying for a national grant called The Challenge” and was awarded a $2.25 million investment from JPMorgan Chase.

The competition, Trotter said, was focused on increasing the economic mobility of women of color.

“We were lucky to have two winners in Chicago, eight winners total across the country,” Trotter said at a press conference held in the ChiFresh Kitchen, a co-op owner workplace for women who have served their time and are now finding their purpose in life thanks to the lifeline from JPMorgan Chase.

“We are excited that this is providing wealth building opportunities for women of color. JPMorgan Chase is very committed to second-chance hiring and second-chance opportunities,” said Trotter.

“We both have changed our hiring practices. We do expungement clinics, and we have a policy team working on local and national policy around second-chance hiring. That’s exciting for us,” Trotter told the Chicago Crusader.

“That goes for the worker cooperative model in Chicago. We think they have been leaders and nearly building almost an eco-system that is supportive of world worker cooperatives being developed as a way to community wealth building.

“They are launching two new businesses,” Trotter said, explaining that the women are looking at a food-like distribution business that will allow them to expand and an option of owning property management companies. The women are currently working on a business plan for those two new models.

Kimberly Britt, who returned home from prison three years ago and is President of the Board of ChiFresh Kitchen and the co-owners, said, “We are announcing our partnership due to the grant from JPMorgan Chase to create more co-ops.

 “I feel absolutely ecstatic. It’s my dream to see more co-ops here in the Chicagoland area. I feel like it changes from a corporate standpoint to a democratic one. It’s very important for you to have your own workspace. It is motivation for you to get up and come to your job on a daily basis and you have the opportunity to be an owner after reentering back into society. It’s a fabulous thing. I am very grateful to JPMorgan Chase for giving us this opportunity to create more spaces and more jobs for the community.”

Anton Seals, Jr., lead steward for Grow Greater Englewood, a social enterprise that works on bringing together full systems and climate action, said, “We’re converting vacant lots into urban farms. We support a lot of urban growing across the West Englewood community. We have backyard gardens. We prepare meals. We support residents of Englewood who are already growing.”

Seals said his organization is part of the Solidarity Collective.

“We are helping to locate a facility that concentrates on the co-packing, which is part of the processing of the food. We are doing that on the Englewood Nature Trail and the Eco District, which is located at 59th Street between Lowe and  Damen.

“We are also working on the kind of businesses that we can attract to the community. This will be one of the first ones we can bring over that is community owned, that’s focused on processing who packages the food,” said Seal. JPMorgan Chase’s grant will help expand this program.

Colette Payne, Director of the Reclamation Project at the Women Justice Institute (WJI), which she said was created for and by incarcerated women, explained there are arts and advocacy spaces in Pilsen. “We provide women with support, whether they need help like paying a bill.” She said her organization has a “Survival Fund” to financially help women returning from prison.

All too often Payne said, when women return home, they have difficulty in “getting a handle on their lives because doors are often shut in their faces because they have convictions. We help women by providing monthly supportive circles called Reclamation Circles, where women focus on five rights and needs we call Women Justice Pathways.”

According to WJI, while women represent a smaller percentage of the overall justice population, they continue to be the fastest growing. Since 1980, the number of women in U.S. prisons has reportedly increased by more than 700 percent and has outpaced men by more than 50 percent.

The WJI’s website states that the number of women in local jails increased 44 percent between 2000 and 2013, and the women’s jail population is now 14 times higher today than it was in 1970. Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers and most of them are the primary caretakers of their children. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the women state prison population soared between 1980 and 2014.

The Reclamation Circles are peer-led and focus on healing, sharing experiences and helping each other reclaim their lives. Explaining, Payne said the women concentrate on relationships, safety and housing among other areas. “If one of those things is off balance, it is a potential pathway for returning to prison if a woman doesn’t have support in those areas.”

The women who work at the ChiFresh Kitchen provide meals to daycare centers, to senior living facilities, schools and others that want their services and a fresh meal, Payne said.

Camille Kerr, an Upside Down consultant, said the qualification for working at ChiFresh Kitchen is to be formerly incarcerated. Many women she says have paid a heavy price and upon release suffer more barriers on the road to reintegrating into society. “They face immense barriers. People discriminate against them on housing. Nobody wants to hire you or house you.

“ChiFresh created their own space and [they] create their own jobs on their terms and have a building where they understand that we’ve made mistakes and are not defined by that one thing we’ve done wrong,” Kerr said. “We are defined by how we move in this world and this is how they move, by building up communities, by giving out food, by supporting each other and lifting each other up.”

Erika Dudley, Board President and partner in the Urban Growers Collective, said, “We are the fiscal sponsor. We have nine farms throughout the city. We have fresh foods, which is a mobile market where we go to senior citizen homes, health care centers and throughout the city.”

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