Once Incarcerated, Now Rewriting Their Futures

(This post originally appeared on the TNTP blog.)

Marvin Pierre is one of TNTP’s inaugural Bridge Fellows. A former school administrator, Marvin is spending his fellowship year developing an alternative education and workforce development program for formerly incarcerated young men. In January, that program, known as Eight Million Stories, officially launched in Houston. We sat down with Marvin to learn more about the program, how it’s going so far, and where he hopes it goes from here.

Congratulations on launching Eight Million Stories! Can you tell us a bit about the program?

Eight Million Stories is an alternative education program for 16-18-year-old youth that seeks to upend the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting previously incarcerated young people in successfully transitioning back into their communities, and by curbing unnecessary referrals from schools to the juvenile justice system.

Our program is completely voluntary, so students only enroll after opting in and confirming their commitment to a two-week onboarding session. Our four-month program is designed to help students build meaningful relationships in their community, access a wide range of social services, develop critical life and job skills, complete their education (GED), and secure meaningful employment.

Why “Eight Million Stories”?

We believe that there are a lot of commonalities in terms of why kids end up in the juvenile justice system, whether it's broken homes or lack of support in the school system or other factors. If you interview every kid in the system, you'll find there's a common thread. That's what we're trying to undo. If we attack those commonalities, then we can aggressively work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

For young people involved in the juvenile justice system, society has written their stories for them. We want our students to learn from their past mistakes, and be in a position to rewrite their own stories.

What are your hopes for the launch year?

We’re working in Houston right now, serving roughly 35 students. We hope that through our existing partnership with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and SER Jobs for Progress we can show that when disconnected youth are engaged in the right program—whether that’s academic or workforce development opportunities—the opportunities are endless.

I think we're uniquely positioned to be a trailblazer for our city when it comes to working with disconnected youth. In a perfect world, I would like to see 100 percent of our first cohort make it through our program. But we have set a 70 percent completion rate as our goal in our launch year.

What are some of the big challenges ahead?

One of the biggest challenges has been getting support around mental healthcare for our students. We have come to learn in just our first week of operation that many of our students have mental health issues that have not been addressed either pre- or post-incarceration. We’re working to find the right partners to help us address the needs of our students. Even with the addition of two social work interns to our staff, we’re not making a big enough dent.

Are there any particular students who come to mind when you think about what Eight Million Stories is all about?

In our first week with our students, we did a writing activity called “How Bad Do You Want It?” The responses reflect exactly what this four-month journey is all about. Here are a couple examples:

“I want to succeed bad because I’m tired of doing the same things each and every day. Just hanging out in the hood and not doing anything positive, having the same boring conversations and hearing everybody complain about what they don’t have.” – 8MS Student

“I want it bad because I want to pass my GED test so that I can get me a good job and start making money the right way for myself and my family. Hopefully if everything turns out okay I can go and try to sign up for the military and come back with good benefits. This is why I want it very bad so that my future can be much brighter.” – 8MS Student

Where do you see Eight Million Stories going a few years down the road?

I'm very intentional about making our first year a huge success because a lot rides on it. It's critical that we take our 35 students and really show their potential for success. We’re also laying the foundation to work in partnership with school districts by helping school leaders approach discipline through a more restorative lens that can minimize the number of kids referred to the juvenile justice system.

Ultimately, our goal is to be able to scale our work nationally. We want to do the work in Houston really well over the next three years, and then be able to support other cities in getting something similar off the ground. I’d like to see us coaching community organizations on how to create a workforce or career pathways program for disconnected youth in their own cities. My hope is that through the success of our program, we can inspire other cities to become more open to finding innovative ways of reaching and supporting our disconnected youth.