Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

You’ve probably heard that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day—but if you teach him to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. And while the Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to alleviate poverty by removing barriers to human flourishing is grounded in the three core areas of family, jobs, and education, we know from years of experience that helping people secure meaningful work—teaching them to fish—is key to breaking the chains of generational poverty and building thriving communities. Work is about more than a job. It’s a key pathway to human dignity.

How did we learn this?   

In our early years—even before we changed our name to GCO—we were working closely with Neighborhood Planning Unit 5 (NPU-V) in downtown Atlanta. Here, the initial focus was on reforming the criminal justice system because nearly one-in-three men in this community had been incarcerated. 

As returning citizens most of these men were wholly unprepared to return to their communities. And with few-to-no job skills, they faced enormous challenges in finding—and holding onto—work. Not surprisingly, this set them up to return to a life of crime, with a high likelihood of going back to prison.

Given this devastating cycle of recidivism, GCO saw the need to work with community leaders, criminal reform experts, and state legislators to help former prisoners successfully re-enter society and learn how to become productive members of society. We also worked on public policy reforms to make it easier for returning citizens to obtain work:

    • Access to a driver’s license
    • Access to occupational licensing despite a felony conviction
    • Rehabilitation certification
    • Protections for employers who hire returning citizens

We modeled our approach off a sister organization in the United Kingdom called the Centre for Social Justice. Led by former Member of Parliament Iain Duncan Smith, this award-winning organization worked with gangs and achieved success with legislators to enact social welfare policy reforms to help people reach their full potential. 

And since research showed that holding a job for at least six months reduced the rate of recidivism by more than two-thirds, we developed relationships with key leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government—as well as with local nonprofit, business and community leaders—to reduce recidivism by developing our ground-breaking BETTER WORK program in Gwinnett County and in Columbus.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

The heart of BETTER WORK is collaborating closely with local businesses to hire ex-prisoners, offer job training and employment support, and do something good not only for the company, but the community as well. And since our first event in Atlanta in 2017—involving leading employers like Georgia Pacific, Uber and Tip Top Poultry—BETTER WORK events have expanded to other communities in Gwinnett County, Columbus, and beyond.

Beyond helping people find good jobs with employers in local communities, we continue to advocate on policy issues that keep people out of the legitimate job market, including child support challenges, relief from fees and penalties incurred while incarcerated, occupational licensing hurdles, and civil asset forfeiture.

And we continue to build coalitions of nonprofits, faith groups, and businesses to teach folks how to fish so that they are not reliant on government handouts. As always, our mission is to help people support themselves—and provide for their families in ways that break the cycle of poverty and create new trajectories that lead to individual and community transformation.

 

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

As an organization whose mission is to alleviate poverty in communities across Georgia, we are sometimes asked why we choose to focus on healthy families. After all, some of the most contentious flash points in our culture today center on the divergent views Americans hold about the definition of marriage and the role of family in society. 

This is why many groups working on poverty alleviation sidestep the crucial role that family plays as the bedrock of society and instead focus on resolving the presenting symptoms of poverty—as important as they are—rather than the root causes.    

But back in 2005, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) was asked to participate in a healthy marriage initiative. In considering our involvement, we looked at the research on stable, intact, two-parent households and saw that this type of family structure is optimal when looking at a wide variety of social metrics—including poverty alleviation. 

And while there’s no doubt that single parents often do a great job raising children who become highly productive members of society, the data clearly show superior outcomes for children who come from loving, low-conflict, two-parent households—and that this family structure is key to dismantling generational poverty and building thriving communities. 

The bottom line is that while poverty can still be experienced in the context of two-parent households, it’s less likely to happen than in single-parent households. And as a root cause for poverty, we knew we had to focus on building healthy families if we wanted to help individuals flourish—and strengthen our communities and state.  

This is why GCO has invested heavily over the years in programs that offer relationship education to men and women. And this is why we have worked hard to build coalitions of nonprofits, faith groups, and local businesses to go into communities and lovingly address factors that destabilize marriage and family like divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and domestic violence.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Learn more about the impact GCO is making on families within our state. 

To this end—thanks to a federal grant from the Bush Administration—we were able to offer training to help couples overcome barriers and strengthen their relationships. Through this healthy marriage initiative, we certified 1,000 trainers to go out into their communities and teach more than 5,000 couples how to improve the quality of their relationship and stabilize their families.  

Today, GCO continues to move forward with a holistic and comprehensive solution to poverty that takes aim at its root cause—family instability. And while we continue to offer relationship education, we have expanded our focus beyond romantic relations with our Healthy @ series that works with churches, schools and businesses to examine healthy relationships in other areas of life, including education and work. 

Our goal at GCO has always been to remove barriers to human flourishing. And as we know through the PERMA model that an underlying barrier to overcoming poverty is improving the quality of relationships. 

By focusing on healthy families, GCO helps people recognize and regulate their emotions, learn how to effectively communicate with family members, identify unhealthy behaviors and relationships, and establish appropriate boundaries. More than anything else, learning these skills changes the trajectory of individual lives. And this is how generational poverty is defeated and communities are transformed—one life at a time.

 

 

Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan's Story

“Every day was truly a dark day.”

That’s how Tiffany Pearce describes life during the hardest weeks of trying to care for her son, Aidan. Diagnosed with bipolar with mania, on top of an earlier diagnosis of autism and sensory integration disorder, Aidan couldn’t do most things we take for granted—everything from communicating his feelings to using the restroom. 

But tragically, that extended to Aidan trying to hurt himself during his manic episodes. To help, Tiffany would try to hold Aidan to prevent injuries. The results from this strong eight-year-old boy were that Tiffany herself would often get injured.

“He was having episodes three to four times a day lasting anywhere from one hour to three or four,” Tiffany says. “With these episodes, it’s like he didn’t know who he was at the time.”

When the manic episode calmed down and Aidan would recover, he would look at the blood on his mother and ask, “Why don’t you move out and leave. I don’t want to hurt you any more.”

Tiffany took her son to a long list of doctors and specialists for help before he was eventually admitted to the Atlanta-based Peaceford Hospital, a behavioral health treatment facility. But even that didn’t help. Aidan continued to struggle. It was all made worse by the fact that Tiffany could not stay with him at night.

“I’ll never forget the time he looked up at me and said, ‘Mommy, I want to be in heaven.’ You just feel completely helpless as a parent at that moment,” says Tiffany. “To hear an eight-year-old say that is devastating.”

Later on, Tiffany waged a battle with the insurance company to move Aidan from Peachford to a residential facility where they would better be able to serve his needs. At the same time, she had to make a choice about where to send the young man to school.

 

 

It was the first time his mother heard, “we want Aidan.”

All students deserve the chance to succeed.

But Tiffany soon discovered that not many schools were willing to support a child like Aidan. The local public schools in Cobb County wanted to put him on an EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorder) satellite campus, but Aidan’s doctors and therapists said that would have been detrimental to his behavioral and development issues.

Thankfully, there was another option: CORE Community School, a private school in Atlanta. 

“I’ll never forget them saying, ‘We want him. We want Aidan.’ That was the first time I felt hope in a year, because he deserves to be wanted. All kids should feel that. They deserve that,” Tiffany says.

Today, Aidan is thriving at this private school that prioritizes serving students with unique needs and challenges.

“Being at school is the first time in a year and a half that I see Aidan smile,” Tiffany says. “I didn’t think I would see that again. I wondered if this boy with the biggest heart would ever feel like he was worth anything. And he did here.”

 

 

Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

legislative update

The Georgia legislative session is halfway over, and already we’ve made some important progress in breaking down barriers to work and expanding opportunity for all Georgians.

We reached a key legislative mark on March 8: The crossover deadline. That means that any bill not passed by at least one chamber (either the Senate or the House) is likely dead for the remainder of the session.

The great news is that several key bills supported by the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) made the crossover deadline.

 

Get Buzz'd capitol update

Watch Buzz Brockway, VP of Policy for GCO, from the state Capitol as he updates us on what legislation is moving forward, and what is over for the year. 

Education

Heading up that list is a measure that would expand the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. This program helps students with individualized education plans (IEPs) attend a private school that is a better fit for their individual needs. On March 3, the state Senate passed a measure, Senate Bill 47, that opens the scholarship to preschoolers in addition to students with a wide range of special needs, just not those with an IEP.

We’re continuing to work with lawmakers on the House side to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. We’re hopeful that 2021 will be the year this important measure becomes law in order to better serve families of special needs students who have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic.

Occupational licensing

We’re also seeing progress on occupational licensing reforms. Occupational licensing is needed in some industries and job categories, but the laws on the books today in many cases are an unnecessary roadblock to employment for workers.

Two bills on this issue made the crossover deadline. The first, Senate Bill 45, allows people who move to Georgia and hold an occupational license to immediately be granted a provisional license. This will allow these new Georgians to immediately go to work and support their families.

A second measure, Senate Bill 27, extends the time (up to two years) a retiring military member may count their military training toward requirements for an occupational license

Both bills are now pending in the House.

 

Adoption reforms

We’re pleased that two adoption-reform bills passed the House before the crossover deadline. House Bill 114 would increase the annual tax credit available for adopting a foster child from $2,000 to $6,000. And House Bill 154 would lower the minimum age to adopt from 25 to 21.

Foster and adoptive families play a crucial role in creating stable environments for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Anything we can do through policy reform to help these families should be a priority.

Justice reforms

In an attempt to address the type of tragic vigilante violence that occurred in the Ahmaud Arbery case, lawmakers unanimously passed House Bill 479 on March 8. The measure overhauls Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to generally prevent bystanders from attempting to arrest an individual suspected of a crime. GCO believes this is a crucial piece of legislation to prevent unnecessary tragedies and foster greater racial justice in our state.

 

Bills that didn’t make the cut

Unfortunately, supporters of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will likely have to wait another year before we see them become a reality. Although a measure (House Bill 60) to create ESAs passed the House Education Committee on Feb. 26, it never came up for a vote on the floor of the House.

ESAs are an important way to expand educational access and choice for Georgia students. They allow parents and kids—no matter their race, the circumstances of their birth, or their socioeconomic status—to have equal access to the funds needed for a great education. We’ll continue fighting for ESAs in the 2022 legislative session.

On a positive note, bills that would have legalized parimutuel horse-race betting and casino gambling in Georgia are now dead after failing to make crossover.

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

prisoners listening

Coming off the contentious 2020 election, the issue of voting rights has been in the news lately. That is likely why, this year, there is a renewed push among some lawmakers in the Georgia legislature to reform voting-rights laws for those convicted of a felony.

This issue is central to our mission here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO). For well over a decade now, GCO has advocated for criminal justice reforms that help returning citizens create a new life—through joining the workforce, caring for their loved ones, and becoming productive members of society once again. Voting rights are part of that.

Here’s where Georgia law currently stands: Those with a felony on their record automatically have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentence, which includes serving all parole and probationary periods and paying all outstanding fines, fees, and restitution. They are also eligible to vote if they have First Offender status and that status has not been revoked.

“Just coming out of incarceration period, you feel like you have no opportunity. You feel like there are no options. I don’t have any options.”  

 

Understanding the challenge of voting rights for felons

The goal of voting rights laws for those with a criminal record should be moving them in the quickest way possible to becoming positive, contributing members of society again. Once the individual has fully paid his or her debt to society, it makes perfect sense—and is in the best sense “just”—to reinstate their voting rights.

At the same time, there are good reasons for restricting felons from voting until the end of their sentences. Society has an obligation to prevent people who have demonstrated impaired ability to make good decisions from voting. That’s why we don’t let children or the mentally ill vote. 

Felons have an added strike against them in that, in addition to poor judgment, they’ve also—in many cases—expressed contempt and disregard for the laws that govern us and shouldn’t be allowed to impose laws on the rest of us until they have shown their respect for and willingness to abide by the law.

 

A good place to begin

So, where should we begin with reforms to voting rights for felons? A great place is also the simplest and most non-controversial: There is strong evidence that even some felons who have fully paid their debt to society face challenges in having their voting rights restored.

For example, in 2019 a representative from the Georgia Justice Project testified before a state Senate committee that there is frequently misinformation within voter registration offices, and sometimes among volunteers, about whether someone ever convicted of a felony can vote. There are also challenges with felons proving they are officially “off paper” (i.e., they have completed their probation or parole) and are now legally eligible to vote.

Let’s begin here with clearing up misunderstandings around the law on voting rights for returning citizens and ensuring that all election-related officials are applying it correctly. A big step would be for election officials to be required to accept Certificates of Sentence Completion from the Department of Community Supervision as sufficient proof that a returning citizen should be added back to the voter rolls.

 

Work is important, too

A central goal of the Georgia Center for Opportunity is to help returning citizens reintegrate into society. Voting rights is one aspect of reintegration, but there are others—like finding stable employment—that are far more important to improving outcomes for returning citizens. 

We know that work is a key way to reduce recidivism: Research has shown that if an ex-offender can keep a job for six months or more, their likelihood of ending up back in prison drops dramatically. It also improves the odds that a returning citizen will reconnect with loved ones, especially their children, another key to preventing recidivism.

GCO’s efforts through initiatives like Hiring Well, Doing Good are making progress here, and stories like Kevin’s are inspiring.