To fix the road back from prison, Durham turns to a guide who knows it well

When Durham’s innovation team set out to make it easier for people coming out of prison, jail, or community supervision to get back on their feet, they wanted to completely understand what these residents go through. One way they did that was to hire Chuck Manning.

Years before, Manning had spent some time behind bars himself. That’s part of Manning’s life experience, which he’s able to inject into the i-team’s thinking. But just as important is the lifelong Durham resident’s social connections from his days throwing parties at a local nightclub and cooking for hundreds with his catering business. Simply put, Manning has inroads in lots of communities that City Hall wants to help but has difficulty reaching.

As part of the i-team’s research, Manning recruited convicted drug dealers and gang members to tell their stories, and led many of the interviews. That research was critical to building a deep understanding of the challenges of navigating life after prison from the perspective of those going through it.

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Manning also has leveraged his own experience to influence a number of the i-team’s interventions. For example, when the team was designing a “Welcome Home” package of groceries, toiletries, a bus pass, and other items for residents coming home from prison or jail, Manning stressed the value of adding 20 hours of peer support to the mix. His own mentor had not only served as a positive role model, he said, but helped him to land a couple of jobs, including the one he has now.

Finding new ways to tap into the lived experiences of residents is a hot topic in local government innovation. Another i-team supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in Austin, Texas, recently formed a committee of homeless residents to advise the city. The group is a sounding board for city leadership on questions related to homelessness and helps generate and test out ideas for new programs and services.

Durham’s approach in bringing Manning on staff represents another approach to accessing lived experience. Bloomberg Cities talked with Manning about how it’s going, what value he brings to the i-team’s work, and what lessons it has for other cities.

How did you get connected with the city for this job?

I had a mentor through a program that works with youth who have committed crimes, to get them on track. After I’d been free for a year, he found me an opportunity to work with Bull City United, which uses the cure violence approach to teach gang members conflict resolution skills to divert them from using gun violence. I got a lot of trainings, in how to do peer support, community outreach, and the cure violence methods.

After I’d worked there for two years, my mentor reached out to me again and told me about this job in the city, working with the i-team. They were looking for someone who was well-connected to the community. They needed a lot of data. They needed to interview those who were directly affected by the criminal justice system. They reached out to me, and I applied, and yeah, I got it. At the time, it was a part-time job, but they found out very quickly that this position needed full-time involvement.

What did you think when you heard that the city was hiring for someone with your background?

When they said they wanted to create upward mobility and equal opportunity for justice-involved residents, I basically thought about those individuals I know from my part of the community, who grew up having to deal with poverty, having to deal with unequal paying jobs. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me, as a Durham native, for me to bridge that gap between city government and my community by helping them reap the benefits everyone else is reaping.

[Read our Explainer: What is ‘human-centered design’?]

And I wanted to show the city of Durham as a whole that just because you have a record and you’re justice-involved doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do the job.

A critical part of how the i-teams’ approach is to interview lots of the people who are intended to benefit from the city’s work, in order to build a keen understanding and empathy for their situation. What’s been your role in that?

A lot of guys I recruited to interview were those guys that were directly affected. I’m talking about drug dealers, gang members. I knew they had a quality story to tell. This is our data, and I knew we could structure an interview that could even reach these guys and get quality data. I introduced the i-team to various groups that are working around these issues because they weren’t connected to a lot of these groups.

When we sit down and do the interviews, we try to create questions that don’t make the individual feel vulnerable or that we’re trying to get them in trouble. We want to ask questions that pull from a good place. It also helps that I understand the street slang that people use.

I recently recruited four guys — four of the best interviews I’ve ever done. Two of them I know personally. One of them just came home from serving seven years federal time. The other guy he just came back from doing five years. One young man, he never got to process his father’s death and that led him to act out and he’s been in and out of “juvy” since ten years old.

I don’t want to sound funny about it, but these are things that people wouldn’t open up to talk to someone about unless it’s someone they can trust and identify with, someone with that lived experience. I salute the rest of my team for understanding that and allowing me to be great in the area that I’m great, because that can only make the rest of the team great.

After these interviews, the i-teams will synthesize patterns, look for root causes of problems, and generate ideas for solutions to test out with the community. What’s been your role on the ideas side?

One guy we interviewed spoke about his prison time as a sort of scarlet letter that he could never get rid of when applying for jobs — that was my experience, too. We sat and we brainstormed, and one idea I came up with was to start at home. If the city of Durham or the county of Durham, are looking for other entities to change that dynamic of working with justice-involved residents, we need to change, too.

That led us to research our hiring practices. We found that most city jobs require that you have a driver’s license, even if you’re just here to vacuum floors or take out the trash. These are what you call green factors — ways to eliminate individuals from employment without having a box to check “have you ever been convicted of a crime.” I was able to bring these to attention with the i-team.

We have a program called Welcome Home, that gives people coming out prison a box full of a week’s worth of groceries so they can eat, a month’s worth of toiletries so they can look good for a job interview, a bus pas so they can get around, a cell phone with a month’s worth of talk and text so they can stay connected. There’s even a letter from the mayor welcoming them back. I voiced that all those items are great, but without peer support from an individual who has successfully navigated their way back into society and is a standing model of change, all those things are irrelevant. So we give them 20 hours of peer support.

We worked with a guy who did close to 15 years in prison. When he came home, he didn’t know how to use a cellphone. I sat with him at a McDonalds for 2 hours and showed him how to use a smartphone. I put contacts in the phone for him and showed him how to use them. Now he’s on the phone, he’s getting emails. He’s getting his ability back. These are the things that a peer support specialist can help you with. They sound small, but they’re not small to the individual, and they can be the thing that sends them back to criminal activity.

Durham’s i-team had a big success with helping justice-involved residents clear up old fines in order to get their driver’s licenses back. What was your role in that?

Within the first two weeks I was hired, we did about 20 interviews, and almost every person talked about the same thing: Driver’s licenses. Here in Durham, a lot of those entry-level jobs require you to have a driver’s license. And then if they do get a job, how are they gonna get back and forth? They might owe $2,000 in fines from a simple seatbelt ticket eight years ago.

In the past, there had been amnesty days, but you had to come to the courthouse. There’s not trust with programs like that. People from my community, if I don’t absolutely have to go to that courthouse, or I don’t have a court date, I’m not going downtown. You know what I mean? And then on top of that, you had to come between the hours of 9 am and 1 pm, and there was a lunch break in there. We looked at the old amnesty program and only 18 people showed up, and only one or two of them were able to get their license back.

[Read: How Durham put ex-offenders back in the driver’s seat]

The team basically sat down and one of our members suggested we make it easier by allowing people to call in and just leave their name and birthdate, and we’d do the rest of the work ourselves. That’s a great way to get more people — but how do we get people to trust it?

So I went to every part of Durham, and networked with the people that I know. I went door to door. I put flyers on these people’s doors in every housing project. I went everywhere. And then on top of that, I utilized my platform that I had already personally built with my business and posted on Facebook and Instagram. My followers are all people who stay locally here in Durham. Close to 2,500 people called to go through the amnesty program. The phone didn’t stop ringing for six days straight.

Community outreach is a critical part of your job. Why is it so important?

It’s hard for the city government to bridge that gap with the communities that I come from. And they have wonderful great resources that people never hear about because they don’t have a Chuck that’s able to go into these places and connect with these people and let them know about it.

A lot of local government programs fail to show impact because nobody is connected to it. People are wary about dealing with city government because they see it like the police or probation. But if you have an individual like myself to go in and reassure them that this has nothing to do with police or probation, it’s only trying to benefit you as a person — that’s why people gravitated toward the amnesty day. That’s why people gravitated to Welcome Home. It’s because they have someone they trust who is working and helping them along the way.

Beyond the i-team, the Durham budget office put you to work on community outreach. What did you do for them?

One thing is participatory budgeting. The city allocated $2.4 million to one-time projects like sidewalks, street lights, and bus shelters — the funds were for the least fortunate communities, and they trusted me to lead community engagement with that. We got close to 600 ideas for how to spend the money.

They trusted me so that the community could know about it, and I felt honored about it. These are the communities that I grew up in, and these are the people who need to benefit from those funds. So it was only right that I did everything that I could to get them to get involved in this participatory budget process.

Is there anything that’s surprised you in this role?

I would have never thought that I’d be working for the city. Or if I did work for the city, it would be for the sanitation department. I’m a big guy. I’m physical. I could probably move a lot of office furniture.

I would have never thought they would appreciate or utilize my mind. For me to work in the budget department, of all places, here in the city of Durham, never in my wildest dreams.

What lessons can cities take from your experience in Durham?

There’s not just one Chuck in this world. There’s thousands and thousands of us. I’m a humble guy — I’m not trying to sound like I’m the best thing since sliced bread. But what I do know is my value and what I bring to the table. It’s not just me in this world who has these talents and connections.

[Read: Austin’s bet to beat homelessness: engaging people with lived experience]

Lived experience for me is 40 years here in Durham. My family is from Durham. We’re all Durham natives. There were certain things that I learned from my family about Durham and the history of Durham. So I think that type of lived experience is very valuable. I’m not saying that everybody in every city government, all of their outreach coordinators need to be natives of whatever city they’re from. Because you have some guys and some women who can connect with people in cities rather quickly. But at the same time, there’s just so many more benefits of having an individual who is from that area spearhead the outreach movement and can point people in the right direction.

Whatever your agenda it is, if you’re trying to work on homelessness in a community, if you’re trying to work on recycling in a community, if you’re trying to work on policing in a community, it would be good to get an individual who is from that area, who has lived there and is knowledgeable to work directly with the project.

Be genuine about this work. Understand that the people that you’re working with are very hurt. This type of work isn’t like a mechanic. It isn’t just ‘I can go in and change this alternator and it’s gonna be all better.’ You can’t build a community from the outside in. You have to heal the community from the inside out, and that means helping those individuals heal from those hurts. It can be a long process, but it does work.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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