Bonnie Rice was released from prison last year. After a five-year, drug-related prison sentence, she knew she couldn't go back to any of the people who led her into trouble.
"I didn't know where to go, how to go," Rice says with a quiver in her voice. "It was scary." She was completely alone.
She managed to find a place to live in a halfway house. But even though she filled out lots and lots of job applications in the first few months out of prison, she didn't get many calls back. "People look down on you," she says.
Then she found Together We Bake.
It's a bakery in Alexandria, Va., that makes granola, cookies and kale chips for local eateries and a local Whole Foods store. It's also a job-training and coaching program for women who need a second chance — many of whom have served time in prison, or are on probation following criminal charges.
"These women face a lot of obstacles," co-founder Stephanie Wright tells me as we gather in a small church kitchen in Alexandria. I watch as a group of six women work cookie dough with their hands. The kitchen is orderly, immaculately clean — a refuge from the chaos that some of these women have been navigating.
Rice has been in the program for about eight weeks now. She's working toward her Serv Safe certificate, which makes it easier to find employment in the culinary field once her stint at the program ends.
Together We Bake also weaves in resilience training and empowerment classes to help trainees cope with challenges. The sessions are overseen by Wright, who has a background in social work, and they're often led by women who've been through the program.
The curriculum is based on a book titled Houses of Healing, which lays out a mindfulness-based, research-driven approach to help people change their behavior and overcome feelings of negativity and lack of self-worth.
On the day we visited, Colida Johnson, a graduate of the program who is now a group leader, was leading the women through an exercise on how to communicate effectively — with both peers and prospective employers.
"I can dominate and intimidate you," reads a quote in the training guide. "Is this an aggressive style?" Johnson asks. People who are aggressive communicators use language that can violate the rights of others, she points out. So, is there an alternative? How about this: "We are equally entitled to express ourselves respectfully to one another." Johnson directs the women to role-playing, trying out these different styles.
Wright says the emotional training is key. "The women often need help with soft skills," Wright tells us. In a sense, they're learning to undo some of their old habits and replace them with behaviors that can propel them forward.
Thanks to all the support, Rice says for the first time in her life, she feels her self-esteem rising. "It's like a team, like a family of sisters," Rice says. "The women here at Together We Bake have showed me there's love and respect — and that you are someone."
Wright co-founded Together We Bake in 2012 with her friend Tricia Sabatini, who had been running a successful baking business. "We realized there weren't a lot of services for women [in need], " Wright says. So they combined their expertise and came up with the idea of using baking as a means of empowerment.
So far, Wright says the results are promising. Eighty-nine percent of the women who go through the program pass the Serv Safe exam. And the recidivism rate among the women involved is just 8 percent, according to the co-founders.
There's a complicated relationship between employment and recidivism reduction, says Sam Schaeffer, CEO of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that provides employment services to men and women with criminal convictions. Schaeffer says the model at Together We Bake seems to have "many important hallmarks of ... job training programs that can be successful." (He hasn't visited the program, but I asked him to comment on the model.)
The food industry offers an accessible on-ramp to employment — in part because there are so many jobs in food service and in part because these skills can be learned fairly quickly. "Culinary careers are at the top of the employment wish list" for lots of the people looking for employment after prison, Schaeffer notes.
The appeal is broad because you're "working with your hands, and working as part of a team, in a place that can build camaraderie," he adds.
And Schaeffer says he's seeing an increase in the number of employers who are open to hiring people with a criminal background. In part, this reflects a tightening labor market with fewer workers available to hire. Meanwhile, about 20 million Americans have felony convictions, and an estimated 65 million have criminal backgrounds — and many of these people are looking for good work.
There's also a growing movement called Ban the Box, aimed at discouraging companies from asking job applicants if they have criminal records, at least during the initial application process.
And perhaps the most vocal in its support is Dave's Killer Bread, an Oregon-based bakery that distributes its products nationally, including at many Costco stores around the country.
The company plays up its story on its labels, explaining that the company's namesake Dave Dahl had spent time in prison. "His brother, Glenn, saw a change in him and gave Dave a second chance by welcoming him back to the family bakery," the bread packaging reads. About 1 in 3 of its employees has a criminal past.
The bakery's commitment to hiring people with criminal backgrounds has led to the creation of Dave's Killer Bread Foundation, which is hosting a Second Chance Summit in New York next month. The summit is aimed at getting more employers to follow their lead. The foundation has curated a set of best practices learned from its experiences employing people after prison.
"We see a powerful connection between successful employment of people with criminal backgrounds and reducing the national recidivism rate, the company's website reads. Some of these workers "can be rock stars" — if given a chance, Genevieve Martin, executive director of the foundation told us by phone.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I have been feeling like an experiment subject recently. My colleagues on our Science Desk have been doing this thing where they come into the studio. They wait for me. I walk in and have no idea what's going on. Allison Aubrey came in once and brought me a chocolate cake and then her colleague, Dan Charles, brought me a bag full - it was a lethal dose of caffeine which was fantastic. And the laugh you just heard is from Allison Aubrey, who is back with something else it would appear. Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, David. So I have brought a bag to you this morning.
GREENE: OK, it's not a chocolate cake this time.
AUBREY: Not a chocolate cake this time, but I am going to deliver to you a bunch of products here.
GREENE: All right, this is a brown paper bag of...
AUBREY: That's Right.
GREENE: ...Cinnamon pecan granola...
AUBREY: And your job is to figure out what these foods have in common.
GREENE: And this is chocolate chip cookies, and this is Super-Kale-Fragilistic chips.
AUBREY: Now, I have a hint...
AUBREY: The common thing is not an ingredient. That's not what we're going for here.
AUBREY: Look at the the label of the cookies, the granola...
GREENE: Together We Bake, empowering women for a second chance - it says that on the cinnamon pecan granola and the chocolate chip cookies.
AUBREY: So let me queue it up for you, all right?
GREENE: You're like, David I need to help you here.
AUBREY: You know how knowing the story behind a food - you know, who made it, why they made it, what's special about them - can make you see food differently? It may even influence whether you buy it or not. It can change the way you taste it. Well, this might be one of those times. So let me introduce you to some of the women I met in this bakery, the same bakery is behind all these products. This is Nikki Yates, who's had a pretty challenging past.
NIKKI YATES: I was recently incarcerated, and while I was there, my social worker actually had given me a application for Together We Bake. And when she had told me that, I was like, Together We Bake? What is that? Like, I'm not going to be out there baking nothing. Like, I need a job.
GREENE: This young woman used to be in jail, and now she's out and working at this bakery?
AUBREY: That's right. So this is a bakery.
AUBREY: It's called Together We Bake.
GREENE: And that's why it says empowering women for a second chance, OK.
AUBREY: That's right. It's located in Alexandria, Va. It's also a job training and coaching program...
GREENE: OK, cool.
AUBREY: ...for women coming out of prison or those with a criminal past. It was started about four years ago, and I went and hung out with these women. And when you hear their stories, it's clear just how many hurdles they face. This is Colida Johnson and Bonnie Rice. She was released from prison just a few months ago.
COLIDA JOHNSON: I felt lost and I didn't know how to start over.
BONNIE RICE: It was kind of scary. And I didn't know where to go, how to go, you know, because I was away for five years.
JOHNSON: It's hard to find employers who are willing to employ anyone with a record.
RICE: They look at you and say, oh, well, she's going to lie. She's going to steal. She's a criminal, you know, we're not going to give her a chance.
GREENE: Wow. So many emotions there. I mean, this place, it sounds like, became an anchor for them as they were out of prison. They felt really appreciated and respected.
AUBREY: Yes, and this is why I want to get back to this point I made at the top about how knowing the story behind a food can make you feel differently about it. So you've got these women, they're getting these new skills. These food prep skills are really in demand. Food service jobs are one of the most accessible ways back into the workplace. But you may be thinking, you know, why is learning to bake any different from, say, I don't know, working in a factory or an office? Here's Colida again.
JOHNSON: Everyday I come to a job that has meaning. I come to a job that changes people's lives. I'm not just sitting at a desk. I'm making a difference and that means so much more to me.
AUBREY: So think about it, David. Making food for people is very fundamental. It's nourishing, it gives people pleasure. These foods in front of us - they're now for sale in local eateries and in nearby Whole Foods.
GREENE: Where's the money go?
AUBREY: Well, the money goes back into running the program and a new group of women comes every few months. But here's the other point I wanted to make, making food - it's different from lots of other entry-level jobs. It's very collaborative and creative.
As I watched these women at the bakery, they literally formed this cooking circle. They gather around this stainless steel island in this immaculately maintained little church kitchen. And as Bonnie told me, this is making a huge difference in her life.
RICE: This is like a team. And it's like a family of sisters, some of the women here at Together We Bake. They showed me that there's love and respect, and, you know, that you are someone. I know that I'm going to stay on the right track.
AUBREY: What's important here is that it's a model that really seems to work. I spoke to Sam Schaeffer. He's the CEO of something called the Center for Employment Opportunities. It's also a nonprofit that trains people with criminal backgrounds. And he says programs like this, they have kind of all the hallmarks of success. I mean, think about everything that's going on here.
If you're coming out of prison and you've been in on drug-related charges, you've been using or dealing, you just can't come back to the same group of friends, right? That could be, you know, really dangerous, so the re-entry for a lot of these woman is brutal. These women need a new support system or they might not make it.
SAM SCHAEFFER: Here's the rub. Simply placing someone into a job is not a silver bullet for reducing recidivism. Getting someone into the right job training program at the right time has been proven to reduce recidivism.
AUBREY: And I think the point here, David, is that, you know, this is just a tiny program, just a handful of women going through the program at any time. But I want to introduce you to a different product here.
GREENE: You have more in that bag.
AUBREY: I do.
GREENE: OK, let me move my granola and chips and kale over here.
AUBREY: All right. And what I want you to do is just react to the name of it here.
GREENE: Dave's Killer Bread.
AUBREY: Now, for the record, Dave did not kill anybody. But he did get into trouble with the law, and he was welcomed back into his family's bakery after prison. His story is right here on the label.
GREENE: Wow. (Reading) Fifteen years in prison, realized he was in the wrong game and knew he had more to offer.
AUBREY: That's right. Now the company is now big. This bread - you can buy it in Costcos around the country. It's a big bakery now. But yeah, here's the thing, he ran into trouble with the law, again, which just shows how bumpy of a ride it can be for any one person.
And what you've got to realize is that there are 20 million Americans with felony convictions. That's a lot of people who need jobs, right? So Dave's Killer Bread now has a foundation. They organize these second chance summits around the country. There's one coming up in New York in May. And the idea is to try to just persuade more companies to open their minds to people with a criminal past.
GREENE: You know, Allison, I guess in your job you learn about how there's more to food than just food. I mean, there are other things baked into food. And I'm just looking at this array of stuff and hearing these stories about the people involved and there's just something there.
AUBREY: Well, every food has it's story, right? It really is the beginning of a second chance.
GREENE: Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.
AUBREY: Actually, I really want us to dig in here, David. I have been looking at these cookies since I watched these women bake. Do you want to give them a try?
GREENE: Yeah. We're just going to eat here. Thanks, Allison.
AUBREY: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.