Safer Foundation is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit providers of services designed exclusively for people with criminal records. They focus on helping their clients secure and maintain jobs because they understand that employment offers the best chance at successful re-entry. Sodiqa Williams ’05 has been Associate Vice President, Policy and Strategy since 2014.
Why did you hire a Princeton Project 55 fellow?
As an alumna of the Princeton Project 55 program, I know the tremendous opportunity there is for a Princeton graduate entering the world of public interest. I started my career in public policy and politics eleven years ago as a Fellow for the then-Lt. Governor of the State of Illinois, who later became Governor. I wanted to afford the opportunity to another Princeton graduate to learn and work at one of the nation’s leading organizations in reentry and workforce development. In order to truly turn this nation around, we need the best and brightest working on critical criminal justice issues.
Also, I understand the tremendous talent and work-ethic of those who enroll in the PP55 program as an intern or fellow. I knew that in order to get Safer’s vision materialized we needed the best, and that was a PP55 Fellow.
What projects is your fellow working on?
Asawari came to Safer to lead our newly created Safer Policy Institute. The Policy Institute provides weekly updates to synthesize the most important of the latest in the criminal justice system, and when possible, uses this synthesis to assess Illinois’ position and advance action. It is also a forum to mobilize action on impactful legislative developments. With Asawari’s leadership and excellent writing abilities – I suspect due to her in-depth knowledge of policy analysis and journalism – the Institute is quickly establishing Safer locally and internationally as a reliable source that can contribute to an advocate’s efforts in criminal justice and reentry policies. In addition, it is effectively re-directing the discourse on criminal justice reform to focus on reentry.
Asawari’s role, however, has not been confined to the Institute. She is now an integral part of the Policy and Advocacy Team. She has drafted testimony and high-level recommendations for state commissions, county boards, and government officials. Asawari also has been key in pushing legislation at the state level. We are currently working to push HB 5973, legislation that codifies for Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR)’s licensing purposes EEOC guidance on employing people with criminal records. It does so for the high growth professions of cosmetology, funeral services, accounting, real estate and roofing. EEOC guidance encourages consideration of mitigating factors such as time since commission of an offense, its nature and gravity, bearing upon job sought and evidence of rehabilitation. HB 5973 states that a conviction record directly related to the practice of a profession. If this legislation is enacted, I can confidently say Asawari played a big part in our success.
Asawari is also working on an initiative funded by JPMorgan Chase to engage health care employers in a national discussion about promising new opportunities to recruit and employ people with conviction records. While the industry has historically been closed to this population, the initiative aims to expand and diversify the pipeline of applicants seeking health care employment to meet the significant demand for qualified workers.
What is the value to your organization of having a Princeton Project 55 fellow?
Asawari has brought tremendous value to Safer; there are now two brainy people who are excellent writers! Before she arrived, I was able to do some great innovative work but now she is helping me with research and drafting of policy documents. Now our ability to make significant substantive impact has tripled.
In particular, I am ecstatic to have a Princeton Project 55 fellow like Asawari because I know I can trust her when I delegate a project. She not only provides exactly what I asked for but also an excellent work product. With our fast-paced environment and small staff, matched with very high expectations from senior leadership, it is critical that I have someone on my team who can keep pace with us as we are repeatedly called for our advice and guidance, as we continue to advocate for policies allowing equal employment opportunities for all, and as we develop new opportunities in high-growth industries.
Asawari has done such a fantastic job Safer has made her an offer to become our Public Policy & Legislative Affairs Coordinator at the end of her fellowship in 2016.
What is the impact on your beneficiaries of having a Project 55 fellow?
The impact can be seen now and will be seen for many years into the future as we continue to open historically closed doors in high-growth industries such as healthcare, remove barriers to employment opportunities, and recommend to top government officials and agencies cost-effective, evidence-based practices that will reduce recidivism and save taxpayers’ dollars.
If you were sum up the experience in one or two sentences for a blog post, what would you say?
Having a Princeton Project 55 Fellow is the best short-term and long-term investment organizations can make not only to build up their internal capacity, but also to make significant positive impact. These Fellows are the best and brightest who lend their intelligence, skills, drive and determination to advance critically important causes.
This article is part of a series spotlighting the impact of our programs.