Tiffany Kirk: Building Community for the Formerly Incarcerated

by | Oct 2, 2020 | Changemaker Of The Week

Before she was a banker, Tiffany Kirk was an elementary school teacher. She never really stopped being an educator, but her classroom looks very different today.

These days, Tiffany spends a lot of her free time teaching financial literacy in the community. Her work has often taken her inside prison walls, and in community centers serving the formerly incarcerated.

“It’s my church,” she says. “I wanted to reach people who needed me the most, and I found them. Nobody wants to be a criminal. It’s about poverty and limited opportunities. We do what we see.”

Tiffany received seed funding from The Pollination Project to develop her curriculum, “LIFERS,” which included mindfulness, life skills, and personal development. She loved seeing the transformation that happened in people as they moved through the program, noting how often a fear of being vulnerable looks like anger and defensiveness.

“I remember one young man who just seemed so quiet and mad at the start, like he might explode at any moment. He opened up over the weeks, just a little at a time. His mother came to the final ceremony at the end of the program, and he stood up there giving his speech with so much confidence. We all cried,” she recounts in sharing why this work is so meaningful to her.

In piloting LIFERS, Tiffany often worked with other volunteers and organizations that served the formerly incarcerated. She got to know most of the Atlanta-area individuals who, like Tiffany, felt a passion to serve in this area.

“One day I was looking around at a meeting, and I realized we all had one little piece of the reentry pie. We were all “the best kept secrets” in our community, which is a nice way of saying that the people who most needed us weren’t hearing about us,” Tiffany said. “I thought, how could we collaborate more?”

This realization led to the formation of “Project ReStart,” an association of groups who offer education, employment, mentorship, and other forms of assistance for people who have a criminal conviction. Project ReStart’s first effort is a 10-week project to assist formerly incarcerated people in achieving their education, entrepreneurship, or employment goals. Each person has the opportunity at the conclusion of the cohort to pitch for microgrants in support of their project, thanks to funding Tiffany raised through Regions Bank and a private donor.

“The banking community doesn’t usually get involved in things like this. They are risk averse and conservative,” she says. “I advocated for this strongly because, while we all want to invest in diversity and equity right now, we can’t pick and choose the social impacts to promote or ignore. Incarceration unfairly impacts black men and women. When they come back to our communities, they need us.”

Bridgette Simpson is one of these individuals. Bridgette spent a decade in prison after her vehicle was used by a boyfriend in the commission of a crime. She was released in 2018.

“I was only 19 when I met him. He was abusive and using heroin, but I didn’t know that at first. I am sure I made mistakes, but I don’t think I needed prison. I needed help. I needed love and therapy. I think my saving grace was that I was brave,” says Bridgette.

When she left prison, Bridgette struggled with constant rejection. “The thing about a sentence is that implies an end,” she says. “When you’re released though, it’s a new sentence. It’s a life sentence. People don’t want to be in community with us.”

Bridgette became an entrepreneur because it was the only viable employment opportunity for her. She is currently fighting the city of Roswell, Georgia for the right to obtain a business license for her third company. All the while, she has been working with Tiffany through Project ReStart and will be an active part of the upcoming “pitch” competition.

“Tiffany sees people as people,” says Bridgette, “not just as defined by their worst moments.”

Like many people Tiffany works with, Bridgette is motivated to serve others like her. When she learned that most of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans were unavailable to those with a felony conviction in the last five years, Bridgette cofounded a mutual aid society called “Barred Business.” Tiffany helped support Bridgette in raising over $100,000, which she distributed through nearly 60 microgrants to formerly incarcerated business owners who were struggling amidst the pandemic.

For Bridgette, Tiffany’s work has given her an example of service and a community of support that offers the strength to persevere through rejection.

“I lived in a cage for a decade. And when I got out, so many doors were slammed in front of my face,” says Bridgette. “I’ve learned that I can keep going though. I’ll knock on the back door, and I’ll knock on the window too. It’s not just about me winning. I have to open the door for another business owner, another person like me. Someone else is waiting on my entrance.”

Written by Carolyn Ashworth