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Catherine Hoke on Moving Beyond Incarceration

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Catherine Hoke believes we all need second chances. But many, she notes, don’t even get a legitimate first chance. Hoke is the founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that provides training and leadership development to currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. Founded in 2010, Defy’s goal is to teach people the skills they need to start and run a business—and, in turn, to lower the chance they’ll be incarcerated again. Hoke believes that people are more than their past mistakes, which is why she’s made it her mission to assist others in reclaiming hope and succeeding in the world of business.

Q: What steps can we take to decrease the stigma around incarceration?

We’re all ex-somethings, and we’ve all made mistakes. But incarceration is still stigmatized, partly because people are ashamed to talk openly and honestly about it. People can take control of their own stories by sharing them on their own terms. As more of these stories are told, people will be better able to see one another for who they are today, rather than seeing only their worst decision.

Q: How can those who’ve been incarcerated reduce their feelings of shame?

The first step people need to take toward escaping shame is deciding to forgive themselves. We teach that forgiveness is not a feeling, it’s a choice. A lot of people hold out on forgiving themselves until they think they can make amends. They wait for someone else to forgive them, or they wish to change the past. But people have to make a conscious decision to start forgiving themselves and then work at it every day.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who feels as though others define them by their biggest mistake?

I would tell them to start by overcoming those beliefs within themselves. If people define themselves by their biggest mistake, that is the image they will project to the rest of the world. If they believe they’re more than that, then they’ll start acting in ways that open up new opportunities.

Q: How can a person overcome that belief?

The first step is to make a list of their self-limiting beliefs. Then they can replace them with realistic truths that can create a new future. For example, a self-limiting belief is “I can’t trust anyone.” A realistic truth is “I have the ability to know that some people are worthy of my trust and some are not. By choosing to trust someone, I’m expressing my desire to belong to a healthy community with others. I want and am committed to being in a healthy community.”

Q: What steps help formerly incarcerated people reclaim hope and transform their lives?

Finding a meaningful job is one of the most critical factors linked to reducing recidivism (being incarcerated again). And yet, when someone gets out of prison and a potential employer or two rejects them, it’s easy to get discouraged. At Defy, we tell everyone to apply to ten jobs a day. If people don't allow the initial rejections to defeat them, and they’re authentic and continue to try, they will find the people out there who actually do believe in second chances. It’s not worth getting hung up on the ones who don’t. It's a numbers game, so we tell people to keep putting themselves out there.

Q: What are some ways friends and loved ones can support someone who wants to start over?

A supportive community can encourage someone who has faced discrimination to keep driving forward and not give up. Friends and loved ones can validate feelings of anger and frustration by listening while encouraging the person to channel those feelings into positive action. Avoid pity. Pity is looking down on someone, whereas empathy is looking at someone as an equal. One way to treat people as equals is to hold everyone to the same standard.

Q: How can those of us who have not been incarcerated have empathy for those who have?

Defy is intentional about creating empathy, especially among privileged people, so that we can level the playing field. We take privileged people into prison so they can see for themselves how racism and economic injustice negatively impact our country. When they see these realities with their own eyes, it spurs them to take action, create opportunities, and use their voices for advocacy. There are plenty of ways to get involved with Defy, from volunteering to hiring to spreading the word.

Q: What does Option B mean to you?

I’m an “all in” person who doesn’t live my life with Option B in mind. That said, despite our best intentions, Option A doesn’t always work out. There’s no shame in that. I throw myself into what I believe, but I’m always willing to pivot and reconsider if something isn’t working out. I’m grateful for Option B’s and second chances!

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