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Fearless Compassion with Helen Black of workRestart

“Fearless compassion to be able to say, am I willing to give an incarcerated person a second chance? Am I willing to understand that they may stumble a bit, but that’s just what we do as Humans. What can I do to support them on their journey forward?” – Helen Black, CEO at workRestart

In this episode

What happens when you mix radical generosity with fearless compassion? It shifts the way we think and looks for innovative solutions to achieve meaningful change. WorkRestart does just that and is a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to empower people with an experience of incarceration to re-start their lives and positively contribute to the community they live in.

In today’s episode, Vicki Saunders chats with Helen Black, CEO of workRestart where Helen believes in second chances to break the cycle. They cover impactful lessons such as:

  • How to assist a group of people that some in society feel don’t deserve any help.
  • Determination to reduce Australia’s reoffending rate to become one of the best in the world.
  • The importance of shifting the way we think and look for innovative solutions to achieve meaningful change.
  • How the first digital studio in an Australian prison facilitates rehabilitation.
  • Having the opportunity to apply skills in a safe working day-to-day environment.
  • The power of connecting people to see what their future can be.
  • Knowing where your purpose sits to connect to their passion.
  • The value exchange in the Australian prison system with WorkRestart.
  • How to develop autonomy, competency, and belonging through their theory of change with self-determination.
  • Punishment vs rehabilitation focus.
  • What society needs to value vs a commercialized focus society.
  • The significance of applying fearless compassion every day.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast was transcribed by Otter.ai.

Podcast Intro 0:33
Welcome to SheEO dot world, a podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode, you’ll hear from SheEO Venture founders, women who are working on the World’s To-Do list. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our time. Please sit back and be prepared to be inspired.

Vicki Saunders 0:01

Hi, Helen, it’s great to see you.

Helen Black of workRestart 0:03

Lovely, lovely to be here.

Vicki Saunders 0:05

Thrilled to have you here today for our first podcast together. Tell us a little bit about you and your business.

Helen Black of workRestart 0:11

I never expected to be in prison later on in my life. But that’s where I find myself. Luckily, I get to live every day as well. So my name is Helen black, I’m the managing director of workRestart. We specifically work with incarcerated people to help them restart their lives. It’s a massive problem, not just in Australia or across the world incarceration. And what we really have is a lot of people that just need a bit of a hand to step back into society and can contribute wonderful things when they do that. So that’s our mission is to reduce recidivism rates wherever we operate to best practice across the world.

Vicki Saunders 0:54

That’s amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about the background behind this issue recidivism Like, how our structures? We talk a lot at SheEO about systems being broken and need to be redesigned. Can you tell us a little bit about the problem behind this?

Helen Black of workRestart 1:08

I think the hardest thing is what we find is that drugs is at least 80% of the reason that people are behind bars. So you know, it’s just insidious. There is all sorts of reoffending tends to occur in people that have been disadvantaged to start with in most cases. And they’re not generally the sorts of people that we see on TV that scare the hell out of us. They’re actually just normal people who have had a bit of a bad start in life and make some silly choices and just given the right role models and Pathways Forward, they can actually contribute really, effectively. So recently refunding rates in Australia 46% so that means that the system isn’t quite working because it’s supposed to be that rehabilitation, but half the people will reaffirm to be back inside again, within Two years of release in America because it is 75%. And the best practice in the world is actually Norway, which is still 20%. But it there’s a wide difference between those two things. So we’ve actually got systems that are looking at rehabilitation from day one, which is what the Scandinavian countries have, then they’re far more effective in helping people to reclaim their lives, but at the same token, create safer communities. So that’s really where we’re focused is how do we get people where I suppose we’re employment based, so we are really looking at that employment side because we know it’s a leading indicator of whether they will refund or not.

Vicki Saunders 2:41

So what do you do that’s different, that’s having success.

Helen Black of workRestart 2:45

And what we try to do is look at innovative industries inside prison. So industries have always been inside prisons from day one, but that, you know, chain gang, look at all those old movies and that sort of work. That’s not rehabilitative work. It’s not actually connecting people to their future. So what we look at doing is looking at really innovative things. So we established Australia’s first Digital Studio inside a prison. And that helps people that are actually really engaged and can contribute positively in that area when they get outside. But it’s also looking at collaborative partnerships. So where are the job opportunities? How can we work with employers and social enterprises and other people on the outside to create collaborative partnerships so that they learning skills and training on the inside in a really positive role model environment? Because we’re all about future we don’t care about past we’re about where they need to go forward to. And using that collaborative approach, we find that we have really great results. So yeah,

Vicki Saunders 3:50

So many things I want to ask you. So a couple things like how did you get into this is a path that we want to take and then I also really want to know some stories So walk us through what this is like. And

Helen Black of workRestart 4:03

Yeah, so how, as I said, I never expected to be in prison later on in my life. Really, I just sort of came to this about four years ago. So my background hasn’t been in social work, it hasn’t been in incarceration, it hasn’t been anything to do with prisons, which I actually see is a benefit. Because I’ve been looking at it with fresh eyes in different eyes, then somebody who maybe has been in the system for a long while. And it all started when one of the governments, state governments in Australia wanted to do things differently. They were unfortunately opening another prison because everywhere seems to have increasing incarceration rates rather than going the other way. And they just said, okay, we need to look at this problem differently because the reoffending rates have remained the same pretty much for the last 1020 years or so. So what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we were able to work Work as part of a collaborative, co working group to look at what could be some of the solutions. And we specifically focus on that employment side. There’s other providers, co providers in the system that are looking at the education side. And of course, the psychological and mindset side is just as critical. What we try to do is be able to have people apply the skills that they learn within a safe working environment, things around anger management, learning how to deal with stress, resilience, all sorts of things in a day to day environment. And I think that’s what really works. Because people can go on a program for 10 weeks and go wow, that’s fantastic. But then if you don’t get the opportunity to apply those skills, you really don’t learn them. You don’t retain them and all of that learnings gone to waste. So we operate a normal work environment Monday to Friday, eight in the morning to 430 in the afternoon. They learn skills, they learn real work, they have real world work experience. They learn to apply those soft skills in a safe environment.

Vicki Saunders 6:05

That is really cool. So do you have? Do you have a story of someone that really kind of sits with you is that really makes you happy about the work you’re doing?

Helen Black of workRestart 6:15

Yeah, I think probably one of the first ones that really woke me up to the power of looking at this in a different way was a gentleman who has tattoos all over him. He’s just, you know, the sort of person that some people might be a bit afraid to run into in a dark alley, but he he had been known to be a troublemaker within the center. He came into our digital area and was just amazing. He he was a duck to water. So he was he was a boulder fitter internal welder on the outside had been brought up in a bit of a criminal environment was For quite a serious crime, bit of a bit of a young lad, I suppose he came into our digital area and he just took up virtual reality like nothing else. So we were teaching virtual reality. And I think the day that it really dawned on me the power of connecting people with what they can see their future to be, was that I was looking at his work. I’m not a tech person. So I wasn’t I certainly wasn’t teaching this. And I just thought, well, that’s really good. And here’s this grown man tax all over and bold, had jumped out of his seat and just was up, oh, o. e. And it could be at that point in time that he hasn’t been told how good he is at something. Yeah, many times in his life or the things that he’s been told that he’s good at things that really aren’t necessarily what we want to have read, you know, people in society being good at so just his ability to stick with it. He’s He’s big Then now for three years because he’s in for quite a serious crisis been with us for a while he’s learning has just gone through the roof. He has just changed so much in terms of his behavior. He teaches other people he’s he’s a fantastic person, any employer would love to have him as an employee in their work environment. And this is the power of creating opportunities for people to see themselves in a different light when they actually get out and connecting in with that part of them that really resonates to the, I suppose their own purpose. If you’ve worked in a job that you find is meaningless, then you know, where is your purpose sit? Where is when you can connect to that thing that actually makes your heart sing. It’s amazing the redemptive power of that. So yeah,

Vicki Saunders 8:51

So how does your business model work?

Helen Black of workRestart 8:54

Well, well, we are so funded, but yes, work sometimes can be very tricky. So, yeah, essentially our business model is that we have industries areas inside the prisons. We work with social enterprises, not for profits and some for profit organizations, they place work inside that helps us train and provide real world work experience, we get some funding from that work that comes inside. And that pays for our staffing and our programs and things like that. So the benefit of that system is that rather than that, the the value exchange is what we look at for people that we’re working with. It’s so fundamentally in Australia, legally, prisons are not allowed to earn an income. So we have to look at a value exchange in a different way. And that value is, are you getting educated? Are you actually getting value out of being in our areas and we know that there is because we have massive waiting lists to be able to come into our areas, people are getting jobs when they get out from our areas, and all sorts of other things. So we know that the value equation sits there for the people we’re working with. And the best part of that as well as it sits there for the companies, because they’re actually able to use funds that would have gone overseas, to be able to help Australian people, because we’re based in Australia at the moment, restart their lives

Vicki Saunders 10:22

Yhey may find future workers too, right? And so is it long term? Like how do you measure success for yourself? In this organization?

Helen Black of workRestart 10:35

Yes, success is to answer a very fundamental thing, which is has somebody reoffended or not. So that’s a two year timeframe. We also operate off a theory of change, which looks at what do we see is the core elements that we can influence in our areas because we can’t do everything? What are the core elements that we can do? And how do we apply those in the context of our of our environment. So our theory of change looks at self determination, which is autonomy, it’s competency and belonging. So we look at those three things and say, how are we actually developing those skill sets or developing those measures within inside our work? And is that effective as well. So we’ve only really just worked on our theory of change to COVID. Because we’ve had a little bit of time to be able to do things. I suppose it’s just articulating what we’ve been doing organically into a much more measured system of how we actually implement change and how we track it. So that if things aren’t working, we can actually be more proactive about addressing those things in a timely manner.

Vicki Saunders 11:44

And what is your favorite part of what you’re doing?

Helen Black of workRestart 11:49

Being able to see people empower themselves to make change, so we can’t when somebody stepped over that line, We can only do so much there’s work for them to do, they’ve got to work on themselves, they’ve got to work often work on their family, they’ve got to work to be able to get that trust back in the community. And that takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of resilience to be able to do that as well. So our job is really just to say, here’s an environment with which you can empower yourself, we can’t do this work for you. But we will be standing beside you as you do this work yourself. And we’re here to catch you if you fall and all the other bits and pieces. So to me, the thing that’s most empowering is when you see somebody have hope that their future can be different and be able to be strong enough to implement that when they’re outside as well.

Vicki Saunders 12:51

Are there when you started to do this work? Were you modeling yourself on something else you saw? Or was this just fresh walking in and trying to thing, I think it was a

Helen Black of workRestart 13:01

A couple of things. Some of its being fresh walking. I’ve been really lucky to receive at Westpac social change fellowship, which is in Australia. It’s a system that that enables a number of people per year to actually look at best practice across the world. So because we operate on three different streams, so digital futures, we look at entrepreneurial futures. And we actually also look at a construction and sort of like manufacturing futures. So trying to get a nice breadth of different sorts of opportunities, was able to have a look at some of the best practice that exists in America and in the UK, and other in Singapore, etc, across the world. In doing this, I think that so it’s been a bit of both we don’t want to reinvent the wheel of something already exists, but we also have to look at where, how it’s applied within our context, and where we actually take that forward as well. So we have a straight fist really solid entrepreneurial program that’s running inside the prison that we operate, where we get CEOs and directors and founders or successful organizations coming in. And that was modeled off some of the great work that’s been done in America on this area. And but some of the things we’ve sort of looked at and seen opportunities and go, this is where we think that there is actually some, some opportunity for us to be innovative in this area as well. So it’s a bit of both really look at best practice, and then actually move that forward and also look at creating best practices Well, from what I can see, from what my experience of traveling around the world, we’re the only people who actually have, I suppose, created a social enterprise and sort of looked at what we’re doing inside as a long, long area, and extending that back outside as well. So that’s a bit so we’re innovators to a certain extent as well, which is why you are

Vicki Saunders 14:58

Absolutely innovators. That’s why activators picked you and we’re so excited. I remember talking to you about this, I just find it incredibly fascinating, the work that you’re doing and, you know, as we sort of step back and look at the systems we have in place, and you talk about this a beginning with like 75% recidivism rates or reoffending rates in the US, and then 20 is the other side, right with Norway. So that’s the range. So from 22% to 70%.

Helen Black of workRestart 15:26

And the difference there is just the focus, the focus is either punishment or rehabilitation. Okay? And so if you have a punishment focused, cut incarceration system, that’s the outcome. If you have a rehabilitation focused system, then the other side is the outcome. Yeah. What you focus on is what you get shocking. What you focus on is what? Well, if you if you treat people, I mean, the reality is, is if I was to ask you, what would it take you to step over that line and break the law? Most people would probably say I wouldn’t. But the reality is, is we all would, at some point, you just have to look at history, look at Pele, in Nazi Germany and all sorts of other things is we all would at some point. So what’s happened in somebody’s life, to make them step over that line, and what’s been the trauma, what’s been their experiences, what’s been their lack of self esteem, what’s been everything else that has led to that point. So if we’re not addressing those things, then that’s always going to keep on recurring. So being able to sit there and say, we believe in, we believe in in humans to actually be able to be fantastic contributors to society. And when you have somebody, all of a sudden saying, we believe in you, and what you can offer and your talents, then they start to believe that themselves but hope is that critical element there that I can actually be something different.

Vicki Saunders 17:00

So totally Well, I mean, when you think when you’re bringing this work in, and part of the thing is you’re creating the conditions for you to find a purpose to step into something that’s different, right? Which is incredibly powerful. And so I’m going to ask you a question now, really around systems. And so as you because I love these questions, and I know that this is how you think, too, but if you sort of step back, looking at everything that you’ve seen where the systems are, if you were to start over again, and we had some kind of system where someone stepped over a line, have you thought about how you might redesign that experience?

Helen Black of workRestart 17:38

Yeah, I think, and this is a really interesting question, because people will often say, why are you just working with incarcerated people shouldn’t be actually be working with people before they reach their system. And I and I agree that that is fundamentally where things need to change, after the loss and so from that perspective, it’s Somebody steps over the line, what support are we wrapping around that person at that point? Or even if they’re at risk of doing that? What is the support we wrap around that person? incarceration in Australia costs $106,000 a year. So surely, the the better use of that money is actually putting some things in place that are actually going to help that person not step over that line or stopping him stepping over that line. So I think from a really big systems perspective, there needs to be more support around people who are looking are at risk of incarceration or at risk of offending, I think also fundamentally, really top level we have to say what the society value because as soon as society keeps on saying, We value commercialism, yeah, then the reality is, is people who have nothing And never able to feel like they’re part of society. Whereas if society was saying we value contribution, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got, because everybody can contribute. So having a commercialized focused society, I don’t think helps because it actually just puts temptation there and says, well, you’re nobody until you’re driving that nice car. Well, that’s just bullshit, as far as I’m concerned, but we can all deliver value in our own way. So that’s at a really top level. Next Level is actually working with somebody who stepped over that line or is about to and wrapping immediate support around them and putting the funding into doing that. From our perspective, what we’re trying to do is we know that incarceration is becoming intergenerational. We want to not leave people behind that have actually fallen into that area. And so we’ve focused on that at the moment. There’s other programs that do the outside stuff in terms of preventing. We want to make our system in Australia, the best in the world and then be able to pull that out across the world to be able to say this is our best way to ensure that we’re not spending heaps of money in this area. Yes, there are absolutely people who need to be behind bars for community sake, but we’re looking at less than point 2% of incarcerated people. So the system needs to change so that everybody has an opportunity to be able to live their best life and be supported in doing that. And

Vicki Saunders 20:42

Honestly, when I hear these stories, I’m just like, we need to redesign everything. Yay women!

Helen Black of workRestart 20:48

Go with the lovely Monica Bradley, who was an activator in Australia was one of our first mentors coming in on entrepreneurial program and of course, mon went to, we need to set up prisons As social enterprises, we have a completely different philosophy and I agree with it to it would be fantastic to get there. But there’s such a cultural shift that needs to sit around that as well. So the other the other part of this is, if there’s a lot of rhetoric around tough on crime, and I’m getting where that’s coming from all of us staff have been victims of crime. Some of them have been, you know, have had family members that have been victims of quite horrific crimes. So we, we get where it’s coming from. And people do have to be accountable for their actions. But we have to understand what’s driving those actions and then be able to work on that rather than just being saying, Well, I’m going to be tough on that. Because without understanding, we can’t move forward. We can’t go anywhere else than what we currently have. So we do we do, it’d be wonderful to have a social enterprise prison, which is just all around a nurturing environment to move people forward. But public has to be able to accept that as well. Otherwise, you know, so there’s a lot of work that has to be done from everybody in society, not just incarcerated people.

Vicki Saunders 22:10

Yeah, I mean, there’s just such a, I think I just loved how you started at the top and sort of came down levels. But this rethinking what we value is really the starting point, right? What is it that we’re going to value for humans and for society for life sustaining society? We cannot continue to monetize every single ounce of everything.

Helen Black of workRestart 22:27

Yeah. And then that’s the only value somebody has, that’s the only way value of a person is determined. That’s Yeah, we’re setting ourselves up to fail.

Vicki Saunders 22:38

Yeah, absolutely. So that’s over. That’s how I feel anyway, that that world is is just unraveling in front of us every day. And we’re sort of between worlds on the way to whatever’s coming next. And so I’m very thankful that you are showing us the way into the new world with your model. It’s really amazing. And I know that the activators in the community are so excited to support you And watch you grow. And I wonder for the listeners that are part of this, is there an ask that you have for people who are listening today?

Helen Black of workRestart 23:08

Have fearless compassion. And that’s what we try to add, then to be honest, that’s what the activators showed by actually putting their faith behind what we do. Because it is gritty. And I think that if you’ve been a victim of crime, fearless compassion is very hard because you’re so close to things, but there’s so I think fearless compassion just enables people to say, what’s actually the reason behind this. And before judgments come in and before everything else sets in and feels compassion to be able to say, am I willing to give an incarcerated person a second chance? And am I willing to understand that they may stumble a bit but I but that’s just what we all do as humans and What can I do to help support them on their journey forward? So yeah, my ask is fearless compassion. And we have to apply that every day. And we have to, I have to apply it to myself sometimes as well. You know, when I, when I don’t quite get things right or point if I become judgmental, I have to sit back and say, Well, okay, I need to apply this to myself as well.

Vicki Saunders 24:23

I mean, that’s my your word – fearless compassion – might like this radical generosity, same thing, right? It’s like inside and outside practice towards others, but to yourself is hugely important to Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you for your fearless compassion and for the innovation that you’re attracting in the world and the impact that you’re having. And we can’t wait to to see your model expand all over. So thank you very much for you.

Helen Black 24:47

Thanks, it’s our pleasure.


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