We are in one of the most profound moments in modern American history.
Over a month ago, a police officer killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father of six. Floyd suffered cardiopulmonary arrest after a Minneapolis officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, sparking anger and worldwide protests that persist today.
But for the Black community, Floyd’s murder is one more reminder of a catalog of disparities that reach back centuries. From the criminal justice system to economic systems to healthcare systems — study after study finds Black, Indigenous and people of color face persistent barriers to housing, jobs, access to healthcare, credit and more.
“I was born and raised in North and Northeast Portland,” says Michael, a pseudonym. “That’s where I grew up. It’s where I went to school. I’ve seen the impacts of gentrification. There’s a lot that’s decimated the Black community — a community that was already vulnerable.”
Three years ago, the County and its partners launched a program meant to help Black people leaving the justice system tackle some of those barriers. Michael is a graduate of Flip the Script, a voluntary program that provides employment, housing, peer support and opportunities for advocacy for its clients. As it provides those services, the program focuses on breaking the cycles that send people of color back to prison more often than other justice-involved individuals.
The program is funded and supported through a partnership with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice and the City and County Joint Office of Homeless Services, Central City Concern and Meyer Memorial Trust, specifically focusing on decreasing disproportionate rates of incarceration (jail) and the use of emergency shelter for people of color.
By the time a prospective candidate enters Flip the Script, they’ve already gone through the justice system and face inordinate challenges as they reenter society.
“But we say welcome home, welcome back,” said Billy Anfield, Flip the Script’s advocacy coordinator.
Every time someone joins the program, the Flip the Script team performs a “welcome introduction.” That introduction is led by staff who are from communities of color and sometimes have lived experience in the justice system themselves.
There’s immediate camaraderie when participants see someone they can identify with, team members say. Staff members say they can feel participants exhale and start to relax.
“The more we explain the program,” Anfield said, “the more relaxed and the more connected they become.”
“We purposely designed the program to be culturally responsive like that,” Anfield continued. “It takes a village to assist our participants in rewriting their story, and each component of the program supports this.”
Participants receive a place to stay, and then they meet with the program’s housing, employment, peer support and advocacy specialists. They may receive help in everything from paying for food and transportation, to help with their first and last months’ rent or deposits, or help buying work boots. They’re also given opportunities to tell their stories to elected officials.
The team provides navigation and connection. The peer support specialists act as older siblings who take participants to clinics and other appointments. The employment specialists help participants find not only a job — but also a career path.
Growing up, “it was just my mom and grandmother,” Michael said. “My dad wasn’t in the picture. Drugs took a big toll on two generations. And we weren’t looking to buy houses.”
In June 2011, Michael was sentenced to prison for six years. “I definitely knew I did not want to go back there,” he said. “There’s a disproportionate number of African Americans in prison.”
Six years later, after his release, “I wanted to give back to my community,” Michael said. “The next morning I went to [Central City Concern’s] transitional housing, and the next day they came to my room and talked to me. I wasn’t used to even being in public, and they helped me.”
Anfield took Michael to Mercy Corps to get a job that day. “The day after that I was working,” he said. “And I’ve been on board ever since.”
Once a month on a Saturday, Flip the Script participants meet as a group — lately virtually — for doughnuts, coffee and candid conversation. Those conversations have centered on current events, the injustices experienced by Black communities and what can be done.
Many graduates come back to participate in the advocacy group. In the past few weeks, Anfield said, their advocacy work has gone further than ever in response to the protests and real progress happening.
“Many of our graduates and clients are now involved in public safety reform work and meeting with elected officials in Salem,” said Anfield. “The Flip the Script advocacy group creates a voice to speak their utmost convictions to what’s happening — internally and externally. Their personal work and the whole system, it’s an atmosphere of empowerment.”
“The group keeps you focused and allows you to see the importance of staying on course,” said Michael. “The African American community needs to stay vigilant, keep protesting and keep working. That’s the only way to make change.”
Moving forward will mean listening, acknowledgment, empathy and a pledge of true inclusive support to dismantle racism.
But only a comprehensive approach to policy reform can truly “flip the script,” officials, reform advocates and criminal justice experts say — including moving funding away from the downstream, more punitive portions of the justice system and sending it, instead, upstream to education and prevention. These kinds of investments can keep someone out of the criminal justice system in the first place.
But for those reentering society after incarceration, Anfield said, that means advocating for improved connections to physical healthcare, improved connection to services for mental health and substance use disorders, and support for more culturally appropriate responses by officials in the system.
“My lifestyle changed and once I got out of Flip the Script,” said Michael. “I went from a single room occupancy to an apartment to a house that I’m renting today. I live with my daughter.”
His next step forward is home ownership.
““I’m blessed and happy about where I am today,” said Michael.
“The majority of the people who go to Flip the Script — we have jobs, pay rent and live life, and that’s in large part due to the support that we receive here.”