Formerly Incarcerated Women Allow Themselves to Dream

2021 Reentry Rocks Fellowship Class. Photo by Seiji Yamashita.

Updated: March 14, 2021, 7:20 PM.

As Laquita Brooks presented her business pitch about a catering company for low-income communities to her online classmates, the chat was suddenly filled with emojis; hearts, clapping, party streamers, anything. In bursts, the instructor, Sharon Richardson, and her students unmuted their microphones, interjecting to encourage their friend and classmate.

“You can do this,” said one.

“Take a deep breath,” another piped in.

“I have faith in you,” a classmate added.

Brooks, a formerly incarcerated woman, fought back tears.  “I’m sorry, there’s just a lot going on,” said Brooks, as she pushed through her pitch.

After returning home in 2014 from a 13-month sentence for drinking and driving, Brooks envisioned becoming a business owner, but she wasn’t sure how to proceed. Her drunk driving incident drastically affected her life and her career.  The former nursing assistant lost custody of her two children. Her aspiring career in healthcare dimmed too;   due to her time behind bars, she now has to be re-certified by the state.  So she turned to the idea of running her own business.

“When I first got home from jail I didn’t know how to navigate or what I would do next,” she said. “I noticed a lot of stipulations when you have a criminal background, so the best thing to do is to be creative and start something of your own.”

Since being released, Brooks joined several training programs for formerly incarcerated women. One of her instructors introduced her to Richardson, founder of Reentry Rocks, which offers a paid fellowship geared to teach formerly incarcerated women entrepreneurship in the food industry. For Brooks, this was the opportunity to follow her dream, so she signed up.

A week after her presentation on a Friday afternoon, Brooks and seven of her classmates gathered in person for the first time to celebrate their graduation. Richardson, the teacher, a former inmate herself, looked around the room as, one by one, her students arrived and embraced one another in celebration. No one could contain their excitement. Masks hid smiles, but the eyes and giddy body language gave away everyone’s jubilation. Voices were octaves higher than usual, and the chatter between friends was endless. This was the first time many of these women, who had bonded over their common experience, had met, in person.

Richardson, who owns her own catering business, had prepared lunch for all the women, all of whom were excited to taste her cooking. The team handed out certificates and farewell presents.

These eight graduates, all women, were all formerly incarcerated, and they carry with them a set of experiences few understand. Despite the pandemic, throughout the eight-week program, which met for two hours twice a week, students and teachers built strong relationships with one another, supporting each other’s ambitions and encouraging one another through hardships. While the pandemic kept everyone isolated throughout the winter, Reentry Rocks remained a place of growth and community for them.

“We believe in people. We work with people at their lowest. We work from experiences and examples,” said Richardson, who was convicted and spent 20 years in prison for the second-degree murder of her domestic abuser. “Getting arrested, going through the criminal justice system does not define who you are, and who you will be for the rest of your life.”

Sharon Richardson prepares plates for the class graduation. Photo by Seiji Yamashita.

Upon release, Richardson worked as a reentry specialist to help individuals returning from incarceration. The experience and skills she gained gave her an idea, so she decided to found her own non-profit, Reentry Rocks in 2015. She also started a catering business in Long Island City called Just Soul Catering, which exclusively hires women who have served time in prison.

“I feel like working with formerly incarcerated women is important today, because women kind of just get swept under the rug,” she said. “But we are on the forefront now. You know, especially black women.”

This annual eight-week course was entirely virtual for Richardson and her students due to the pandemic. The class covered several aspects of running a successful business, from financial literacy, contracting and securing funding. Richardson’s experience starting Just Soul Catering helped inspire the curriculum, notably her experience applying for grants, and pitching to investors.

“We don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like, but Reentry Rocks and Just Soul Catering are two entities that know what it is like to be at the bottom and have to bring yourself up and rise to the occasion,” Richardson said.  “We are a resilient community. We are a resilient people.”

They have to be resilient, as many of these women must overcome economic hardships, deal with depression and anxiety, and often struggle to reunify with their families, says Patricia Zimmerman, a mental health counselor, who works with Richardson.  She met the instructor when they were incarcerated together, and now helps students in the program. The pandemic has made these issues worse, so having someone they can identify with and look up to is critical. “Some of them know me from inside; some of them go back many years and remember when we were incarcerated together,” she said. “So it’s not really a me and them; it’s us.”

Patricia Zimmerman (left) speaks to Sharon Richardson (right). Photo by Seiji Yamashita.

Richardson’s class, with Zimmerman’s guidance, culminates with business pitches from each student—encouraging each of them to turn a passion project into a reality. Brooks’ presentation about her idea for a catering company, called Healing Hands Event Planning, went well. “I love the name,” said Richardson. “It almost has a spiritual component to it.”

Not all the final pitches worked as perfectly. When Daniella Gibbs, for example, pitched her smoothie and sandwich food truck business to the class, Richardson asked Gibbs to try again, but this time with a more personal angle. Gibbs’ immediate reaction was disappointment. As she began to close herself off, the class quickly jumped in. “Dani, I’m your classmate. I love you. I believe in you,” said Janice Lee, another student who served a 17-years for drug related charges.

Gibbs started again. This time, she shared details about her childhood, being overweight, and stories about how she had to rely on fast food in the low-income community where she was raised. Her business would break this cycle with fast, organic, healthy food, she said. “Dani, there’s something in you,” said Richardson afterward in affirmation. “You’ve got it in you. We believe in you.”

To the students, Richardson’s words carry weight because of her business success after serving 20 years in prison. Lee, who wants to start a catering business called Mama’s Catering, views Richardson as a mentor and a role model. “I didn’t have that much confidence in myself to say that I could do it,” Lee, 56, said. “And then, I didn’t have anyone that could help me to connect the dots.”

But now, 11 years after her release in 2010, Lee is driven to become a role model herself. “As I’m getting older, I have nephews that look up to me, goddaughters, little cousins. I have a lot of people that look up to me,” she said.

“I don’t want to disappoint myself,” said Lee. “I want to be better.”

Janice Lee (left) and Laquita Brooks (right) cut cakes for class. Photo by Seiji Yamashita.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Daniella Gibbs first and last name. We apologize for the error.