This Art Gallery Proactively Hires Justice-Involved Women

A conversation between employer and employee on women supporting women — and social responsibility.

Pay parity, fair hiring practices, parental leave, childcare… despite great strides, women still face serious barriers to equality in the workplace. And the issues that all women face are exacerbated for those with justice involvement.

Did you know that formerly incarcerated people are 5x more likely than the general population to be unemployed and that having a criminal record reduces employer callback rates by 50%?

At WPA, we’re committed to helping women with justice involvement gain employment. Our Workforce Development program addresses women-specific barriers to employment, provides job readiness training, and partners with companies committed to hiring justice-involved women.

We sat down with Lou Neyland, supervisor at one of WPA’s partner organizations, Swiss Institute, and WPA participant Aisha, who works as a Gallery Attendant, for a discussion around women and work.


What is it like working for Swiss Institute?

Aisha: Working for SI is cool. One thing that is invaluable to me is working with visitors. That’s just my thing. When they come in, I try to engage with them as much as possible. I find that rewarding because you learn so much. The other day this gentleman came in and I was fascinated. I didn’t want him to leave. I learned so much about the neighborhood. He said if you look around, a lot of the buildings in the East Village are short. And he said the reason why is because it was built on marsh land. That’s just one of the things that makes working here so cool; you get free education! And to meet really, really awesome people.

Lou: That’s a classic Aisha move. Spending a lot of time with visitors is a huge strength of hers. It’s always like they’ve known each other for ten years. She’s able to reach something really deep in a conversation.

Do you feel that your work here at Swiss Institute has made you more attuned to art in your everyday life?

Aisha: Art is in my DNA. My grandfather was commissioned to build statues in Trinidad. And I was just looking at Veranda, a home magazine, and there was a picture of my cousin! He’s a craftsmen and there he was, blow torch in hand and everything. So when I tell you that craftsmanship and art is in our DNA, it really is!

It seems Swiss Institute is pretty heavily staffed by women. What is that like?

Lou: I value the work environment at SI, which is heavily staffed by women. I love working with women. Many of our community partnerships, including WPA, were founded and are run by women. And women play quite a big role in the non-profit world in general. Being a part of a workplace with a large presence of women has a meaningful history and context to me.

Aisha: One of the things women hear growing up is that working with women is difficult or having a female boss is hard. It’s this stereotype that so many people have heard but my personal experience has been to the contrary. Having a woman as a boss has meant that she understood when your kid was teething and when the babysitter was M.I.A. and you’re panicking. It made it a lot easier because half the time you didn’t even have to explain. They get it. I love working with women.

In your journey as a working woman, has there been a particular woman who’s supported you?

Aisha: Definitely. When I was at FIT, I was an EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) student. Basically, it just means students who are facing social or financial challenges. It’s like a built in support system. It would have been extremely difficult for me to finish school without it. And it was all women. I became really close with the woman who ran the department. Even to this day, we’re still friends. When I think about it, everyone who was really defining me in that program was a woman. The whole group assisted me in some way with graduating. So it wasn’t just one woman, it was a whole village.

Lou: It does take a village. For me, one person that comes to mind was a teacher in college. She was a fantastic filmmaker and artist and I instantly admired her. She had a thoughtful approach to classroom dialogue — the way she led conversation. Later she hired me to be the manager of this experimental television station we had at school. I got to see how she worked with students as an employer and that was pretty interesting for me. I appreciated her style — that she was able to command the room but was never frightening and that is kind of a fine line, especially for women. Since then I’ve had other female managers and I’ve learned a lot from the techniques that resonate with me, and also from those that don’t. I think depending on their age, they probably had to respond to different sorts of obstacles that shaped them in different ways.

Aisha, what for you has been challenging about being a “justice-involved” woman and finding work?

Aisha: I think that’s why WPA is so invaluable. WPA made that so easy for me. Being a person that unfortunately was touched by the injustice system, I had so much to deal with. My plate was so full. When I came to WPA, I was literally in ten different programs. I met [my case manager] Patricia and she was so amazing. Patricia was the one who told me about Swiss Institute and then I met Lou and now this is where I am. But I have this job right now because of WPA. On my own, I definitely tried to look, but it was hard for me because I didn’t have the time or access and that was weighing on me. I was just trying to get my life back together. The way you’re treated, it’s so demoralizing. But when I met Lou, from my first phone interview, she was so cool and laid back. And I was like, please let this be how this person is. And she’s been so consistent from day one. The care that she shows for us, it’s so genuine.

Lou, what do you want other supervisors to know about hiring and supporting justice-involved women in the workplace?

Lou: I think every employee enters with their own strengths and weaknesses and justice-involved women are no exception to that. The challenges that arise are not really that different from any other employee. I think hiring in general is a huge inconvenience. It’s really hard to hire people and you want to hire the right person and it takes a lot of work. And I could sympathize with the idea that it’s already inconvenient. And then to add this other layer of maybe subconscious distrust is an additional inconvenience. But with a partnership it’s a lot easier. WPA offers a wide variety of assistance. Because there’s so much support and communication it feels a bit more unified. It’s kind of that village feeling of like, okay, we’re all in this together, we’re all helping each other out. And it is assuring to know that there are resources through WPA when things may be a little bit more challenging in their world than in another employee’s.

[When we hired Aisha], this was a new program. We had just opened this space. We’ve never had this many staff. I’ve never managed this many people before. There were several initial challenges, some of which were of larger proportions, which WPA quickly helped to remedy. WPA has aided in smaller conversations as well, such as how to convey the nature of our partnership in a way that’s accurate but also protective of everyone’s privacy too.

And sometimes it’s inconvenient to do the right thing. There is a deep need to have programs like this and to assist those who have been put in onerous situations. And obviously the whole system is corrupt and flawed and hopefully more people are acknowledging that. But I think that there’s sort of a social responsibility to do the work.

Aisha: It speaks volumes to me because they don’t have to do this. Some companies, some people, they’re just very like hands off, they don’t care. And I think it’s very big of SI to say, “We’re judging you as an individual, as a person, not by what happened because we don’t know the story.”

And these days you can get arrested for anything. It seems like half the population is getting arrested just because of where they live and what they look like. And that’s why people get into this work because they’re seeing how things are unequal. By giving you a chance they are actually saying, “We don’t want to know the story, we’re hiring you based on what you’ve presented to us.” How many companies are doing that?


The Women’s Prison Association (WPA) has been committed to helping women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families since 1845. Learn more at www.wpaonline.org. Join WPA on Instagram at @WPA_NYC.