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‘There are a lot of broken women here.’ Can training them to run a business save them?

Tracy McGee is serving her third state prison sentence, but she vows that this one will be her last.

Through a program offered by Tacoma Community College, McGee is earning a certificate in entrepreneurship at the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women. A new enhancement of the program’s curriculum is called Ready for Release, an eight-week course provided by Ventures, a Seattle-based nonprofit group. Inmates who are close to being released learn the basics of marketing, sales, financial management and operations so they can start businesses.

On Wednesday evening, McGee and 14 others made their pitches at the Ready for Release graduation ceremony. McGee, who grew up in Gig Harbor and is serving a sentence for possesion with intent to sell drugs, wants to become a painting contractor with her son, who is a dishwasher in Tacoma. He would paint and she would do the books and also try to get into real estate sales.

“The experience that I received here is women need to empower women. There are a lot of broken women here, and there’s a need for counseling services to build us up, and that’s what they’re doing,” she said in an interview. “They’re providing us with some ways to make a better life for us when we leave here, and to build up and strengthen our bonds with other people.”

Goal: Start a business

Founded in 1995, Ventures provides training, capital and coaching to those “whom traditional business-development services are out of reach, with a focus on women, people of color, immigrants and individuals with low income,” according to Will von Geldern, the group’s director of advocacy and communications.

Offering a course at Mission Creek on the basics of business is part of Ventures’ strategy to serve “harder-to-reach populations,” he said.

“A lot of our model is being social workers for business; helping people start small businesses and move out of poverty, and we work primarily with women,” von Geldern said.

Ventures worked for two years with the state Department of Corrections and Tacoma Community College to start offering the Ready for Release program in 2018. A $15,000 state grant and $10,000 from an individual donor paid for the program. Ventures has raised about $50,000 to continue it.

“Our goal is to help you start a business,” the group’s executive director, Beto Yarce, told the inmates at the graduation ceremony. “That is why we exist. But we also connect people to a lot of opportunities. We know a lot of people out there.”

Wednesday’s event honored the second class to graduate. So far, 35 women have graduated from the program.

Tacoma Community College contracts with the state prison system to provide education programs at the two women’s prisons, Mission Creek and the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy.

The Ready for Release program is like a “match made in heaven” with the entrepreneurship program at Mission Creek, said Sultana Shabazz, director of corrections education at Tacoma Community College. The community college selects the inmates from those who are pursuing the certificate of entrepeneurship. The inmates who have graduated from the course get access upon release to Ventures’ services, including loans, business courses and coaching.

“We tell our students every day that you get these education credentials, and it’s going to mean something when you leave,” said Shabazz. “But sometimes it’s hard for them to take that message to heart. They’ve been out there before. They know when people see ‘felon’ that doors close.

“When we have opportunities like this to show them that there are people in the community who are not only willing to help you — but are waiting for you — that makes what we do inside more meaningful.”

‘Anything is possible’

Among those in the audience for the Mission Creek graduation was Tacoma resident Chantel Jackson, who graduated in 2013 from the Ventures program after serving county jail time on misdemeanor charges. She said she was a prostitute and a drug addict but left that world behind. She said her rehabilitation included taking classes at Tacoma Community College, which led her to taking the business basics course at Ventures.

She attended the graduation ceremony to show the inmates that dreams can become a reality and to offer support.

Besides being a chef, Jackson runs a food truck and a catering firm, offers business consulting and does motivational speaking at inner-city schools about how food changed her life. One of her first customers was Ventures, which hired her firm, Thyme Well Spent, to cater its board meetings. Ventures also hires Jackson as a coach to help other business owners.

“Anything is possible. I’m in my seventh year from when I started doing my rehabilitation. It doesn’t just happen. It took me seven years to continually grow. I’ve been in business for about three years. Just because you graduate here, it doesn’t stop here,” said Jackson, referring to Mission Creek. “You have to keep going every day.”

Regret, but hope, too

Jen Hughes, the director of programs for Ventures, said the inmates displayed a lot of potential during the eight-week course.

“Entrepreneurship is a very, very trying journey. It’s not for everyone. It is not for the faint of heart. These women, you have heart and you have grit,” she told them at Wednesday’s ceremony.

Inmate Danna Anders, who is from Skagit County, wants to start a photography business. She’s serving a four-year sentence for possession with intent to sell drugs, her third prison term.

Anders — who is scheduled for release next year — has worked as a traffic control laborer, transporting barrels used on highway construction projects. She wants to return to that union job so she can save $10,000 and borrow $5,000 to start a company that she plans to call Smile for Me Photography.

She said in an interview that her mindset changed when she turned 40. She’s regretted missing her nephew’s sixth and seventh birthdays, calling him “my favorite person in the whole entire world.”

Anders recalled phoning her nephew from the open air of the prison yard about a lunar eclipse.

“He said, ‘Aunt Danna, are you still in a time-out?’ I was telling him, ‘Look at the moon.’ We were looking at it together. He didn’t understand why I was looking at the moon and I wasn’t with him,” she said.

Anders said she is disappointed with herself that she became enmeshed in the drug trade.

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” she said.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.
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