Trilogy of Reasons, Part One: The Desire of Chaplaincy.

People ask me all the time what my reasoning was for starting a nonprofit and specifically one that has a goal of helping people within the prison industrial complex. The answers are easy for me but there are three of them and it gets complicated. Besides, kinda like me they’re petty intense. So instead of laying them all on ya in one felt swoop I decided it would be better if I did a trilogy of sorts. The Trilogy of Reasons seams like an amazing title. So Trilogy of Reasons, Part One: The Desire of Chaplaincy.

Many know and others don’t but I’m an ordained minister with an obsession for not being broke all the time. Not sure if you know this, but most ministers (minus the online televangelists) make very little. I prefer one on one ministry and the reality is that chaplaincy pays even less. People who are present to ease the spiritual suffering of those in need just aren’t worth much in a modern capitalist society… go figure.

So I set my eye, while in graduate school earning my M.Div, on chaplaincy in the federal system. Federal prisons have a high burn out rate for chaplains, certainly, but that also means a great opportunity to find a job. Federal level chaplaincy paid a decent wage, and it meant an adventure as I could move to wherever in the country the jobs might be open. It was an exciting time and I had a plan! Huzzah!

People say if you make plans then God often laughs. Seems kinda petty of God but whatever. Sure enough, the plans changed on me- with the election came a federal hiring freeze and that meant non-essential personnel were no longer hiring someone who is present for the spiritual needs of our nation’s prisoners. It just isn’t considered essential. So two thirds of the way through my program I realized I no longer had a pathway to employment. Which, with mounting school debt, was a harsh reality to accept.

So there I was graduating with an Mdiv with mounting student loans and no idea on earth what I was going to do. I could make more doing rideshare services than being a state prison chaplain. A single mom, having my own schedule meant I could be there for my child but making decent money with my own car was practical and necessary. I had no idea what was next but I knew until I figured it out I had to pay the bills.

Then, one night, while brain storming with a friend I realized there was still potential. On the way to learning other things I had picked up how to do basic coding on websites and had built a few decent ones for small nonprofits. In the mean time, my passion for being in prison work had not abated. So as we talked a plan began to form. Slowly at first and then suddenly: why not teach women in prison to code? Why not give them a marketable skill and a pathway to employment? We could effectively double their income earning potential. Why WOULDN’T we do that?!

And so the idea of Code/Out was born. I didn’t have a job, and I still didn’t have a way to make money but at least I found a purpose to move forward. We dove into a fundraiser. We dove into grants. We dove into a new way of seeing what being in and around prisoners could mean. And so here we are. In the midst of developing curriculum and finding ways to get hardware and do hard things. Chaplaincy may be out of reach for me right now but addressing the spiritual and financial realities of women in prison? Now that’s something I can wrap my head around.

The movement: Why nonprofits started by millennials are the best idea ever.

Getting something started is never easy. Figuring out how to get it going is even harder. Doing it in the midst of a gig economy while you already have three part time jobs is insane. Realizing you have no idea what you’re doing and doing it anyway? Scary. As. Hell. Yet, I’ve come to realize that this is what makes millennials so great. We often have no idea what we’re doing, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it with gusto. It’s probably because of all those participation trophies I got as a kid—I believe I can win at anything.

There’s a huge potential for failure, unfortunately. If I learned anything, it was that the kids that DID get the participation trophies were the chumps. It’s great to get an A for effort, but I want more than that for Code/Out. I want to see people succeed, myself included. Like, if I could actually afford to pay off my student loans, or even just the interest, that would be fantastic (yes, I’d consider myself successful if I could JUST pay the interest accumulating on those bad boys). ANYway. I didn’t get into non-profit to get rich—obvi, but I did get into it because I want to make a difference AND not starve.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m the executive director of a non-profit start up that’s teaching women in Georgia’s prison system to code. We’ll be effectively doubling their income potential. So you know if I could someday pay myself the same amount that these women will be paid in entry-level jobs? That would be fabulous. It’s a work in progress. We’re broke at this point but I’m not starving (mostly because those loans I have are in forbearance).

So here I am, an avocado-toast-eating, single mom, boy-raising, non-profit-starting, tattooed badass millennial with a dream and a passion. Go ahead, tell me millennials aren’t the greatest generation ever. Go ahead. I’ll argue with you until I’m trolling you and making you wish you were never born and I’ll do it because I am not unique. My friends and colleagues and Facebook acquaintances and twitter pals are invested in our present, searching ways for the future to be better and hardcore about accepting our past history. 

Certainly, I have the best idea ever and it’s amazing and it will work because all those participation trophies I got as a kid told me so, even if they were just for the chumps. But if it doesn’t work? Failing will show me how to do it different next time. It will allow me to see how both the nonprofit and myself can be better. It will remind me that my generation doesn’t take no for an answer. We’ll easily be paid horrible wages for doing twice the work and also be drowning in student debt—and still care about the world and the people around us. Most of the time, that’s exhausting. But often it’s incredible.

I was amazed by my own generation when during our initial fundraiser millennial gave twice the amount per capita than their older counterparts. Not to say old people aren’t useful, they are. I’m just saying. That’s not all, despite the income disparities millennials also gave a higher percentage of their monthly income than their boomer counterparts too. My faith in my generation was backed by the actions of those younger than I who seek to make the world a better place.

So I’ll take my yoga class to decompress. I’ll do some meditation to practice self-care and write in my journal so I can understand my emotional process. I’ll talk to my direct message group of four girls that cheer me on, communicate with my group-text of women that have my back to the moon, and I’ll grow my tribe with more women. You know why? Because millennials don’t believe that our gender affiliation has to mean we’re in competition. We don’t have to compete; instead, we get to encourage. That’s why my organization focuses on the female prison population; I get to encourage women for a living. Who WOULDN’T want to do that?

It’s not perfect, this millennial generation. Certainly, I’m on the older side of it and the younger side can wrap circles around me when it comes to Snapchat. I barely hold my ground with Instagram. Don’t mess with me on twitter though, I’ll hashtag you out of existence. Yes, our social media affiliations can most certainly age us within our own generation but connections built with these tools makes us stronger not weaker. Our connections to the world may seem tenuous to the old but some of my best friends in those group chats are women I’ve never met in person but who love me without reservation.

Now pardon me while I call Naviant and delay another payment on my student debt, have my groceries delivered, let my kid play with my smartphone and empower the women in my community to do some seriously cool stuff.

–Hannah Hill
Executive Director

Getting Started

Code/Out started as a dream which was created out of necessity. I needed a job, and I wanted one that allowed me to create change in people’s lives for the better. After participating in some social justice processes – death penalty reform and victim/offender mediation (you can read on that process HERE) – I realized that creating relationships inside the prison system and building change there is where I want to be. So here I am.

My goal is to go into a prison or a transition center and teach women how to code, starting with the basics and working toward helping these women be employable in tech. It will be no small feat. Hell, it isn’t an easy thing for even privileged college kids to learn, so teaching women who’ve had their lives shat on will be difficult too. And I know you may be thinking, “Those women aren’t victims, they’re criminals!” and it is easy to try and make the world black and white that way. If they’re in prison then THEY are the offenders, right? If only the world were that easy!

According 2017 Georgia Inmate Profile, over half of the women currently in Georgia’s prison system have been physically abused in their lifetime. At some point, either as children or adults, these women have suffered from physical violence resulting in trauma. While there is some overlap, over half the women have also suffered from sexual abuse at some point in their lifetime. That means, even with an overlap, 65-75% of Georgia’s female population has endured abuses (either physical or sexual or both) at some point in their lifetime.

Trauma isn’t an excuse for crime, obviously, but it makes a person’s life much more difficult than it has to be. Trauma sets the stage for mental illness, drug abuse and maladjusted behavior; the vast majority of women in our prisons were victims long before they committed their first crime. Seeing this reality and understanding the systemic injustices these women face, we seek to create a pathway to correcting that wrong.

Fully correcting these social wrongs isn’t completely possible; but we, as an organization, can make efforts to give these women the life they could have had if those injustices had not been perpetrated against them. That means more than job training; it means forming relationships and learning how to care for each other in community. It means support for mental illness and past drug addictions and it means providing a pathway to employment that is both sustainable and achievable.

To empower women to break out of the cycles of recidivism, which is the tendency for convicted felons to reoffend, we have started Code/Out. We are a non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of recidivism and poverty for the women in Georgia’s prison system and their children. By working with the Prison Education System and by taking advantage of opportunities in technology we are going to teach women how to code. This will give them the skills and confidence to enter the technology workforce throughout Georgia. With our corporate partnerships we are building a willing network of employers eager to integrate these determined women into their ranks.

Join in and Code/Out!