KU project to help women transition from incarceration with training for tech careers

LAWRENCE — For women who are incarcerated and lack access to the internet and other technologies, it can be difficult to navigate an increasingly online world when transitioning back to society. An interdisciplinary team at the University of Kansas has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand their employment-related technology education program for women leaving incarceration and Train-the-Trainer program for peer mentors and library practitioners.

Hyunjin Seo giving presentation.
Hyunjin Seo gives a presentation.

The three-year, $1.6 million grant will support “Developing Sustainable Ecosystems that will Support Women Transitioning from Incarceration into Technology Careers.” KU’s Center for Digital Inclusion is leading the project training women leaving incarceration in Kansas and Missouri in digital skills for entry-level positions in the technology sector as well as general employment. The funding also allows the project team to offer workshops for “digital navigators,” or peer mentors, who have successfully taken part in previous iterations of the program to guide other women now making the switch. Researchers will also partner with public libraries, employment agencies, and jails and prisons in the two states to make the programs sustainable for the future.

“We will be able to expand and improve our existing evidence-based technology education program to include a greater number of women, as well as professional organizations, public libraries and workforce centers,” said Hyunjin Seo, Oscar Stauffer Professor of Journalism & Mass Communications and principal investigator for the project. “These days, if you are not able to use digital technology, you are not able to utilize many services in society, whether cultural, social, civic or others. Women transitioning from incarceration face significant challenges in this area.”

Research has shown that employment is a significant factor in reducing rates of recidivism. The project will help women transitioning from incarceration gain employment through a holistic approach. Participants will learn how to navigate online job applications, secure housing and develop job skills. The digital skills trainings will range from introductory to advanced levels and provide participants with skills from competence with office technologies to building websites, online security, coding and other technology career-specific skills. The education content and topics are determined by the project team’s empirical research with women transitioning from incarceration as well as co-design sessions with the women and community partners. The project team includes professors, research staff, graduate students, undergraduate students and digital navigators.

The online security portion of this project builds on Seo’s participation in an interdisciplinary cybersecurity research team that received KU’s Research Rising grant, as well as her past collaborations with Fengjun Li, KU associate professor of computer science and co-principal investigator.

Jodi Whitt, a digital navigator in the Center for Digital Inclusion, said her experience learning new skills when leaving incarceration inspired her to help women in a similar situation.

“Helping other women in the program has given me a purpose in life that I never dreamed would be possible. I want to be an example to other women, that it is possible to learn new skills. I know how important it is to have someone who understands and believes in me. Having that connection and building those relationships is crucial to help empower and build confidence,” Whitt said. “From experience, I also know learning new skills can help reduce recidivism. There is not a lot of opportunities for job training or employment for formerly incarcerated women. This program helps them gain experience and develop confidence for better opportunities in the workforce.”

Dozens of digital navigators, librarians and employment navigators will receive training on mentorship and teaching as well as advanced technology topics. The project team will begin its work with program participants shortly before they leave jail or prison. Another new feature is an ecosystem approach that is designed to build and strengthen capacity of local communities in supporting individuals with justice involvement. Tanesha Whitelaw, one of the program’s digital navigators, said it is all too common to lose technical skills during incarceration.

“This training is important to this population because you can easily adapt to an environment which doesn’t offer any technical skills or employment skills and you’re left behind when you are coming back into society,” she said. “Being able to communicate in today’s society requires technical skills. The systemic mechanism of communicating is gravitating toward technology, so this will be imperative for to day-to-day functions.”

During the grant’s three-year life cycle, the program aims to support up to 600 women leaving or recently released from jails or prisons in Kansas and Missouri. During that time, researchers will also conduct extensive research and evaluation of the program. They will conduct interviews and surveys before, during and after trainings to gauge their skill levels, how they have improved, employment rates among participants as well as recidivism rates.

Data will be combined with information gathered from focus groups with public libraries where trainings take place and with other partners to determine which aspects of the program are most effective and what is needed to enable community organizations to continue the trainings after the grant project.

The project, led by the Center for Digital Inclusion in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications, will build on previous efforts to help women transition from incarceration by gaining new skills. KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research manages the grant.

Partners and members of the research team also include:

  • Hannah Britton, professor of political science and women, gender & sexuality studies, senior researcher
  • Doug Ward, associate director of KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence and associate professor of journalism & mass communications, senior researcher
  • Marilyn Ault, senior research associate at the KU Center for Research on Learning, senior researcher
  • Tanesha Whitelaw, digital navigator at KU’s Center for Digital Inclusion
  • Kim Bruns, project coordinator at KU’s Center for Digital Inclusion
  • Macy Burkett, doctoral student in journalism & mass communications, graduate research assistant
  • Pramil Paudel, doctoral student in computer science, graduate research assistant
  • Taylor Doyle, undergraduate student in journalism & mass communications, undergraduate research assistant
  • Aisha Malik, undergraduate student in speech-language-hearing, undergraduate research assistant.

Mon, 07/31/2023


Mike Krings

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