I recently had the opportunity to intern with Dress for Success Twin Cities (DFS), the local chapter of a worldwide organization started in 1996 in a Harlem church basement. After Nancy Lublin inherited some money, she worked alongside three nuns toward investing in women and their financial independence. They helped fit women with professional clothing to get them through interviews and into new jobs.
I helped to assemble “confidence kits” from a warehouse in Saint Louis Park for clients across Minnesota.
DFS Twin Cities redistributes some of its donations: men’s clothing to the Salvation Army, referring clients with immediate needs to other nonprofits like Vine and Branches, and working with woman-owned and operated local business Elite Repeat St. Paul to consign designer pieces, with profits going to purchase personal and hygiene items.
One of the clients that works with DFS Twin Cities on referrals is the Minnesota Department of Corrections Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), based at the Shakopee Women’s Prison. This summer, I helped DFS Twin Cities assemble confidence kits of clothing, jewelry, shoes, hygiene products and professional work bags for women.
CIP started in 1992, when boot camps were popular around the country to reduce the prison populations. The program has three phases, with a duration of six months each, for nonviolent offenders who have 15 to 48 months left on their sentence. The program can reduce a woman’s sentence by up to 42 months after serving the first six months within the facility.
One aspect of the program includes education. Women that do not have a high school diploma can pursue their General Educational Development Test (GED). Completing this allows them to feel empowered to pursue post-secondary education. The program introduces participants to admission counselors from local community and technical colleges. Career interest assessments are offered through the Minnesota Career Information System computer program, as well as information on financial aid opportunities.
One unit in the curriculum is about the women’s movement and female empowerment.
Sandy Hand works in the Transition Department at MCF-Shakopee. The Transitions Department works to help individuals secure identification, work on student loan calls, connect them to community resources to include housing, social supports, health care, veterans’ services, and employment.
The lack of clothing for job interviews and employment support for those coming out of prison are challenges. Stephanie Silvers, CEO of DFS Twin Cities, reached out to Hand ten years ago to help serve incarcerated women directly.
CIP participants are considered minimum security and are able to go off grounds if supervised. Before the pandemic, and a fire that DFS Twin Cities suffered during the summer of 2021, CIP members were able to aid the organization by helping set up and take down DFS sales and go into the center themselves to try on and receive clothes, as well as do mock Job interviews. Hand says “This helps the individuals be more prepared to get out and have the confidence to get a job.”
CIP participants also are involved in other community efforts, such as Feed My Starving Children and other local food shelves and working with the Scott County Historical Society.
CIP teacher Randy Feldsien says the facility started bringing women to DFS before graduating from the program to help them prepare for the workforce. “Volunteers from different businesses would do mock interviews with participants,” he says. “The program helps them with resumes, how to talk about their conviction and address the gap in employment during incarceration for interviews.”
Feldsien says it is rare for women who have graduated from CIP and stayed involved in DFS to return to prison.
Hand said it is meaningful “for women to come to DFS in their uniforms from the facility and then transform into a person that is ready for work. This gets them motivated to get out and start the job search.”
During the pandemic, CIP participants were able to have a few virtual meetings with career coaches and go over what DFS calls a “personal success plan” to inventory their skills, their circumstances, and what they want out of the next chapter of their lives.
DFS Twin Cities purchased a recreational vehicle this year that is being converted into a mobile confidence center to travel across the state to meet women where they are.