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In conversation with Baillie Aaron

In conversation with Baillie Aaron

I met Baillie Aaron at her office in Tavistock Square. As I waited for her, I noticed on the wall was a chart for the Hero’s Journey, something I had been fascinated by for years.  It seemed a good portent for the first real conversation I’d had with Baillie since we first met at a photoshoot for DFYNorm a few months before.

Baillie Aaron is one of the most incredible people I’ve met. At the age that some people are beginning to find their paths in life Baillie has already founded two charities that have improved the lives of prisoners around the world. Venturing Out was a Massachusetts-based charity that taught self-employment skills to incarcerated adults. Spark Inside is Baillie’s current project, and it is an incredible organisation. Spark Inside uses professional life coaching to improve the lives of young people leaving prison in the UK, which in turn reduces the reoffending rate.

After leaving her office we crossed through the autumn leaves of Tavistock Square, past the statue of Gandhi, adorned by withering flowers left for his birthday a few weeks before, and went to a restaurant.

Once there I couldn’t get the voice recorder out quick enough to capture our excited talk about her work. I was asking Baillie about how she got started working in this field, and she explained that she started volunteering in prisons after she graduated from university, when she was working a full-time job. She said how in 2007, she was inspired by a young man in prison that she was tutoring, who showed a real acumen for business, to think about how entrepreneurship was a viable employment option for entrepreneurial people leaving prison, that highlighted their strengths and where their criminal record wouldn’t matter.

 

Baillie Aaron

It seemed obvious to teach entrepreneurship in prisons, but nobody else in Massachusetts was doing it. So I thought, well, if no else is doing it, then I should do it. I’d dabbled in entrepreneurship when I was younger, but I wasn’t an expert. So, after work, a few friends and I would go to the library and we’d take business school books and we just… taught ourselves basic business. And that’s how Venturing Out got started.

In 2008, we started teaching one entrepreneurship class in a Boston prison, and it went well, so we started thinking about expanding. At one point we were in ten different prisons. Our teachers were all volunteers, and over the first couple of years we learned that we needed people who had started businesses from scratch. Many people leaving prison tended to have to start their businesses from nothing – with little capital and a limited social network. Many didn’t even have a bank account.

In 2009, I left my full time job because this “side project” was taking up so much time. I also realised I loved overseeing this prison entrepreneurship course more than I enjoyed my job.

In 2010, I decided I wanted to leave Boston to move to the UK and start a Masters degree. I was exceptionally fortunate to be working with a particular volunteer entrepreneurship teacher, Laura, who was a case writer at Harvard Business School and a very experienced entrepreneur. I asked her if she would take over running the program – and she said yes. Looking back on it now, I can really see how remarkable that was. I mean, she’s brilliant, experienced and switched to working her previous job part-time because she believed in Venturing Out’s vision. She’s one of the most incredible people I’ve met.

Haseena Latheef

How did you get permission from prisons to go in and teach?

BA

In general, I believe one can only get so far without the help and support of others. In the case of Venturing Out, there were two people in particular who opened doors for me to teach in the prisons. One was the state Commissioner of Juvenile Justice and the other was the state Commissioner for the Department of Correction. There aren’t that many women in the criminal justice sector, particularly at the top, and some of them made a concerted effort to support younger women in the sector. One of them actually continues to mentor me.

HL

Did you have any assumptions coming in about prisons that were challenged?

BA

Tons. I thought that most of the people who were in prison had phones, and could use computers and access the internet. Now that I’m working in this field, I know how wrong that is! I also learned that many young people in prison don’t leave their postcodes – except when they go to jail. Some young people in prison from south London have never been to Covent Garden. Can you imagine someone from London has never been to Covent Garden?

HL

Seriously? I can’t believe that.

BA

Yeah, their life consists of what’s happening inside their postcodes. Their bubble is very small. Some are afraid of what might happen if they leave.

When I started, I also didn’t know the common thread in the histories of people in prison, the stories of childhood neglect, abuse, mental health problems, and broken families.

HL

You must have been in for a shock when you started?

BA

It’s important to be open-minded. I was open to having my assumptions challenged, I was open to being wrong.

But I really was naive. When I was teaching classes to young people in prison, I’d ask my students to set one and five year goals. However, most of these young people are thinking, “How will I survive today and what will happen tomorrow?” They couldn’t really see beyond tomorrow, and here I was asking them to set five year goals.

Another thing I assumed was that all these young people would have had at least one person in the world who truly cared about them, who asked them if they had done their homework, who asked them how their day was… But many of these young people said they had nobody that cared about them, including their families.

This deeply touched me and it made me realise… you know, it just wasn’t right.

HL

You kind of see how it makes sense that they might have become criminals…

BA

Working in this sector you have to balance the knowledge that the people that we work with have committed pretty serious crimes. They’ve perpetrated an offence and there have been victims, as well as the cost to society. But given the conditions in which the vast majority have grown up, they’ve also been let down by the adults in their lives and by general society. I don’t want to go overboard and see them as complete victims that don’t have agency. They do have agency. And at my current charity, Spark Inside, what we’re working on is building that agency and helping them make better decisions through professional life coaching.

HL

And how does your coaching work?

BA

Coaching helps people understand who they are, what their identity is, what their values are – by asking powerful questions that engage clients in self-reflection. What challenges are they facing? How can they use their strengths to overcome those? What are their goals? It doesn’t have to be career goals. It can be family goals, or even self-awareness goals.

In coaching, we focus on the present and the future, rather than the past; where are you today, and where are you going tomorrow? We also don’t give any advice or guidance, but rather help people find solutions to their problems, themselves.

HL

Isn’t there a disconnect. Don’t you think there should be therapy as well?

BA

For some people. Everybody’s different and has different needs.

I think that if you don’t want to change, you’re not going to change. We probably all have friends who we think should get help, but they won’t listen. They say, “No, I’m fine. Or, yeah I’ll do it,” and they never do. Some don’t want to be helped, don’t want to change. Some people do.

I learned that telling people what to do is not the most effective way of helping them reach their goals. For example, I’d recognise when young people in my Boston entrepreneurship class were gifted at something. You can see when they have a creative talent, or if they’re great at logical thinking, or they’re particularly personable. What was very frustrating was that when I’d tell then what they were good at, they wouldn’t listen to me. The only time they would accept it was if they proved it to themselves.

We had one young guy in my entrepreneurship class who was one of the most serious, violent members of a Boston gang. He was a disruptive student, but he did come to class… sometimes. One time we decided to do a ‘BS’ competition for sales. I gave the students a magazine advertisement for something fun, a basic product that they could relate to, like shaving cream, or a razor, or a phone. We said you have one minute to prepare and I want you to sell this product whatever way you want. And this guy, he did so, so well. He won the competition and something changed. The next time we ran the entrepreneurship class he came and he was the teacher’s pet. I can’t say it was this moment that changed him, but something happened. And I realised the power of someone knowing that they’re good at something.

There was another young person in that class who would always talk about mobile phones. Specifically Nokia, he loved Nokia. I don’t know how he was getting information on this stuff in prison, since they didn’t have internet access, but would always have updates. He was very nerdy about tech.

When he was released from prison he got a job in a fast food restaurant—I know it’s really hard to get a job and many would say he was lucky to have had any job—but I always thought, what if he had gotten a job with Nokia? What if he had been placed in a job that spoke to him? Did he even know that this kind of job existed? I bet he didn’t know that his passion could become a vocation.

All of this gave me an idea to do something different for young people. I wanted it to be something that showed them that there was a whole world out there that they didn’t know about. When I moved to the UK, I started working on a business plan for this idea. But shortly after I got here, I found out that one of the young people we’d taught in our entrepreneurship class had attempted to rob somebody with a gun and in doing so had gotten shot and killed.

He was attempting to rob somebody with a gun, so he wasn’t a blameless victim. But he was still a young person, probably only 16 or 17 years old.

His death was one of the reasons I chose for Spark Inside to initially focus on young people.

HL

Did any of this scare you at some point? Going to prisons, engaging with people who have committed serious crimes. I’ve never been to a prison, so I find it very courageous of you. Did it never scare you, or did you do it despite the fear?

BA

There was one young person in my entrepreneurship class in a youth prison who scared me. When I looked at him his eyes were… vacant. I couldn’t connect with him, and felt he could be dangerous – though he never did or said anything in particular that frightened me.

He never participated much in the classes. Towards the end I found that he was 16 years old and illiterate. One of the reasons he didn’t participate was because he didn’t want people to know he couldn’t read. Then, on the last day of class he asked if he could talk to me. I said, sure. And he said “I just wanted to let you know that I don’t want be an entrepreneur.” I said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur. But do you know what you want to do?” And he said, “Yeah. I want to work in a daycare centre with children.”

I was blown away by that because I was totally incorrect in my judgment of him. This young man had a big heart and wanted to work with kids. Just the fact that he wanted to work in a daycare centre challenged every assumption I’d had about him. That’s when I realised that everybody – everybody – has a spark inside of them. Everybody has something that motivates them.

I’ve since never met anyone in a prison who scared me. People in prison are just people who are in a prison.

HL

You want to give these people a sort of clean slate, if you will?

BA

At least in our workings with them. You’ve got to be aware of the potential threats, but you can do so without labeling people by the worst thing in their lives that they’ve done.

HL

Are you planning to go back to the US, a country that could maybe do with your expertise a bit more, or are you going to stay here for a while?

BA

I’m planning to be here for a while, to continue growing Spark Inside and then to support its vision of sharing its coaching programmes with others.

HL

Were there personal experiences in your life that led you down this road?

BA

Well, even as a child I was always very concerned about fairness.

HL

Tell me about your parents and how they influenced you.

BA

My dad is a family lawyer and my mom was an architect and now does art and calligraphy. They always told me not to judge people. Whenever I’d come home complaining about someone they’d say, “Well, think about what made that person behave the way they did. What might have gone on in their life, or in their day, that made them respond that way? How could you be a better person by not responding childishly?”

So my parents—and my grandparents—definitely instilled in me certain values. And my sister is a lawyer, interested in human rights law.

HL

Can you tell me a little about what other role models you have?

BA

Well, there’s a few, and I’m lucky that most are people that I know personally. Two of the people that I really admire are Roma Hooper and April Chandler. Roma is the board chair of my charity. She’s a real champion for people. She’s passionate and generous with her time, knowledge, skills and connections. She’s selfless, ambitious and intelligent. She embodies this combination of strong leadership and femininity.

And April, who is one of our Fundraising Ambassadors, is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. She’s entirely self-made. She is values-driven and authentic in everything she does. She lives on a sustainable farm, and runs several very successful businesses, including Wonder Workouts and, most recently, an organic beer company. She’s committed to a lifestyle where she doesn’t use more than what she needs; for example, she donates a third of her income. And while she’s incredibly busy with her business ventures, she also has a lot of time for her family.

Both Roma and April are people that are so generous and giving. And not because it’s the “right thing to do”, but because it comes naturally to do so.

 

With this we had to leave. As we walked back to her office we discussed the significance of the Hero’s Journey, which her organisation uses as the basis for its coaching programmes in prisons. We spoke about José Mujica, the incredible former President of Uruguay, and the vagaries of Francis’ tenure as pope.

I managed to ask her one last question before she went back to work. I asked her if people ever told her she was too young to be doing this. And Baillie said “Probably. I tend to just block that out.”

Baillie is a wonderful person, incredibly inspiring and she works hard to improve the lives of many. She’s definitely a role model, and we’re extremely happy to have had her modelling our outfits.

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