Co-op puts lives on track while helping to expunge records

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Co-op organizers and participants (from left) Karon Smith, Courtney Bowles, Faith Barton, Keenan Jones, and Mark Strandquist, who said the project helps people "craft a new narrative." (JON KAUFMAN)

Karon Smith, 28, used to sell drugs, a means of making ends meet in his impoverished North Philadelphia neighborhood. These days, he's got a different kind of corner hustle.

His new gig is at the People's Paper Co-op, a social enterprise start-up that coordinates with volunteer lawyers to run clinics expunging criminal records, then turns the shredded records into handmade paper, journals, and note cards for sale.

For people like Smith, that means a fresh start - and the chance to generate income while helping others in his community.

"I actually turned a five-page record into a one-page record. That's big," he said. "I feel like a new person."

The Co-op - art-making initiative, advocacy organization, small business, and workforce-development program all bound into one - was conceived by Richmond, Va.-based artists Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles, who came to Philadelphia in August as part of the Village of Arts and Humanities' SPACES artist residency program.

Ryan Hancock, cofounder of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which runs expungement clinics, invited them to visit one.

"We were just blown away by the scope and the impact," Bowles said.

Collaborating with the lawyers' group struck the artists as a way to make their work functional, while transforming the legal clinics into community celebrations.

"We're not just representing change in our artwork, but actually manifesting it," Strandquist said. "And as artists, we can make their experience more human and accessible. If you go into any social service office, food stamp office, it feels very cold and, I think, dehumanizing. We wanted to, while providing direct pro bono legal services, make that a really empowering space."

Through SPACES, the artists partnered with six community residents who would collaborate on the project - learning papermaking and bookbinding, but also leading outreach efforts.

"It's looking to people most affected by these issues as community experts, and then pairing them with legal experts, writing experts, printmaking experts, whoever it is, to help them craft a new narrative around reentry," Strandquist said.

An estimated 20 percent of Philadelphians have criminal records. Smith said that among people he knows, it's more like 85 percent.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in November, about 100 such people were crowded into a converted rowhouse at the Village of Arts and Humanities for the fourth expungement and papermaking clinic since September.

Each met with one of a dozen volunteer lawyers on hand to file petitions to wipe from their records any arrests or charges that didn't result in convictions or old summary convictions - such as disorderly conduct or loitering. Then they were invited into a heated tent, where music, free food, and cheery posters created a festive atmosphere for screen-printing and papermaking.

Sheets of paper were posted along one wall, each one bearing the photo of a participant and an attribute you wouldn't find by looking at the individual's criminal record.

"It's transformative," Hancock said. While processing an expungement petition can take six months, the workshop gives participants an immediate sense of relief. "They're able to rip up their criminal records and reimagine themselves."

Linwood Budd was ready. The North Philadelphia resident stepped out of the clinic holding a copy of the record he said has stymied his efforts to provide for his family.

He's worked 25 years as a short-order cook; now, he's seeking work in a nursing home, where he can get health and retirement benefits.

"It's hard to do that when you've got a whole criminal record," he said. "Stuff that I did when I was younger, the person I was when I was 20 - I'm 45 now. That person is long gone."

He expects his abbreviated record will present a lesser barrier.

"It's a struggle out here. I'm not complaining - we all struggle in everyday life," he said. "But this is one less thing I'm going to have to struggle about."

Then, he headed to the tent to toss the papers into a blender, and turn them to pulp.

Strandquist and Bowles have long seen paper as a tool for change. Their previous projects include the People's Library, in which they bound blank pages into the covers of deaccessioned library books, and invited community members to fill them with their own stories to be archived in the library's collection.

Through the fall, they were making paper in bulk with a bicycle-powered pulping machine set up on the street corner. In November, as the weather turned colder, the Co-op opened a headquarters, resource center, library, and bookshop at 2558 Germantown Avenue, along with an online store at peoplespaperco-op.weebly.com. (The storefront previously housed a salon, whose sign, aptly advertising "Creation and Style," remains in place.)

There, they're making and selling stationery, creating an advocacy newspaper, and hosting know-your-rights workshops. They're also sending blank holiday cards to inmates, so they can use them to write to friends and family.

They see the crowded clinics and the reams of paper they produce as opportunities to advocate for, among other things, more progressive legislation. (SB 391, a state bill to expand expungement to certain misdemeanors, passed the state Senate but has stalled in the House for the last year.)

In January, the artists' residency will end. But the Village, the lawyers' group, and the community members are committed to continuing the work. SPACES program manager Lillian Dunn said a goal is developing a business model for the Co-op, with the hope that it will become self-sustaining.

Smith and the others feel prepared to take the reins. Smith knows three bookbinding techniques. And as for papermaking? "I'm an expert now," he said. "You can't tell me nothing about it."

For him, selling stationery - and helping others to turn their old records into clean slates - feels like a calling.

"To make money that's legal, by selling things you actually made yourself? I haven't had a job in a year, and starting back with a job like this, it's like I could do something," he said. "I actually feel like somebody now. I feel free. I feel like I'm in charge."

 


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