“The most important thing I learned was the difference between solidarity and charity. Charity temporarily fills an immediate need… Solidarity calls for us all to work against biases and prejudice that are ingrained in policies, practices and behaviors towards many of the most oppressed in our communities.”
Rachel Cramsey is the Executive Director of a local nonprofit in St. Louis called Let’s Start. Rachel is a friend of Mission: St. Louis and a huge fan of shopping for work outfits at Revive. She is a local St. Louis “boss lady” that contributes to our community. Rachel came to speak with some of our staff to discuss the services her organization provides. Let’s Start works with previously incarcerated women and their families to provide support for recovery and reentry. Rachel and her staff work alongside the women that participate in the program, enabling them to have a smooth reentry transition while empowering them to actively advocate for change.
Rachel is originally from Quincy, Illinois. She completed a year of service with Catholic Charities Service Corps working with a non-profit in Buffalo, NY. She refers to this time as a “seed-planting year,” and encouraged our current Mission: St. Louis VISTAs by informing them that even when it doesn’t seem like it, skills and values are being cultivated and developed. We had the opportunity to ask Rachel questions about her community service background and her professional experience as a woman working in the nonprofit world.
During your year of service, what was one of the most important things you learned?
“The most important thing I learned was the difference between solidarity and charity. Charity temporarily fills an immediate need, which many people do rely on. Solidarity calls for us all to work against biases and prejudice that are ingrained in policies, practices and behaviors towards many of the most oppressed in our communities. As my understanding about these differences grew, so did my awareness of my own internal bias. Beginning to unpack that and be more self-aware has been an ongoing opportunity for me to grow. There was a saying in our year of service that this experience ‘ruins us for life,’ that is, we wouldn't be able to unlearn or turn a blind eye to the realities and the injustices we would understand better in that year. For me, that saying was so true. I've been changed by the year I spent in Buffalo, NY, and it's greatly influenced who I have become.”
How did you end up being an Executive Director in St. Louis?
“Two years ago, I began working with Let’s Start as their Program Manager. My job was to organize bus trips so children were able to visit their mothers who were presently incarcerated. I also helped connect caregivers to resources, and I was responsible for other needs as they arose. After some transition in the organization, the role of Executive Director opened up. I took it on an interim basis at first because there were things that needed to be taken care of in the absence of a full-time director. I loved my role as Program Manager because it put me in direct contact with our families on a regular basis. As Executive Director, however, I found my experience informed me in some of the decisions I had to make or the reports I had to put together, and it made that transition much easier. It was because of my experience with our families that I decided to apply for the position full-time, and I am grateful for the people in Let's Start who supported that process."
What is one of the most difficult things about the work you do?
“Combating the stigma that still targets formerly-incarcerated people is one of the most difficult pieces about what Let's Start does. Women we work with who have been through the criminal justice system aren't necessarily forgiven for their charges, despite having served their sentences. Think about that. Women come home; they are trying to return to their families and make better decisions, provide for their families, take care of aging parents and so on, but they don't have access to jobs that pay above minimum wage; they don't have access to safe housing options; they don't have health care. They have a lot of things stacked against them. Additionally, I have been asked why we would take children to prison to visit their mothers and if that's a healthy place for kids to be. My response to that is if that's where their mothers are, that's where the children want to be. Those are important relationships, and the separation of this person from her family has long-term effects that continue to go ignored by those who prefer to put non-violent individuals struggling with addiction and mental health diagnoses behind bars rather than support their recovery in the community. When someone goes to prison or jail, more than just that one individual becomes incarcerated. This is why Let's Start advocates with local and state lawmakers; this is why our women are in the community speaking to groups about their experiences with incarceration, poverty, trauma, addiction and other pipelines that raise their risk of entering the criminal justice system.”
How does Let’s Start empower the women that are a part of the organization?
“Twenty-seven years ago, Let's Start was begun by a School Sister of Notre Dame and women who served time in the criminal justice system. There are seats on the Board of Directors reserved for participants in our organization. We operate the women's programming from a peer support model, which designates that the women will be the ones to facilitate and guide their group every week. The role of Women's Support Coordinator has always been held by someone with personal experience with the criminal justice system so that women feel supported by someone who has been through what they have been through. It's important for us to provide opportunities for the women's voices to be amplified as much as possible. Our education and outreach efforts are fulfilled by the women as well. When we have church groups, school groups or community groups who want to hear about Let's Start, it's oftentimes the women who share their stories. Those are powerful opportunities for the women and for their audience. When someone who's recently been released from prison or someone who's just started her recovery has her first speaking engagement, yes, she's nervous, but afterward, she often wants to do it again. More often than not, there will be members of that audience who approach the speakers afterward and share a relative's struggle with addiction or their own mental health diagnoses. When those connections are made, I think that's incredibly empowering for the speakers. They've been fed negative messages about their self-worth for years. Being in front of groups who receive their stories and can relate to aspects of them change that narrative. Let's Start also connects with lawmakers and legislators. This year we are planning to participate in the National Day of Empathy on March 1, in which we'll travel to Jefferson City with members of our community and with members of Criminal Justice Ministry, an organization that also works in reentry, to speak with legislators about criminal justice reform. The National Day of Empathy hopes to have groups in every state traveling to their Capitols, and I am really excited for our participants to speak directly to the lawmakers who represent them. That's an empowering experience.”
What is the best thing about living in St. Louis?
“I live in South City, and I love the diversity of that neighborhood. One of my favorite things to do is stoop sit with my roommate. We'll invite friends over and make an evening of hanging out on our front porch. It feels like our version of a backyard BBQ only on a smaller scale. I've lived in St. Louis for seven years now, and it's home to me. I love being outside and seeing my neighbors or visitors enjoying our neighborhood as much as we do.”
What is one philosophy you live your life by?
“I'm not sure I can pick one philosophy, but something I work on regularly is staying balanced, as that has an impact on both my personal and professional lives. I appreciate the work Let's Start does because it relies on relationships, and supporting our participants means we also have to make support part of our office culture. It can be easy to get caught up in the work that needs to be done. For me, balance means I know when I need to bring work home and when my focus needs to be on friends or family.”
What are your professional goals?
“First, I want to ensure Let's Start's support is available to the women and families we work with and that we expand our outreach to new families. There are still a lot of people in this community who haven't heard about Let's Start and I want to change that. I know there are more women who could benefit from our support group, and there are certainly more children with incarcerated mothers who could use our monthly bus trips. Secondly, when I took this position it was because I felt informed by the work I'd been doing with our families, so as Executive Director I want to continue to have a relationship with our families. I can't be at all the events and meetings I once was, but I call participants to check in with them and I make sure they can reach me. It's important they know that though my role has changed, I'm here for them.”
We are so excited to highlight women like Rachel and the work they do for our community. We are honored to be chosen as one of her go-to shops for professional outfits. Rachel’s necklace ($8.00) and blazer ($4.00) were both found at Revive. We applaud the work that Rachel and her staff are doing at Let’s Start. She is a shining example of a boss lady that serves the community in class and style.