Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is an American social justice advocate and businesswoman. Prior to co-founding Promise, Phaedra ran revenue and operations at Honor. Before Honor, Phaedra worked with the musician Prince and led the effort to secure ownership of his masters. She is a labor and community organizer by trade who is committed to making measurable change.
Ellis-Lamkins has been Executive Officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA, a coalition working to address economic disparities in California’s Silicon Valley, and CEO of the anti-poverty organization Green For All. She is currently a Board Member of the Tipping Point.
Lilly Workneh is the Editor-in-Chief of Blavity News and its sister brand Shadow & Act. She leads the editorial vision of these digital platforms and their mission to amplify, unpack and celebrate the many aspects of the black community. Workneh previously served as the Lifestyle News Editor at TheGrio.com and later led HuffPost Black Voices as senior editor for three years, where her work landed her recognition as a Forbes 30 Under 30 2018 inductee.
Notes provided by Evernote
Working with Prince in the tech space, what was that like?
Working with someone you love and is magical changes the way you look at the world. He made me believe that anything is possible and anything less is unacceptable.
You’re building change everyday through Promise. What is the mission?
Promise is about the fact that 2/3 of people sitting in jail have not been convicted of a crime. They’re there because they can’t afford to make bail and get out. So we not only try to help people navigate the system, but give them the tools they need while they’re out to better their lives so they don’t go back.
When you get out of jail, someone hands you a handwritten piece of paper telling you when to come back. [Phaedra tells the story of a person who misread a handwritten date, thinking a 6 was an 8. They missed a court appointment, were threatened with rearrest, and had to go on the run]
Technology means you should make things easy to use and remove bias.For example, people ask us “what kinds of crime have these people done” (automatically assuming they committed a crime) or say “I don’t want to help prisoners,” assuming they are bad people.
Talk about the design experience. With the criminal justice system, we don’t think of experiences that are beautiful or easy to use. Why prioritize that?
We wanted government to work as effectively as anyone else. And we do believe in government, unlike a lot of companies. We don’t want to replace it. People are better at some things than tech. Goverment is better at some things than tech companies. But we realized that if we weren’t bringing everything we could to this experience, beginning with design, it wouldn’t catch on.
Also, we don’t constantly surveil people. We’re not selling data. We don’t want people to have to worry about privacy or trust. We’re here to help.
How does the app work?
First, we tell you what all your obligations are, like check-ins or AA meetings. Where they are, and when. We tell you what support services are available to help you get there and manage them. We let you know how you’re doing, with simple flags so you don’t accidentally commit a technical violation, which is very common. And we tell government they need to focus on and help people who are in danger of doing that so they don’t wind up incarcerated unnecessarily.
We’re learning how to adapt the technology to account for hidden problems. For example, someone gets out of jail and no longer has a valid drivers license, and so gets arrested for driving without a license. Can we help them apply for a new one so that doesn’t happen?
How about the juvenile justice system? How can you work with them?
Our first pilot was with juveniles. That was really important because juveniles, especially people in the foster system, have higher risks. What could we do to remove that risk so they could get out of the system, and then support them with resources? I also appreciate that young people recognize very quickly if you’re for them or you’re not. It kept us authentic.
Have you received critiques? How you deal with them?
A lot of the questions we get asked come down to, should people make money in the criminal justice system? And that’s a fair question. The important thing is to have people who are involved in the system who care and are trying to help, because the incentives now are to keep people inside the system. The whole contractor industry is built on that. We need to incentivize to keep people out.
As for critiques, Prince once said, “you don’t hear boos unless you get on stage.” If I’m hearing a lot of critiques, it means I’m showing up.
General advice for people in the audience who are creating apps?
Networking is key. But it’s not about having 1,000 people you know, its about having 5 people who are there for you. Having a team is critical, and that means a small group of people down for you.
When I’m networking or hiring, I look for people I actually want to talk to. Not just intellectually stimulating, or people who are reaching out to you because they’re trying to get something, but people who are actually going to be there for me. Sometime’s that’s someone’s assistant, or the person who cleans, because they know what’s really going on.
We’re not a traditional tech company. We’re not looking for tens of thousands of clients, because lives are at stake. We only want to scale something that actually works, so we’re going to be small for a few years until we get it right.
Q: Are people using the app charged?
A: No particpant pays for our services. And we don’t work with anyone who charges the participants. Payments are made by the government. We want the court to assume you can’t pay.
Q: What kind of pushback do you get from court systems themselves?
A: The first pushback is from sheriffs or DAs, who start listing all the crimes they think people will commit if they get out. And a lot of court judges don’t take pre-trial recommendations. So we have to get them to focus on the fact that these people can’t afford to get out, but if they could, they would.