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Sonya Harrison helps get Maryland residents back to work after incarceration. Here’s how she does it.

As the lead job coach for Maryland New Directions, Sonya Harrison enjoys mentoring clients and hearing about their successes.

New Directions is a Baltimore-based workforce development nonprofit whose participants are predominantly low income and Black, serving about 350 people a year. The organization offers free certifications in areas including commercial transportation; career focus, which allows graduates to work in hospitality; and maritime, transportation, distribution and logistics, which allows graduates to work in warehouses. Other topics covered include mock interviews and how to have a professional social media presence.

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Sonya Harrison works with returning citizens as lead job coach for the Baltimore-based Maryland New Directions.
Sonya Harrison works with returning citizens as lead job coach for the Baltimore-based Maryland New Directions. (HANDOUT)

But Harrison gets the most satisfaction from working with people returning to the workforce after being incarcerated. Most of them don’t have hope, she said, adding they believe their criminal background will hinder them from getting employed.

She helps some of them get their criminal record expunged as well as coaches them on how to write a letter of explanation to potential employers detailing what they’ve gone through and how they’ve changed.

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“[A criminal] background is a stigma — they say ‘once an offender, always an offender,’” she said. “That’s not always a true statement. I have clients every day who say they want to change, and they do.”

Maryland New Directions ran the vast majority of its programs virtually after the start of the pandemic, but resumed in-person courses in September, Harrison said.

Harrison, whose duties include motivating and supporting clients, said that while the organization has been around for 48 years, its biggest challenge is visibility. To address that, she encourages students to spread the word.

Born and raised in Northwest Baltimore, Harrison attended Walbrook High School. She joined Maryland New Directions 10 years ago as a job coach and was promoted to lead job coach in 2018. Prior to that, she held management roles, including at retailers Target and Ashley Stewart.

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When she was growing up, her mom, Francis Moore, and her dad, Roosevelt Tisdale, instilled in her the power of community, she said. They co-founded the Omega House, a now-closed drug rehabilitation center in Baltimore City, she added.

“I’ve always loved giving back,” she said.

Maurice Good, director of programing and services for Maryland New Directions, has been Harrison’s supervisor for nearly five years. Good said Harrison’s passion for people makes her stand out.

“[Harrison] is one who really cares about the conditions of people,” he said. “Whatever she can do to help people improve their quality of life, she’s willing to move mountains to do so.”

The organization has worked with returning citizens for about 30 years, said Good, adding that it’s important to help that population because they’re part of the community. They just want an opportunity to acclimate and contribute to society, he said.

Baltimore native Sean Scott said he was furious when at the age of 26 he was sentenced to a 15-year sentence in 2005 for illegal possession of a firearm. Now 43, he said the experience changed him into a better man, he said.

Scott, who earned a certificate in maritime transportation distribution and logistics in 2019, said he developed a bond with Harrison, saying she goes above and beyond the title of a job coach.

In September, he was promoted to machine operator at H&S Bakery on Fitch Lane in Baltimore County’s Nottingham.

“You have to realize when you come from Baltimore City, sometimes you can have a feeling of hopelessness — so much despair, death, sickness, disease, crime and corruption in the city that it takes all the energy out of you,” he said. “[Harrison] is that person right there that makes sure you don’t give up.”

In 2019, The Sun reported that Black prisoners comprised more than 70% of the state’s prison population, which is more than twice the national average of 32%.

Harrison, of Woodlawn in Baltimore County, developed her passion to help that the former incarcerated population after being trained as an offender workforce development specialist.

“These people have completed their training and have become taxpayers,” she said.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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