Research Chat

Breaking Through Barriers: Exploring Social Enterprise Programs as an Employment Intervention for Reintegrating Women in Ontario. Ali Diebold, Faculty of Social Work

Episode Summary

The 8th episode of Research Chat Season 2 features Ali Diebold, pronouns she/her, is a feminist community-based researcher, social worker, and human rights advocate who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University, interviewed by Natasha Martino, a researcher in the realm of homelessness and policing, pursuing a Master of Arts in Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Both researchers are examining interactions that vulnerable people have with the criminal justice system.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription


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Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the second season of Research Chat. In this season graduate students share their experiences completing their research based programs at Laurier. In this episode, Natasha Martino will interview Ali Diebold.



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Shawna Reibling  00:23

Natasha Martino, pronouns she/her, is a researcher in the realm of homelessness and policing, pursuing a Master's of Arts in criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University Brantford. She is at the analysis stage of her research and her supervisor is Dr. Carrie Sanders and Dr. Erin Dej. 


Shawna Reibling  00:39

Ali Diebold, pronouns she/her, is a community based researcher, social work practitioner and human rights advocate who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. A specialist in alternative justice interventions, community development and reintegration. 

Ali has over ten years of experience doing applied research and community development projects with marginalized groups alongside actors ranging from grassroots NGOs to the Canadian federal government. She is a Mitacs Accelerate funded doctoral student whose work is supervised by Dr. Bree Akesson, who is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work and tier two Canada Research Chair in global adversity and wellbeing. Bree is also the Associate Director of the Centre for Research on Security Practices. 

Ali holds a BA in Legal Studies from the University of Waterloo and an MSW specializing in community planning policy and organizations from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is beginning the data stage collection of her research. 


Shawna Reibling  01:39

Welcome to you both. I'm thrilled today to highlight graduate research emerging from the Brantford bass research community. As you're both working with faculty members based out of the Brantford campus, I'm happy to highlight your work. In this episode, I'm interested to hear about your perspectives on the criminal justice system and your examinations of the interactions that vulnerable people have with the criminal justice system. 


Natasha Martino  02:01

Hello, Ali. So my first question for you is what phase of the criminal justice system are you examining?


Ali Diebold  02:08

Thanks for that question Natasha. So words matter when talking about women who are or have been incarcerated. The term offender is used to refer to anyone who is housed within a correctional facility, as well as anyone who's serving a sentence in the community. This word offender is widely resisted by academics and advocates alike, it ties individuals to their conviction, with no other identity outside of having offended from a law. To replace this term, various others are adopted and used and indicate a particular critique or position. In my research, I refer to those who are involved a lot after leaving prison as reintegrating women. 

Reintegration is commonly understood as a transition from the institution to the community. Research has informed what we know as "pathways to crime scholarship", a body of literature, which illuminates how women attempt to cope with victimization, trauma and abuse, and that these situations propel them into situations in which they are at risk of being in conflict with the law. It is vitally important to draw connections between women's involvement with the criminal justice system and their experiences of unemployment, trauma, poverty, gender based violence, and other social and systemic wrongs. 

The purpose of my dissertation project is to explore community based employment interventions that can combat some of these underlying social problems that are worsened by systemic discrimination, social exclusion, and imprisonment. I argue that critique of the justice system by Elizabeth Comack and MaDonna Maidment and other scholars have set the terrain to inform an employment intervention that can meet the needs of reintegrating women.


Natasha Martino  03:53

Thank you, Ali, for describing your project a little more in detail. My next question for you is what do you set out to discover in your research?


Alishau Diebold  04:01

Before returning to Laurier to begin a PhD in the Social Work program, I've worked as a counselor and reintegration worker for previously incarcerated individuals. I spent ten years advocating for this population to have access to various community based services and resources. Although I was able to secure the services in many cases, to say I experienced challenges with this is an understatement. I witnessed firsthand the systemic discrimination and the social exclusion, women experience as they attempt to rebuild their lives and pursue their goals. I kept hearing the same comments from both social service providers and reintegrating women that they felt misunderstood, isolated and unsupported in their ventures. 

So I began to deeply reflect on these comments and determine how I could bring a solution to the table. I began to research what community based services exists to support this population. In my research, I found that joblessness is a key correlative crime as it reinforces the social and economic inequalities this population experiences. For the past decade, literature has continually reinforced that the existence of quality and stable employment is a powerful protective factor. Reintegrated individuals have also identified employment as a central factor to their own reintegration, progress and success. 

And then, I also found that in 2017, it costs an average of $200,000 to incarcerate each woman per year. And so when you're looking at the social and financial costs of the current Canadian justice system, there's an urgency to research alternative tools, or interventions. I also found that there was little research produced on community based services developed to support reintegrating women, and no research that conceptualized community based social enterprise programs and intervention.

 And so for additional context, I'll provide an example of a social enterprise program that's already in operation. The Grocer for Good ability development program in Sault Saint Marie provides job skills training and paid employment for persons with autism spectrum disorder who experienced chronic underemployment. It also serves as a low cost grocery store in the downtown core. And so social enterprise programs create positive social outcomes through implementing governance structures that localize equitable, collective and sustainable practices. 

And so through these pieces of research, I realized that a social enterprise program could present a real opportunity to build capacity and provide tangible avenues of support for reintegrating women. And I wanted to bring this information into the mainstream through my research. And so reconciling these comments and experiences by the social service providers and the reintegrating women has become the primary driver for completing this research and this is my next step. 

This doctoral project is infused with a clear purpose, and that is to develop a community based intervention that can respond to the social challenges that reintegrating women experience, specifically, chronic underemployment and unemployment by offering an avenue to secure income and secure also community resources and develop peer connections. So my project will explore questions such as, What barriers do reintegrating women experience when seeking employment? and the second will be to explore how social enterprise programs can support employment opportunities for reintegrating women. 


Natasha Martino  07:36

Thank you, Ali. My next question for you is, How did you become interested in your research area?


Alishau Diebold  07:41

So there's a few different answers to this question. My parents immigrated to Canada thirty-five years ago from Guyana, and I was raised in a low income household. Despite our financial limitations, my parents provided me an incredibly nurturing and supportive home where I was able to thrive and grow. And I think this environment plays a lot of the reasons why I sit here in this position as a PhD student today, I was permitted a chance to learn and gain skills in a safe and secure environment. 

As a young adult, I came to recognize how critical and necessary these types of environments are for growth. And I've become committed to developing these environments for marginalized populations, including reintegrating women. Now as a social work, research and professional, I've experienced the impact of authentic and compassionate human connections firsthand and I've come to realize that these connections can truly change lives for the better. Now as a doctoral student, I can continue to be an ambassador and advocate for these connections through my research. I also strongly believe in building a reality where a just future is possible for all people in our communities. 

Building a reality requires creating tools that reduce the need for punitive measures, and constructing interventions that value our most vulnerable populations. And my doctoral committee has contributed a great deal for the development of my research. They are like minded scholars who are examined the most pressing social issues of our time and are committed to contributing solutions. Their mentorship and contributions have been absolutely invaluable, and have really inspired encouraged me to expand my research capabilities. 


Natasha Martino  09:23

Great, thank you. So my next question is how are you exploring your research questions?


Alishau Diebold  09:29

I believe that listening to reintegrating women should produce more than analysis or critiques. I believe it should invoke an awakening in an establishment of their existence moreso within the frame of society. This is why I've chosen to use a qualitative research design, including focus groups with an arch base project, interviews and grounded theory analytical approach to examine my research questions. 

I completed my comprehensive examinations earlier this year, and this process helped me to hone my understanding of the barriers that this population experiences when exiting prisons. Key barriers include a lack of available services with increased challenges identified in accessing accommodations, mental health, and employment resources, as well as lack of training or educational opportunities, a high level of stigmatization by community members, oppressive reintegration processes, and significant experiences of systemic discrimination. 

As a result of these challenges, I felt very strongly about choosing research methods that focalized principles of equity, maintain a participatory approach and bring the voices and narratives of participants to the forefront. So this also aligns with who I am as a researcher. And so I'm going to be coordinating three focus groups of five women, each, the first focus group will encompass reintegrating women who are working in a for profit model of social enterprise. 

The second will include women who are working in a non for profit model of social enterprise and the third group will be made up of women who have not participated in any model of social enterprise or accessed employment resources. This will allow me to do a comparative analysis and determine what factors practices, processes, and governance structures are needed in a model of social enterprise designed specifically for integrating women. 

Each focus group will be comprised of five sessions, where they will be engaged in the arts based project called "employment experience mapping". Arts based research Methods are ideal to support research with marginalized populations, including integrating women. 

For the purposes of my research, it will be imperative to equalize power dynamics during the research process, so that participants can authentically express their voice and creating knowledge about their lived experiences, and handing over the creation and interpretation of the research. In art based approaches to participants, the participant is empowered and the relationship between researcher and research participant is intensified and made more equal. 

I have developed this arts based method in collaboration with my doctoral committee specifically for this project. As a creative person who is aligned with a group of creative intellectuals at the Brantford campus, it has been invigorating to infuse this research project with creative components. 

I will also be inviting each woman to participate in a semi structured interview to further explore their experiences and also provide an opportunity to speak more about their employment experience map as well. So I believe it's imperative to reconcile the intersectional context of reintegrating women's lives and experiences. 

As a result, I'll be applying an intersectional feminist analysis to my research. This will enable me to retain a critical analysis of the ways in which systemic inequalities are present in the research, it will help me to go deeper in my analysis, and it will be important for me to take a historically informed view of the problems described in my research questions. 


Natasha Martino  13:10

Thank you, Ali, for elaborating on your methodology there. I think the arts based approach is very interesting, and I can't wait to hear more about it. My next question for you is what has your research caused you to reflect on?


Alishau Diebold  13:25

I'm currently in the process of writing my research ethics board application for this project. As previously mentioned, literature reinforces that women who suffer violence become targets of crime. During this process, I found myself deeply preoccupied with adopting research methods that would honor respect and authentically communicating the voices of reintegrating women. 

From my practical experience, working in the field, reintegrating woman's voice is invaluable because after she's been incarcerated, it's often the only possession left at her immediate use. And so I believe that research should evoke positive change, whether it be on the frontline policy or governance levels, research findings need to be communicated and widely disseminated. The information found, it is critically important that it's communicated in a way that the community is able to recognize, acknowledge and uptake their recommendations. 

I've found that social service providers and community members are eager to learn and contribute to implementing community based solutions that bring people together to achieve collective goals. So working toward alternative futures means transforming our communities and providing information and a foundation for humanizing social programs that value our most marginalized populations. 

Also, while preparing to do this research, I came across a powerful quote that caused me to do more deep reflection. Political activist and author Angela Davis states, "prisons have been used as a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent". This is not the type of world I want to live in. And I truly believe we have the capacity and ability to change this reality. This realization sits very heavy in my heart. But I know that there's a bright future ahead. There are many game changing, scholars and activists working to bring solutions to this area and I feel very grateful and privileged to be part of the alternative justice interventions movement. 


Natasha Martino  15:27

Thank you Ali. I very much so appreciate your optimism and your last answer. What are the next steps in your work? 


Ali Diebold  15:35

I'm at the beginning stages of the data collection process. I'm currently working on my research ethics board application. After the application is submitted, I will be working to address the board's revisions to ensure my research project is in alignment with their standards. This is an incredibly important critical stage of the research process. And it's only with the board's approval that I can proceed to collect information from reintegrating integrating women. 


Natasha Martino  16:03

Thank you Ali and I wish you all of the luck with your research ethics board application. Moving on, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your dissertation?


Ali Diebold  16:14

Like many other researchers, the pandemic has required us to think outside of traditional research processes. My ability to adapt and change has been challenged during this pandemic. Originally, the focus groups are going to be conducted in person. Now they will be conducted remotely using a secure video conferencing platform. I will be mailing the art materials to each woman involved in the focus groups so that we can still integrate the arts based project. 

This pandemics also caused me to further develop my communication skills as communicating through email and video conferencing technology requires a different skill set than in person communication. So I've experienced a lot of growth in that area specifically in regards to my communication. It's also encouraged me to think about and explore online methods of social enterprise programs, as in person models might no longer meet the needs of reintegrating women within the context of a pandemic. 

But I'm looking forward to having these discussions with reintegrating women in more detail, just to determine what they're looking for and what would support them the most.


Natasha Martino  17:21

That's a great Ali. I'm really happy to hear that you were able to adapt and still figure out ways to enact that arts based project because that seems so so interesting. My final question for you today is what are your hopes for the impact of your work? 


Ali Diebold  17:39

Thanks for that question, Natasha. As a community based researcher, I aspire to advance dialogues regarding the conceptualization of social enterprise projects, as an employment intervention to support reintegrating women and improve their quality of life in Ontario. So by developing a community based social enterprise program, I endeavor to create a sustainable systemic change in our community for women who have been impacted by the Canadian justice system. 

I can now see how we can begin to reconfigure existing justice, social and economic systems to value reintegrating women, while simultaneously working to dismantle oppressive systems that they currently experience. conclusions drawn from my dissertation research will have implications for both practice and scholarship. For practice. 

This research will further conceptualize social enterprise programs as a viable intervention to support reintegrating individuals with employment, and then for scholarship that will offer a critical analysis of free based interventions, specifically the social enterprise programs, and advance the dialogue regarding the necessity of implementing alternative justice interventions of Ontario. 

Building community tools requires us to actively dismantle our material and ideological commitment to prisons and embrace our reality where a just future is possible for all people in our community. 


Natasha Martino  19:08

I do have one more question for you. So how does your research contribute to redesigning relationships, perceptions and/or values currently existing in the Canadian justice system?


Ali Diebold  19:20

Yes, I think prior to coming back to school, I was really engrossed in doing relationship building, perception building, and trying to understand the values that were being upheld and reinforced by the Canadian justice system. I was able to witness firsthand the challenges and inequalities that women who are released from prison must overcome. Many of them aspire to secure employment quickly so that they could become self sustaining. For individuals unable to enter the workforce, I observed that this situation would further exasperate emotions of frustration, hopelessness and it was a very difficult time in their lives trying to pursue reintegration. And while attempting to try to reenter the community, they would often try to access resources, supports resources, and that was part of my role to help secure these pieces.

 But what I witnessed, and what I heard from women going through the system, trying to access some of these services as well, that they felt stigmatized that they weren't treated equally, and that it really weighed on them, and that they felt that the community did not want them to succeed or did not provide the avenue for support. And I think that this actually conveys the unjust message that we don't recognize the individual agency of this groups by the adoption of rehabilitation rhetoric in the Canadian justice system. 

And to me, as a social professional, and now as a young researcher, doing doctoral work, I'm very taken aback about the values that are associated with the current justice system, taken aback that we have not yet evolved past this purview, given our advanced knowledge of how poverty, addictions, mental health conditions, and intergenerational trauma service gateways into crime. And so continuing to perpetuate these barriers and challenges in the community does not support rehabilitation whatsoever. 

And so for me with this project, I really want to reconfigure and reassign some of these values into a more collaborative, supportive intervention that will challenge some of these rhetorics and enable more community capacity building, allow more human agency and more humanization of reintegrating women in our community. 


Natasha Martino  21:56

That's great, thank you Ali. 


Ali Diebold  21:58

How does your research contribute to redesigning relationships, perceptions and values currently existing in the Canadian justice system?


Natasha Martino  22:06

So for my project, I am going to break down this question a little bit, because I feel that all three pieces, whether that be relationships, perceptions, and values, they all fit very well in different places in my project. So first, redesigning relationships. So a big relationship that I've seen is that between law enforcement agents and people experiencing homelessness, and previous research and my research in my pre analytic insights, we can see that this relationship is rooted in enforcement. Unfortunately, the bylaw officers I have interviewed do not have the training, they do not have the policies, they do not have the resources necessary to respond to people experiencing homelessness in a supportive way. So that relationship is very much so based in enforcement, for moving people along, which again, like I mentioned earlier, just displaces people experiencing homelessness, pushing them further and further away from available supports. So I would like to find a way to redesign that relationship and figure out ways to better support people experiencing homelessness and find out ways where law enforcement is not tasked with responding to homelessness, because it's been demonstrated in previous research. And in my own research, that this is not helpful. And this is not doing anything but worsening the situation. 

Moving on to perceptions, there are a few points I want to make here. So in my research, specifically, as I mentioned, I'm looking at bylaws, perceptions of their work. So they've told me that they feel like they shouldn't be involved in this response, because they aren't making any supportive contributions and helping people experiencing homelessness, again, that enforcement response is really their baseline. So really trying to figure out how we can if by law is being tasked to respond to homelessness complaints, how can we improve that response? Is it setting them up with training specifically with social workers is at providing them with a list of resources in their municipality to be able to reference when responding to a homelessness complaint? 

For instance, when approaching a situation saying, Okay, you have these characteristics, so these are the shelters available to you or maybe you have issues with substance abuse, okay, here is where I can direct you and actually having those resources on hand and available for officers to be able to provide to people experiencing homelessness. 

Something else I do want to mention here too, is the public perception of law enforcement and what the public expects law enforcement to do in response to homelessness. So a few things I've found in this regard is that bylaw officers are forced to manage the public for perceptions of homelessness and bylaws and what they expect bylaw to be able to do in response to some homelessness complaints. So I think really redesigning those perceptions and allowing the community to understand that it's not an easy response. simply removing people from a visible location, like I said, just pushes them into these isolated areas in society, which is not helpful. 

A lot of my participants have mentioned that the public is complaining because homelessness is becoming more visible, especially as a response to COVID-19. But I think we need to redesign this perception that law enforcement is the answer to homelessness. And we need to put more emphasis on social policies, affordable housing, and available support networks for this community. 

Finally, I will touch on the values in the current criminal justice system. And I think that our current values do not support people experiencing homelessness, our current values are very dependent on enforcement and using enforcement whenever possible. And that, as I've been trying to demonstrate throughout this episode is not the response to homelessness and should not be the response to homelessness, we need to figure out values that encourage reintegrating people experiencing homelessness into society, whether that be affordable housing, social policies, addiction support, mental health support, things like that, to encourage this community to rejoin conventional society and having those wraparound services to continue supporting them as they're working through that. 


Ali Diebold  26:40

It's kind of interesting, I think, you summarize it perfectly at the end there where essentially, enforcement is not the solution to these issues. Whether it's someone who's coming out of prison, who is viewed as a criminal, or someone who's homeless, a lot of my folks end up homeless, unfortunately, and getting re-arrested, actually, to go back to prison where they get meals and the place to sleep and supports, unfortunately, especially at this time, as we're moving into winter, and it's cold outside, really cold for homeless folks. So it's so unfortunate that we don't have the social policies that acommendations, the mental health and addictions supports that are actually needed in our communities. But like I was saying before, I think it's totally possible. I think it's totally possible. It's just we have not been encouraged in that way yet. 


Natasha Martino  27:32

And like you said, it's the cycle, where you get out of prison, and then you're homeless, and then you get arrested because you were forced to do something while you were experiencing homelessness, and then you're back in prison. And then you get out and it's that cycle where it just never ends.


Ali Diebold  28:20

Or people even call enforcement. It often happens. Folks are homeless, they're minding totally their own business. Someone walks across them in a park...


Natasha Martino  28:28

Yeah, some of my participants have mentioned that they're like, you'd be surprised at the sense of entitlement. Someone will be just out for a walk, and they'll walk by someone who's experiencing homelessness, just sitting on a step and it's like, "I want them out of my sight". They can't exist in private because they don't have anywhere to go, right? So it's very, it's yeah, it's hard to hear sometimes.


Ali Diebold  28:50

And I think that's why that cold just really shook me the one day. I think I spent that whole day weeping because it's just so it just struck me because it was, "Oh, my God, this is brutal". People just don't want to see these folks. It created the negative values or negative feelings, and then that's how they connect the dots in order to try and remove that sense of feeling. 

And it's so so unfortunate, because I think folks who are homeless are actively trying to resolve those issues. Like it doesn't happen overnight, it takes time. And the fact that they're even surviving homelessness is a huge feat.


Shawna Reibling  29:29

Well, I'm confident that both of your research will contribute towards an evidence basis for causing policy change. 


Ali Diebold  29:35

We both hope so. 


Natasha Martino  29:36



Shawna Reibling  29:37

Well, thank you so much.


Natasha Martino  29:39

Thank you. This was great. Thank you for giving us the opportunity. We're so happy to be able to share our research in a way that's not a hundreds and hundreds of page document that will not be read in totality. So it's nice to have an opportunity to share in a more casual way conversational way that the average person can kind of just listen to and be like, "Oh, that's actually really interesting. Like I can see the importance of that".


Shawna Reibling  30:09

That's the hope. 


Natasha Martino  30:11

Yeah, I hope so.


Natasha Martino  30:13

Thank you so much, Ali, for talking to me today about your research, and I am wishing you all the best as your project continues forward. 


Ali Diebold  30:22

Thank you so much, Natasha. It was so wonderful to speak with you as well. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.


Shawna Reibling  30:28

Thank you to both Ali and Natasha for sharing your research. The next series of episodes will feature a different pair of graduate students sharing their research findings and experiences


Shawna Reibling  30:38

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Shawna Reibling  30:47

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