Giving formerly incarcerated women a pathway into professional careers
Topeka Sam founded The LOHM in 2017 to help end the incarceration crisis of women and girls. For five years now, Topeka and her team have been offering safe housing, re-entry support, and advocacy programs, grounded in the insights and ideas of people with direct, lived experience in the criminal justice system.
Their work also brings formerly incarcerated women into businesses to discuss how a past conviction creates barriers for would-be employees, how women (the fastest-growing population in prisons and jails) are often overlooked, and why companies who help break down those barriers will have a competitive advantage.
Since launching in 2021, the Pathways 4 Equity Fellowship (with support from Virgin Unite) has brought a cohort of ambitious and skilled formerly incarcerated women into companies that have partnered with The LOHM. One such woman is Marta Barreto, a Pathways 4 Equity fellow, and now a propulsion technician at Virgin Orbit.
Marta joined the Rocket Propulsion Team at Virgin Orbit early in 2022 – a childhood dream come true, having always loved engineering, and served as an airplane mechanic while in the Navy.
After returning home from the Navy, Marta went through extremely turbulent and traumatic times, which led to her incarceration. After her release, Marta focused on her education and has now received a Bachelor of Science in Career and Technical Education, an Associate’s Degree in Manufacturing Automation Technology and has started her Masters in Business Administration.
At an event in New York City, celebrating five years of the LOHM and the lives that have been impacted by its incredible work, Marta spoke about what it meant to her to earn a second chance with Virgin Orbit.
“For so long my story was one of sadness – one of sexual abuse and addiction. I didn’t feel like I was worth saving. Society saw me only as a felon, and no one would open doors to me. But I’m a survivor – a survivor of sex trafficking and abuse, and I deserve to be seen,” said Marta. “Virgin Orbit and The LOHM saw me – they saw my capabilities, my humanity, my skillset, and they’ve made me feel like I belong.”
Through the Pathways 4 Equity Program, The LOHM is working with businesses to ensure that a criminal conviction doesn’t define a person’s life. It already has 54 women signed up to the programme in the first year. The 12-month fellowship has been designed to unlock career pathways, focusing on both the development and growth of the women, as well as the expansion and enhancement of business’ hiring policies and diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.
“The LOHM and Virgin Orbit saw me for more than my darkest moments. They’ve made me feel like I belong in society. I want more doors to be opened for people like me,” said Marta.
For the last five years, Topeka and her incredible team have been working to ensure formerly incarcerated women are supported, knowing that the positive impacts will touch more than just them, but also their families, friends, and communities.
“From the inside of a prison, to the White House, to this very evening in Times Square - over the last five years I’ve been able to get in the room and share stories of how powerful and resilient women can be if they’re given a chance to thrive,” said Topeka. I am grateful to Virgin Unite for their ongoing support and together we will continue to live boldly for the women and girls who need us.”