How We Provide Real Chances to Change the Outcomes for Women who Have Experienced Incarceration

by Kate Brunk

Written by Rachel Hatch

Brusha “Shay” Tolise landed back home after flying to a successful trade show in Las Vegas. The 28-year-old had solidified orders from five wholesalers to carry premium, soy-wax candles that bear the name Labyrinth Made Goods.  

People wanted to know about the growing enterprise from YWCA McLean County, and they wanted to know more about Tolise. “Honestly, it was like I was a celebrity,” she said, adding that she loved sharing her story, even if it felt a bit surreal. “By a lot of people’s standards, I didn’t belong there. Of course, I don’t leave it to society tell me what I can do.”

three black women smiling and looking at the camera

Tolise was one of the early volunteer advisors of what would become Labyrinth Made Goods in 2019. The enterprise provides professional development training, apprenticeships, and employment for women who have experienced incarceration. As Labyrinth Made Goods launched the first products in the fall of 2020, Tolise moved to a paid position as a business apprentice. Showing her skills and aptitude for business, she was promoted to lead business apprentice in 2021 before being named Labyrinth Made Goods’ first sales assistant in 2022.

“Shay was one of the first people I met,” said Candice Byrd, assistant director of Labyrinth Made Goods. Byrd worked closely with Tolise in YWCA McLean County programs as Labyrinth Made Goods evolved from an idea to a product. “This is a chance to talk through ideas, learn from mistakes, and ask one another questions,” Byrd said.

The Labyrinth Made Goods team designs their products and packaging as well as handles marketing and oversees production and distribution. Proceeds of the sales go back into supporting training and employment for more women, and, as they grow, will also support YWCA Labyrinth Outreach, which addresses the basic and on-going needs of women returning to the community after being released from the Illinois Department of Corrections and McLean County Jail.

“I feel like I am contributing to something important, and that feels good,” said Marilyn Brown, who serves as a business apprentice for Labyrinth Made Goods.

A key part of Labyrinth Made Goods’ training is Strive, a YWCA McLean County professional development program. While Labyrinth assists in housing and personal support services and Labyrinth Made Goods builds on business and marketing skills, Strive was designed to develop and retain transferable skills to secure living-wage employment. The ideas behind Labyrinth Made Goods and Labyrinth Outreach are close to hearts of those who work there.

“I remember having an outreach meeting with an employer to share about our programs,” said Byrd, who noted the employer complained of needing reliable employees because most of the current people were “criminals.” After a successful presentation, Byrd said she took a deep breath. “I said, ‘Just so you know, I’m a felon.’” The employer’s blustered reply included a wish for employees like Byrd, who smiled and left.

Byrd, Tolise, and Brown were all clients of Labyrinth Outreach. They say they shared one of the greatest challenges women face as they return to their communities – finding sustainable employment.

“I was judged filling out applications,” said Tolise. “I was judged by family members, friends, and strangers. My background wouldn't allow me to get into certain jobs.” After being told she could no longer work in professional homecare, Tolise fought to get her license back, and succeeded. “Going through the professional development programs, I was able find the confidence to put in my [license] application again,” she said.

Byrd was working her way back from losing her corporate job when she was hired by Strive to be the first facilitator and help build program content. “I had not lost my work ethic or my skills, but my confidence—my belief in myself—was gone,” she said.

It was when Byrd began working with the YWCA McLean County programs that she rediscovered that spark of self-worth. “When someone gives you the chance to showcase your abilities, despite what they see on paper?” said Byrd. “For someone to see you as more than a charge? For someone to say, ‘I think you would be great for this’? It is a totally different experience.”

“Before coming here, I’d never really been asked my opinion, not my whole life,” said Brown. “I never had a voice. Labyrinth Made Goods give me a voice.”

Director of Labyrinth Made Goods Kate Brunk said recognizing potential is a key element of success for Labyrinth Made Goods. “Many folks who've been incarcerated often face a lot of barriers leading up to their incarceration,” she said.

Brunk noted a disparity in access to educational opportunities, financial resources, and technology, especially for women of color who are disproportionally convicted of felonies. “Many of the women here, had they been from a family with a lot of money, would have had a lawyer who could have gotten them off easily,” said Brunk. “That’s why we work to have a supportive learning environment to develop and identify skills they already possess.”

Confidence can be catching. Brown watched Byrd facilitate her Strive program. “It spoke volumes to me to see a woman of color at the front of the room,” said Brown, who joined Strive on a suggestion from her parole officer. Then Brown learned of the experiences she shared with Byrd. “I was blown out of the water,” she said. “When she said she had been previously incarcerated? And she was up there, running the show, and rocking it. That was inspiration.”

After teaching Brown in the Strive program, Byrd recommended her for the emerging Labyrinth Made Goods, where Brown now works on business administration and marketing as an apprentice. When Candice herself was promoted to Assistant Director or Labyrinth Made Goods later in the year, Brown became her mentor. “I thought, ‘They got me teaching the teacher? Are they kidding me?” said Brown.  

Byrd said she never suspected Brown was nervous because she was an amazing mentor. “It’s funny that we all see great things in each other, but it took a while for us to believe them in ourselves,” Byrd said.

Tolise said the work has always been more than building skills. “I’m part of a team. And being on a team with Labyrinth Made Goods means I have a fair chance. We have a real chance.”