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    Two Visions of America by Don Jans

    Forestry And Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) Awarded 2021 J.M.K. Innovation Prize

    LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – November 16, 2021 – Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), a nonprofit organization that provides career support to formerly incarcerated wildland firefighters, has been awarded The 2021 J.M.K. Innovation Prize. From a nationwide search for transformative, early-stage projects, The J.M. Kaplan Fund awards the Prize biennially to ten innovators in the fields of social justice, the environment, and heritage conservation. Awardees receive a total of $175,000 over three years and participate in a learning collaborative designed to support their journey as change agents. 

    “The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program offers a potentially game-changing answer in a category of critical need,” says Amy L. Freitag, Executive Director of The J.M. Kaplan Fund. “Like their fellow J.M.K. Innovation Prize awardees, they’re building collective power that promises to reshape communities in more just and equitable ways. We can’t wait to see how their pathbreaking ideas develop.”

    The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is designed to support nonprofit and mission-driven for-profit organizations tackling America’s most pressing challenges through social innovation—defined as those pilot projects, new organizations or nascent initiatives that involve a certain amount of measured risk, but which may ultimately lead to large-scale, transformative results. This year’s awardees were selected from among 2,826 applications, by far the most participation in the Innovation Prize since its inception in 2015.

    Fueled by climate change, California’s wildfire season continues to increase in duration and devastation each year. In 2020, nearly 10,000 fires burned more than 4.2 million acres, setting a record that has consistently been broken year after year. Aggravating this crisis, the state has a severe shortage of firefighters. For much-needed labor, California draws from its incarcerated population to staff wildland firefighting crews known as “Fire Camps.” While equipped with high-demand skills and experience, formerly incarcerated Fire Camp workers face a multitude of barriers to building careers in the wildland and forestry sector. The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) is working to bridge this gap.

    As a former Fire Camp worker, FFRP Executive Director and cofounder Brandon Smith knows the challenges of transitioning into a career in the fire sector for underrepresented people of color, let alone those returning from incarceration. As a native of Southern California, he also recognizes the urgency of controlling our raging wildfire epidemic. “FFRP is a very unique solution to our most pressing challenges,” Smith asserts. “We’re creating a pathway to high-quality jobs for incarcerated people and building a pipeline of much-needed wildland firefighters for California.”  

    As Chief Operation and Finance Officer Sara Sindija explains, FFRP takes a “whole person care” approach to career-readiness. “We put them through a rigorous wildfire-fighting academy,” Sindija adds, “and assist them with resume building and job applications.” Fire Camp workers are matched with mentors, peer coaches, and case managers, along with receiving on-the-job training, skill-building, and recredentialing. 

    Through the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and criminal justice reforms, incarcerated people across California are receiving early release and suspended sentences. “With The J.M.K. Innovation Prize, FFRP will grow its support in Southern California and will be expanding to the Bay Area, providing in-person services to the hundreds of people coming home from Fire Camp,” Smith affirms.” We know that family-winning wages are a very important factor in helping formerly incarcerated people not only successfully reenter society but transform themselves, their families, and their communities.”    

    The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program is among several Prize winners with social-impact projects that integrate environmental protection with racial justice and income equity. A report accompanying the Prize, Building Pathways to Collective Power, sheds further light on this trend and other findings from this year’s selection process and pool of 2,800+ applicants.

    Video interview with Sindija and Smith and more information about the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program are available at jmkfund.org/awardee/sara-sindija-and-brandon-smith.

    About The J.M. Kaplan Fund 

    Established in 1945 by philanthropist and businessman Jacob Merrill Kaplan, the Fund has since its inception been committed to visionary innovation. Over its 75-year history, the Fund has devoted $280 million to propel fledgling efforts concerning civil liberties, human rights, the arts, and the conservation and enhancement of the built and natural worlds. The J.M.K. Innovation Prize continues the Fund’s legacy of catalytic giving, reaching across America to provide early-stage support for entrepreneurs with twenty-first-century solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges. Learn more atJMKFund.org.

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