Creativity Behind Bars: A Guide to Cultivating Radical Ideas

Daniel Humm, owner of Make It Nice restaurant group, often says “we have to change to stay the same.” Part of any company’s success relies on its ability to think outside of the norm and consistently seek out the best ideas.

One of the best ideas to come out of the creative world is ConCreates, a creative agency with an unconventional business model that requires us to look at our prison population differently. Founded by Vincent Bragg and Janeya Griffin, the agency gives “radical thinkers the chance to harness their creativity in a positive way” by crowdsourcing client projects to their 755 contractors, all currently or formerly incarcerated individuals.

As a fellow creative agency that’s invested in our community and passionate about curating spaces for conversations of reforms (insert shameless ACLU100 plug, specifically the part about mass incarceration), we know that ConCreates has a lot to teach us about cultivating radical ideas.

Here’s a few lessons to take away:

Prioritize Skills Over Accolades

Although ConCreates creates really cool work (i.e. check out their video, The Box), their mission is much larger. They want to shed light on the way talent is hired. Bragg and Griffin picture a world where access to opportunities isn’t dependent on a person’s situation, but rather on the potential brought to the organization. It starts with placing skills over accolades, which doesn’t mean they ignore their team’s history. Instead, they use it to capitalize on their strengths. For example:

John, 43*

Held at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California

Sentence: 10 years

Conducted 27 successful bank robberies.

* Not factual details



Processes development

Systems standardization

Attention to detail

A key way to equalize the candidate field and access untapped talent is by revisiting your interview questions. Bragg advises,“Focus on the creativity that people have within themselves and the skill set that tends to be overlooked as useful for people who are incarcerated, or even a stay at home mom, or individuals who aren’t formally educated.” Look at resumes with a new perspective and ask questions that arrive at a person’s talents, rather than their degree.

Tip: Revamp your interview questions with these substitutes:

  • How do you problem solve?

  • What’s your approach to finding unconventional or out-of-the-box solutions?

  • Where do you draw creativity from?

Four faces stitched together across four corners of the image

Image courtesy of ConCreates

Collaboration From Everyone is Key

Anyone who has ever facilitated collaborative meetings can attest: it’s not always easy to get everyone’s voice in the conversation. Often times, we lose valuable insights from people who have different collaboration styles, or we get siloed by a more vocal participant. ConCreates knows it’s essential to have all voices at the table.

“Creativity can come from anywhere” — Vincent Bragg

Janeya Griffin uses the example of giving three people a paper clip. Each person finds a completely different use for the paper clip based on what their reality is. A woman might use it to connect two bra straps and create a racerback under garment, a man could use it to carry items on his belt loop, and a child might shape it to form a toy. ConCreates’ process allows everyone to contribute. Here’s how they do it:

Step 1: Inform the team of all the details. Contractors receive the full client brief from Bragg via mail. The nationwide network then has time to individually ideate and brainstorm in a way that’s most productive for them.

Step 2: Allow brainstorming to go anywhere. ConCreates has access to hundreds of individuals, each with their own perspective. With that kind of range, ideas often go to outer space — let them.

Step 3: Refine Collectively. Everyone who wants to be involved in the refining process is welcome to participate. The team discusses challenges or ways to improve each concept as it progresses to the next round.

Step 4: Reward Audacious Thinking. Contractors whose campaigns make it to the client and launch earn a reward. In ConCreates’ case, it’s additional payment, but it could also be awarding a lunch or submitting a project to a publication.

Image of a woman's eyes staring at the viewers with a layover of a man wearing a sweatshirt rubbing the back of his neck

Image courtesy of ConCreates

Teaching Clients is Essential

It can be challenging using data and insight to educate clients on radical concepts. Now, imagine sharing your expertise while combating a stigma against your employees. Sounds tough, but Bragg and Griffin know it’s part of the process. When introducing clients and potential clients to a new perspective, they suggest:

  1. Encourage your audience to see solutions with a new set of eyes. Cultivating radical ideas requires a disruption to the processes used as well as the perspectives brought to the table.

  2. Be patient in explaining your perspective. ConCreates takes time to explain that the functionalities of a person’s skills might be the same despite the path taken to acquire those skills. (i.e. the John example above)
    Additionally, they use data about the prison complex to support their approach, such as a 2011 survey that found 22% of people surveyed were fired or asked to leave a job due to their ankle monitors, a growing requirement for parole.

  3. Stand firm in your values. A partnership that asks you to compromise on your core values won’t be conducive. Sometimes it’s better to recognize that your work or services won’t be for everybody.

Now, equipped with ConCreates’ lessons, I encourage you to be confident in your abilities, courageous in your approach, and radical in your thinking.

Find out more about Defy Ventures, the organization that helped Vincent Bragg, a formerly incarcerated person, cofound ConCreates.

Help reduce recidivism by adding your organization to the list of companies hiring previously incarcerated persons.

This insight was originally published for Brllnt’s audience. See original post here.