There’s Never Enough Time Unless You’re Doing Time

Upward Fund Supports Positive Life Transitions [EDIT 032624)

As a child, Arnold Baek, the son of Korean immigrants to Los Angeles, loved technology and computer games, even customizing his own computer. In 2022, after serving a 10-year prison term, Arnold was out on probation, eager to restart his life on a positive, productive path. When he got connected with Mass Liberation, an L.A.-based nonprofit focused on reentry, a route involving technology began taking shape.

Mass Liberation works to empower people returning from prison by providing transitional housing, employment assistance, psychological support, coaching, and classes—including some focused on technology. “The technology really stood out to me,” says Arnold, who threw himself into Mass Liberation’s four-week reentry course. He studied everything available, not only the tech classes but also classes focused on healthy relationships, finances, situational behaviors and triggers. After completing the reentry course, he landed an internship with the nonprofit.

During his internship, Joelle Kirtley, Mass Liberation’s co-founder and CEO, was so impressed with his skills that she offered Arnold a part-time job. His new role included helping other recent parolees learn to use technology. Kirtley also connected Arnold to California Justice Leaders (CJL), a collaboration between Americorps and Impact Justice that taps formerly incarcerated individuals to serve as mentors and coaches for young people involved in the justice system. As a Justice Leader, Arnold was placed in a second, part-time, paid position—also at Mass Liberation.

Less than a year out of prison, he was working 40-45 hours a week, earning $22 - $24 an hour, doing work he loved, much to his surprise. “I never imagined myself in reentry. I didn’t even know that field existed,” he says. “I just really developed the love of helping people, working with my brothers and sisters and their struggles.”

Arnold was on his way to building an independent life of freedom, purpose and connection—three of the Mass Liberation’s key goals. But a fourth aim—prosperity—remained elusive. Even while working full time, Arnold found himself struggling with the high cost of living in Los Angeles: rent, car insurance, gas, utilities, food. He couldn’t afford to take more skill-building classes, let alone save for emergencies.

Even eating well was too expensive. “I was always looking for the cheapest type of food. It didn’t matter what the health benefits were. Cup Noodles, buying it in bulk, TV dinners, everything frozen that was in bulk. The CJL program had a couple different trainings on physical health and what we put into our bodies, so it kind-of shifted my thinking on fast food and buying frozen, processed stuff,” he says, “but the main barrier was money.” 

Empowering People to Make Positive Transitions

Kirtley learned about a new program from The Change Reaction that she thought could help. The Upward Fund is the program that provides $425 a month in unrestricted direct cash assistance to hardworking Angelenos for up to two years, including those facing major life transitions such as Arnold, the outcome of which could make or break their future. Upward Fund participants are referred by front line staff at one of the 200-plus nonprofit partners of The Change Reaction or by community-based “change agents” affiliated with the foundation. Since Mass Liberation is a Change Reaction partner, Kirtley could refer participants to the Upward Fund, including Arnold.

Arnold was accepted into the program’s first cohort, which began in January 2023. One of the first things he did with the money? Improve his diet.

“After getting accepted—$425 is a huge chunk of change — it allowed me to buy healthier foods. I was able to start being more health conscious, cooking for myself, buying fresh produce,” he says. He started watching cooking videos to increase his knowledge, trying new recipes. “I’m also reconnecting with my mom and cooking Korean food, which I was so against growing up. Now, we cook together.”

From Financial Desperation to Doing Time

Arnold had gone to prison at 26, after robbing someone at gunpoint, and was sentenced to seven-years-to-life. He'd never been to jail or prison before. He’d been working in technology sales, after dropping out of college, and doing well. He used his excess income to shower his parents with expensive presents and trips, and to take his friends out to dinner. He got a lot of praise and attention for the gifts, and love and approbation from his parents, which he did not feel growing up.

Sales is a rollercoaster, as he says, and when his income dropped, he wanted to keep up “the façade of doing well.” He craved the praise and attention that the money had brought him. As a child and young man, he’d internalized tremendous pressure to succeed to secure the family’s reputation. This expectation was amplified by his younger sister’s diagnosis of mental disability, which meant she would not be able to bring acclaim to the family. It was all on him. This sense of expectation grew into what became a dangerous drive for money.

After being in county jail for three years, he was moved to the state prison. The prison had a variety of classes, vocational training, and therapy available to inmates. He made a mentor in prison, an older Asian man who had been in for 15 years already. This mentor encouraged Arnold to take advantage of everything positive offered to prisoners and to set his sights on getting out.

Arnold celebrated his first birthday in prison on May 27th, 2017. His mentor and a group of men he’d formed relationships with threw him a big birthday party, which is part of Asian culture. They bought pastries at the commissary and fashioned them into a birthday cake, and made him a big sign with art supplies they’d also bought.

Although Arnold was really enjoying himself at his birthday party, his mentor pushed him to aspire for more. “This guy said, ‘Are you really happy? You’re in prison.’ I realized I wanted to start over. I declared, ‘I’m going to listen to my mentor. Take these classes. Get out right away. This is no place for anyone.’ I felt like it was a rebirth of me, like a renewal day, like chapter 2, like restarting a new life or a new book. I decided to keep my head up, be optimistic in life while I’m serving my life term. I still have a chance to get out.”

Through education, therapy and self-reflection, he came to realize that while money is a necessity, having an excess of it isn’t. “It made me see what the root cause of this was. People say, ‘Money can buy happiness,’ but money created hell for me. I had developed a greed to have excess—extra friends, excess feelings of love from my family. On the surface level it was money. Digging deeper, it was this insecurity and not feeling loved by my family. I could go deeper, but the root cause was not just money.”

There was one quote constantly on his mind in prison. “‘There is never enough time in the world unless you’re serving it.’ That was the quote I lived by. While we’re out here in the free world, there’s never enough time. Busy with the kids, our bills, going to school. In prison, all we have is time. I told myself, ‘While I’m inside, I have all this time, let’s make the most of it. Let’s turn my life around.’”

Trusting People to Know What They Need

Adopting a healthier diet is a small window into the powerful role that extra cash can play in improving a person’s life and supporting him on a positive new path. The Change Reaction founder Greg Perlman created the Upward Fund to address the financial gaps working people face, a particular problem for those transitioning into a new independence, whether from prison, a homeless shelter, foster care or a college dorm. “When people go from a transitional, supported situation to their own place, they say the same thing, ‘It’s so hard. It’s exciting, but now everything costs money.’ I kept hearing this, over and over again. This is such a critical juncture. This time is so important,” he says. “It’s an on-ramp.” 

The Upward Fund provides people with direct funds—no strings attached—and trusting them to spend the money on what they need.  Unlike other guaranteed cash programs, Upward Fund handpicks participants through its vetted, trusted network of partners and their employees. These “change agents” such as social workers, nurses, and teachers, know the struggles and opportunities their clients face. 

Upward Fund is also unique in its specific focus on working Angelenos. Participants must be at least 18 years old, working at least 30 hours a week, housed, and on a route toward greater self-sufficiency.  “I think the Upward Fund is an incredible way to reward people who have done all they are supposed to do,” says Kirtley. “It gives them a little bit of respite. They have been working and saving so hard, and have reached these milestones.” 

Referring partner organizations such as Mass Liberation must commit to meeting with participants to help them stay focused and on track. Arnold says he appreciates the check-in meetings with Kirtley. “It helps me because it keeps me grounded and gives me a sense of connection, kind of puts a face to who’s helping me, to the people providing the support. It reminds me to be grateful that there are amazing people willing to help the less fortunate, and to be humble. You can lose that sense of gratitude if someone is handing you money but there is not a connection to who’s giving it, where it’s coming from.”

The Upward Fund participants also must attend three, one-hour Zoom sessions about financial literacy, a requirement designed to further support their financial security. For Arnold, financial literacy education was key to helping him make the most of the program. “When someone is giving you $425 a month, you don’t want it to go to waste. It helps you budget, make a savings plan, calculate expenses. If no one taught you, you don’t know how.”

From a Job to a Calling 

Arnold also used his monthly Upward Fund grant to take classes in computer programming, coding, web development, and any other tech-related offerings he could find. “Google offers a lot of certifications online, such as user experience and user interface design, but you have to pay for them. Now I can pay for them,” he says. “I went through General Assembly’s boot camp and could pay for that. The Upward Fund allowed me to purchase more components of an external hard drive and external monitor so I can do multi-screen. They recommend having two monitors, so I’m able to do that.”

These skills are critical at his job. He is now teaching technology boot camps at Mass Liberation and giving one-on-one support to returning citizens with their smartphones, laptops, and tablets. He also runs the databases and customer relationship management software and built the new website. Technology is a major stumbling block for a lot of people exiting prison, especially those who have been in for a long time, which is the population Mass Liberation serves. 

“Technology is the biggest hurdle they face,” says Arnold. “These are foreign devices to them. That is the single most common factor that tests their patience. You come out; you don’t want to get angry. But this triggers a lot of men and women, not being able to use the devices. They don’t know where the power button is.”

Arnold, who now lives in a studio apartment, has been accepted into a second year at Upward Fund. He says he plans to use the money to help him solidify the gains he’s made, learn more, and start saving. “I really developed a passion for helping the formerly incarcerated, returning citizens, and blending that with my hobby, really, of technology. Merging them together is the best of both worlds. I feel like I’m right at home. I love what I do.”