A Conversation with Cheryl Cromwell

Mary: Tell us about yourself.

Cheryl: I have a master’s in social work from Bryn Mawr College with a specialization in community organizing and social planning.  I’ve taught in schools of social work at several institutions, served as the Director of the Office of Community Services, Department of Veteran and Community Services, for the State of Florida, and was the Assistant Director of the Kellogg Training Center at United Way in Los Angeles.  I have had a consulting practice since 1986.

Mary: In what capacity did you work with Friends Outside in Los Angeles County?

Cheryl: I served as a consultant from 1999 to 2020.  My work included program planning, proposal writing, strategic planning and board development

Mary: How was FOLA funded then?

Cheryl: I met the Executive Director, Mary Weaver, at a City of LA-sponsored workshop where I was a presenter.  Mary approached me afterward.  I wasn’t aware of Friends Outside but was interested because I had family members who might have benefitted from such a program. 

Mary: How did you get involved with FOLA?  Why did you get involved?

Cheryl: I think there is greater awareness about the criminal justice system, such as the costs of incarceration and the questionable efficacy of incarceration.  Long sentences, Three Strikes, systemic racism, equipping people for release, and rehabilitation are now common topics in public discourse.

Mary: You were a consultant for FOLA for 21 years.  How have you see FOLA change?

Cheryl: FOLA has grown significantly, programmatically and fiscally.  The field of re-entry has progressed and is requiring more professionalism.  And, FOLA has responded by bringing on more staff with college-level education in social work and human services.  The employment program has been a huge success, FOLA has expanded its service sites, and now has major federal grants.

Mary: What do you think were your biggest contributions to FOLA?

Cheryl: My greatest contributions were to improve the quality of the proposals by adding information from literature reviews regarding best practices and researching demographic and other data to document the need for FOLA’s services.  I also encouraged FOLA to “think bigger” by pursuing larger grants, including federal ones.

Mary: How do you hope FOLA continues to evolve over the next 20 years?

Cheryl: I’d like to see FOLA:

  1. Expand services to other areas of LA County and reestablish services in Long Beach; 
  2. Provide gender-specific services for reentering women.  
  3. Offer more inter-related services within a geographic area so that there can be a “layering” of services, e.g., integrate the after-school program into the fatherhood program.  
  4. Increase administrative staffing.
  5. Have a data collection and tracking systems across programs. 
  6. Increase collaboration with mainstream child and family services and child development providers.

Mary: Anything more you would like to add?

Cheryl: The services FOLA provides are very much needed.  There is more interest in re-entry services at all levels of government – a recognition that people who are incarcerated do come back to the community.  I hope FOLA will continue to be a leader in the re-entry field for many years to come

George Ferrick, FOLA’s First Paid Executive Director

Mary: How did you become the first paid FOLA Executive Director?

George: I found out about Friends Outside from Alice Callahan, a nun who became an Episcopal Priest and was the founder of Casas de las Familias.  She told me about the job opening at FOLA. I had just gotten a master’s degree in Family Therapy and was eager to begin working with families.  My job led to a wonderful experience with the organization.  

Mary: What was FOLA like during those early days?  

George: At the time, Mrs. Dowds had “Wives Club” meetings (for the wives and children of incarcerated individuals) at her home in San Marino.  During this time volunteers visited incarcerated women in the county jail to offer them support.  We also helped families plan visits to see their incarcerated loves ones.

Mary: How was FOLA funded then?

George: Churches were a major source of funding.  We had a grant through the Episcopalian Church.  We also asked community members to support us with annual donations of $18 per year.  FOLA had a strong Advisory Board, the primary purpose of which was to give credibility to our work as it was pretty radical work at that time. 

Mary: How have things changed over the years?

George: I think there is greater awareness about the criminal justice system, such as the costs of incarceration and the questionable efficacy of incarceration.  Long sentences, Three Strikes, systemic racism, equipping people for release, rehabilitation are now common topics in public discourse.

Mary: How have they stayed the same?

George: I have seen the FOLA chapter grow from an acorn to a “Mighty Oak.”  In my time, we worked in a very small office and sat across from the bathrooms in a church.  The early folks with FOLA brought a real commitment to the work.  It was inside them.  This seems to have remained the same.  But, today’s staff has to be more than just committed to the work.  I believe that new skills are needed.  

I am so glad to hear that FOLA now has many grants and many offices so they can address more people’s needs.  Overall, I am just so happy to see how the LA County Chapter has grown!

Mary Interviews Curtis Dowds, Our Founder’s Son

Mary: Tell us a little about yourself and your mother.

Curtis: I am my mother’s oldest child.  My mom was born in 1918 in Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta.  At the age of eight, driven mostly by drought-induced crop failures, mom and her parents moved to Alhambra, CA, just as the Depression hit. My mom grew up very poor but did so in a family deeply committed to education.   With incredible focus, the family put together the resources for a full college education for my mom and her brother. 

Mom emerged from college a progressive person who always saw the potential and good in people.   In 1954, a year before the vaccine, she contracted polio, ironically like her political mentor, FDR.   She met my father at a USC/UCLA mixer.  My dad was a lawyer who became the chief counsel in the L.A. County Counselor’s Office and eventually a prominent Superior Court judge, opening many doors my mom walked through for Friends Outside.

Mary: What do you remember about your mother founding Friends Outside in Los Angeles County?  

Curtis: The daughter of Federal William P. Gray, who was on the bench in Los Angeles, was a volunteer for Friends Outside up north and arranged for the initial meeting of “prominent women” in Los Angeles with the Friends Outside Founder, Rosemary Goodenough.  The story is that Mrs. Goodenough would talk until there was one person awake.  She would declare that woman “Mrs. Friends Outside” and leave.  Apparently my mom was the last one standing and started the LA chapter in our San Marino home.  Mom would talk to anyone about the cause and call anyone she needed to move things along, not afraid to wield the implicit power of being a judge’s wife.          

Mary: It was the early 1970’s– three political leaders killed the decade before, Vietnam War, peace and love generation.  Do you think the political and social environment of the time had anything to do with it?

Curtis: Yes.  She did not aspire to be in the country club set and the time was right for social activism.  Mom never “outgrew” her childhood experiences.  She was a person of immense empathy and wanted an identity for herself apart from being a “judge’s wife.”   She was determined – she beat poverty and polio.  She had good instincts, insight, and was perceptive. She created Friends Outside LA with “good bones” and Friends Outside gave her purpose.