Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘ex-offender’

Photo: Stephen Humphries/Christian Science Monitor.
Chef Brandon Chrostowski (center) teaches trainees inside the kitchen for Edwins Too, one of his two French fine dining restaurants on the East Side of Cleveland.

When you take a wrong path in life, does it have to determine everything that happens later? At the Christian Science Monitor, Stephen Humphries writes about a chef who is making sure that some people are successful when they start over.

“Brandon Chrostowski is telling his origin story for probably the thousandth time. He’s pacing the stage of a local high school, holding his microphone with the confidence of a rock star. Mr. Chrostowski is a distinguished chef – he was a restaurateur semifinalist in the 2022 James Beard awards – and founder of a Cleveland restaurant with a philanthropic mission. Yet he’s ambivalent about all the acclaim. He’s tasted what it’s like to be stripped of dignity. At 18 he was arrested for fleeing and eluding the police. He and some friends had been in a car with drugs they intended to sell.

“ ‘I learned a lot of things. One, the dehumanization in the criminal justice system,’ he tells the students at Gilmour Academy. ‘Also, the idea of freedom. You don’t really know what freedom is until you lose it.’

“A lenient judge decided against sentencing him to prison. Mr. Chrostowski has never forgotten that he was fortunate not to serve a 5-to-10-year sentence. It’s the reason he launched Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute on Cleveland’s East Side. 

“What makes Edwins unique isn’t just its French cuisine, but its workers – they’re formerly incarcerated adults. Over six months, those in training learn skills for employment in the culinary world. More than that, Mr. Chrostowski tries to draw out a sense of self-worth in those who’ve served time by showing them how to attain excellence. 

‘The single hardest thing we have to do at Edwins is really build esteem in someone that has lost that, or that sense of humanity, through incarceration,’ says Mr. Chrostowski.

“Hours before giving his speech at the high school, Mr. Chrostowski strides into a kitchen where two trainees are singing along to a Bobby Womack tune on the radio. Tying a half apron around his waist, the chef quickly assesses a hunk of braised beef inside a pot as large as a bassinet. …

“As Mr. Chrostowski shares tips with Richie, he picks up a knife and demonstrates how to slice asparagus. In 2017, Edwins was the subject of an Oscar-nominated short documentary titled Knife Skills. …

“Abdul El-Amin enrolled in the program in June after being incarcerated for 20 years. ‘When you come here, it is sincere. You’re welcome. You can feel it,’ he says after his first two weeks of training. He adds, ‘I’m seeing so many other opportunities that I didn’t think about when I was incarcerated.’

“That’s not to say the program isn’t demanding. Over 2,000 people have trained at Edwins since its opening in 2013. Of those, only 600 have graduated because most drop out, often within the first two weeks. (They’re always welcome to reapply.) The program boasts a 95% employment rate for its alumni, and fewer than 1% of graduates are re-incarcerated. Star pupils have gone on to work in restaurants across America and even in France.

“ ‘[Mr. Chrostowski] really doesn’t care what walk of life you’re from, who you are, what you’ve done,’ says William Brown, a staff member at Cleveland’s Community Assessment & Treatment Services, a rehabilitation organization that enrolls promising individuals in the Edwins program. ‘He wants to see you succeed. And he will go the extra mile.’ 

“Mr. Chrostowski has a hectic daily schedule. During peak restaurant rush hours, the chef admits to hurling pans in frustration, but they’re not aimed at anyone. … He pursues the exacting standards he learned as an apprentice at restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Le Cirque in New York, and Lucas Carton in Paris. He rose fast. But he’s never forgotten his first break. In the late 1990s, a Detroit chef named George Kalergis took him in while he was still on parole. 

“Years later, Mr. Kalergis called from Detroit with bad news. A man named Quentin, who’d learned the rudiments of restaurant cooking alongside Mr. Chrostowski, had been stabbed to death. …

“ ‘I started to think, “How is it possible I’m here, and others are not?” ‘ says Mr. Chrostowski. … He wanted to help others, just as Chef Kalergis had helped him. But it took another decade of working in restaurants – including a move to Cleveland in 2008 – before he was able to raise the money to fulfill his vision.

“Mr. Chrostowski came up with the name, which is shorthand for ‘Education wins.’ Edwin is also the chef’s middle name. A few years after moving to Cleveland, he opened his restaurant in a historic, racially diverse area called Shaker Square. In 2020, he expanded by opening a second restaurant, Edwins Too, on the opposite side of the town’s leafy square. He’s also launched a French bakery and a butchery. The expansions have helped the area become a dining destination. 

“Just off the main street in Shaker Square, Mr. Chrostowski proudly shows off his latest project, which will become a child care center. ‘We’ve raised about $250,000 for a family center or day care,’ he says. ‘Free day care for staff and students, because 80% of our students with children don’t finish. It’s a big number and we want to change that.’

“The chef also wants to help outside Ohio. In April he traveled to his ancestral home of Poland to cook for refugees fleeing Ukraine. He’s also created a 30-hour curriculum and distributed it on 400,000 tablets to prisons in the United States. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, co-owners of the Cleveland Browns football team, will pay for transportation for anyone in the U.S. who completes the virtual instruction and applies to join the Edwins program.”

More at the Monitor, here.

Read Full Post »

useutwvx4nfildx6hmp2edmfei

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Carlos Omar Montes keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5′ X 5′ storage unit. With support from entrepreneurship programs, he’s building a new life after serving his time.

When I edited a magazine focused on low- and moderate-income issues in New England, I liked to acquire articles on helping former inmates lead a decent life after serving their sentence. Dumping someone on the side of the road with a toothbrush is hardly the way to help him start supporting himself and giving back to society (in the form of taxes, family stability, community service, etc.).

Although retired for four years, I am still drawn to such stories. Here’s one from Kelly Field at the Hechinger Report via the Boston Globe.

“Standing before a roomful of CEOs, angel investors and foundation representatives at Boston College Law School late last year, Carlos Omar Montes pitched his idea for a mobile barbershop.

“Omar’s Barbershop, he told the audience, would fill a niche in the grooming market, offering the ‘old-fashioned experience’ of hot lather and warm towels to men who are confined to group homes and nursing facilities.

“ ‘Omar’s will connect people to the happiest time in their lives, bringing them freedom, convenience and happiness,’ said Montes, dressed in a vest and tie for his presentation.

“A year and a half earlier, Montes, now 31, had been an inmate at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. He served almost eight years in all, there and elsewhere, for possession of drugs and a firearm. Now he was in a lecture hall on the pastoral suburban campus of Boston College Law School, for the final day of an entrepreneurship boot camp that paired former inmates with law student mentors.

“Covid-19 would arrive a few weeks later. Still, Montes spent the lockdown positioning himself to move forward with his business as soon as reopening allowed — amid a recession that otherwise would have made it considerably harder for him to get any other kind of job.

“The idea of bringing higher education inside prisons got considerable momentum in the years leading up to the pandemic, becoming the subject of books, documentaries and extensive media coverage.

“But if ex-inmates weren’t getting hired before coronavirus, they are unlikely to be in the front of the line now that millions of Americans are unemployed, no matter how much education they received.

“The stigma against candidates with criminal records is so strong that, even with the skills they may have learned behind bars, many find it easier to start a business than get hired by one, said Marc Howard, a professor of government and law who helped start Georgetown University’s Pivot entrepreneurship program last year. …

“Project Entrepreneur at BC, launched last year, is one of a small number of similar efforts that take place both inside prisons and on college campuses and attempt to provide inmates and ex-inmates with the skills, confidence and contacts they need to start their own businesses. They also aim to open traditional students’ eyes to the stigmas and systematic barriers to employment former prisoners like Omar face. …

“Many employers are wary of hiring ex-convicts. According to one widely cited study, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The result: More than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and nearly half are re-arrested within eight years of their release. …

“Thirty-five states, including Massachusetts, and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted ‘ban the box’ policies that bar questions about prior convictions from job applications. …

“Said Kevin Sibley, executive director of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, which helps formerly incarcerated people find education and employment, even in ‘ban the box’ states, many employers still run background checks late in the hiring process and drop any candidate who has committed a felony, ‘even when it has nothing to do with the work assignment.’ …

“Elizabeth Swanson, who has led a Babson College entrepreneurship program for prisoners for a decade, said the lessons of these prison entrepreneurship programs are not only for the inmates.

“When she asks students, at the start of each semester, what they think about prison, Swanson said, they’ll often say something like, ‘I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black.” ‘ Some are terrified to step inside a jail. But when they get to know the inmates, through letters or visits, ‘they do a complete 180.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

Read Full Post »

gonzalez_walkingii

Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

greer_bailey

Read Full Post »

Photo: Kirk Crippens/ Insight Garden Program
Today’s post is about an illicit prison garden, but a 2014 story at NPR, here, suggests that approved gardens are finding favor with corrections officials. The photo is from San Quentin.

This story from the Marshall Project on twitter is about a secret garden behind prison walls — and what it meant to the gardeners.

Matthew Hahn, an ex-offender, wrote the article in collaboration with the online magazine Vice.

“I used to be a vegetable smuggler. It’s not how I got to prison, but it’s what I did once I was there.

“I wasn’t alone. The men with whom I worked in the garden on ‘China Hill’ at California’s Folsom Prison were there with me, every day, waiting in line to get back into the prison building and hoping the guards wouldn’t discover the vegetable contraband they had secreted away in their clothing.

“In my left boot, slightly smashed and carefully wrapped in a sandwich bag, was a single jalapeno pepper. In my right, bundled tightly and also wrapped, were a couple dozen shoots of green onions. …

“Officially, we were landscapers. There were about 20 of us, and we had been assigned to the landscaping crew atop the grassy knoll within the prison’s walls known as China Hill, spending our weekdays in what felt to us prisoners like the wilderness. …

“We had a hill, and a job on it, and a single guard, also our supervisor, who expected us to work only a couple of hours per day, after which he permitted us to while away the rest of our time as we saw fit.

“We weren’t actually allowed to garden, but that didn’t stop us from doing it. The unspoken agreement between the guard and us men was that we would keep China Hill from becoming an overgrown jungle, and in return he would pretend he didn’t see any of our vegetables growing there. It was motivation to keep us working.

“The vegetables we grew were the kinds that never would have made their way into the chow hall: We had squash, peas, chili peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, green onions, tomatoes.

“China Hill was divided into sectors, just like the prison yard. Black guys had the land in one spot, the Southsiders (a Mexican gang) in another, the White Boys near the Southsiders and the “Others” near the Blacks. Despite the determined segregation, it was peaceful. If the Southsiders wanted to eat some peppers with their burritos, they could trade a watermelon to the Others. …

“There was another aspect of working on China Hill that wasn’t usually shared with the men on the yard, but which made it one of the best jobs in Folsom: It offered the potential, at least, for solitude. The lack of noise — that was the feeling of belonging to the Earth again, and having a small part of it belong to me, and to us. …

“We were never able to smuggle in enough vegetables for entire meals — just morsels, just momentary freshness in our stale world. But we smuggled in memories when we smuggled in those tastes: memories of freedom.” More here.

Read Full Post »

Photo:

At my former magazine we focused on lower-income issues, which meant we sometimes published research on topics such as prison reform, the criminalization of addiction, and job programs for ex-offenders.

Recently, I saw an article that reminded me of those efforts. It’s about an unusual fine-dining restaurant in Cleveland.

Jenn Hall covers the story at Paste, “Though the numbers vary by state, roughly three-quarters of ex-convicts are rearrested within five years, and more than half of those return behind bars. Ask Brandon Chrostowski about it, and he’ll tell you that it’s more than a problem. It’s a civil-rights issue — and that’s why he decided to do something about it.

“For diners at Edwins Restaurant in Cleveland Shaker Square, fine French cuisine is an initial draw. The setting is nouvelle-chic, befitting a Francophile menu that garners praise. Bar service is sophisticated, with a wine list that runs deep. But the reason to return goes beyond the plate. In almost every position, both front and back of house, ex-offenders are training to launch new careers.

“It’s the only white-tablecloth restaurant of its kind in the U.S.

“The trainees are part of Edwins’ six-month Restaurant and Leadership Training Program, of which Chrostowski is founder and CEO. (Edwins is a portmanteau of ‘education’ and ‘wins.’) Covering everything from mother sauces to white-tablecloth service, the program aims not just to equip ex-offenders with skills, but also to power them with the confidence to apply them.

“It’s a program borne of careful planning. Chrostowski first had the idea in 2004, secured approval to operate as a 501 (c) (3) in 2008, and then spent six years perfecting the pedagogy before opening the restaurant’s doors in 2013. Now, 20,000 diners visit Edwins each year.

“But job prep and a fine French meal is just one part of the story. Ultimately, Edwins is a support network for those determined to challenge statistics. So while participants indeed learn a perfect braise, they also get help with everything from reinstating their driver’s license to securing medical care. It’s a humanizing approach to a sobering problem, and perhaps that’s why it’s working. The Edwins-alumni recidivism rate stands at just 1.2 percent. …

“Asked what drives him, he says it’s about paying forward a break he was given. Growing up in Detroit, Chrostowski had a legal run-in and was lucky to land probation instead of a prison sentence. That ‘aha’ moment primed him to take stock, find a mentor and launch a fine-dining career …

“Though he reads like an optimist (and is when it comes to a belief in transformation), Chrostowski sees himself as a pragmatist. Given the chance, he says, many ex-offenders have the capacity and strength to rebuild. They just need that all-critical chance.”

To read Hall’s interview with Chrostowski, click here.

Read Full Post »

When people are serving time for a crime, how much better for society — both during their sentence and after they get out — if they have some useful work while inside.

Patricia Leigh Brown writes at Atlas Obscura, “Justin King spends most of his hours in a cinderblock dormitory room for minimum-security prisoners, sleeping on a metal bunk bed and being constantly monitored by surveillance cameras.

“But on a crisp California morning with coastal fog hanging on the hillsides, King, who is serving time for selling methamphetamines, and three of his fellow inmates at the Mendocino County jail huddle together in a 175-acre vineyard to pick plump sangiovese grapes. The only visible difference between the prisoners and the other field workers are the GPS tracking devices wrapped around their ankles.

” ‘Hey dude!’ King, 32, called out to his fellow inmate, Meliton Rangel, as King eyed a promising group of clusters wet with dew. ‘I hit clump city here!’

“The men’s enthusiasm for grapes with just the right sugar levels and tannins is a variation on the concept of work release, in which inmates deemed low security risks are employed by private companies. …

” ‘They’re hard workers,’ [Vineyard owner Martha] Barra says of her new employees, who wear “civilian” clothes in her magazine-esque vineyard. ‘They have to meet the same punctuality and performance requirements as everybody else.’ …

“The work is notoriously grueling: At first, Rangel, a stiff-legged 37, said he was going to quit. That changed when he received his first paycheck—his first one ever. ‘This has really helped me out,’ he says. ‘It feels very good to work.’ …

“In the Mendocino program last year, four of the six inmates who worked on the grape crew at Redwood Valley Vineyards have indeed stayed out of jail. Three now have full-time jobs. One now works at the vineyard full-time, rebounding from tough years of drug addiction and homelessness. …

” ‘There’s peace of mind out here,’ King says.”

More here.

Photo: Olivier Vanpé /Wikimedia Commons
Clusters of ripe and unripe Pinot noir grapes.

Read Full Post »

I liked an op-ed Stan Stojkovic wrote for the NY Times about a positive sort of prison program founded by a warden.

“It’s the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates,” writes Stojkovic. “I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.

“I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. …

“He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. ‘Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,’ he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.

“ ‘Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?’ he asked.

“His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. …

“ ‘I will,’ one inmate said.

“ ‘I will,’ said another.

“ ‘I will.’ …

“In all, 13 women in H6 donated $41; one signed up to donate $5 per month. …

“At some correctional facilities, inmates earn $10 a day. Either way, this is money that would otherwise go to small luxuries, like snacks and deodorant. And yet about 300 inmates in Texas, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin have donated. Thanks to that money, in addition to private contributions, by the end of this year Creative Corrections will have awarded 40 $1,000 college scholarships.”

More on the program here.

Photo: Creative Corrections Education Foundation

Read Full Post »

My daughter-in-law passed this along. Her colleague, who is related to the founder, told her about it.

Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest on Vanderbilt University’s campus in Tennessee, founded the Magdalene in 1997 to provide practical and emotional help to women often regarded as outcasts — ex-offenders, addicts, street people.

According to the website: “For two years, we offer housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training without charging the residents or receiving government funding.

  • Our six homes function without 24-hour live-in staff, relying on residents to create a supportive community, maintain recovery, and share household tasks.
  • Women come to Magdalene from prison, the streets and from across the Southeast and the country. …

“After four months, the women find work, return to school and/or enter Magdalene’s job training program at Thistle Farms, a social enterprise. …

“Magdalene’s programs are grounded in its 24 spiritual principles that advocate living gracefully in community with one another.”

The website also describes the Thistle Farms products: “By hand, the women create natural bath and body products that are as good for the earth as they are for the body. Purchases of Thistle Farms products directly benefit the women by whom they were made.

“Thistle Farms employs over 40 Magdalene residents or graduates. While working at Thistle Farms, women learn skills in manufacturing, packaging, marketing and sales, and administration. It is a supportive workplace where women acquire the skills they need to earn a living wage. Employees have the opportunity to put a percentage of their earnings in a matched savings account provided by Magdalene.” Read more.

Thistle Farms provides lots of ideas for holidays when you especially want to give gifts that help people. (This year I gave a few gifts from SERRV, for example, and my sister-in-law gave care packages from nonprofit San Francisco food incubator La Cocina, and people who bought charm necklaces at Luna & Stella, gave part of the cost to FreeArtsNYC.)

The products are all of such a quality as to make you want them at other times of year, too.

Photo: http://www.thistlefarms.org/
Women who work in the Thistle Farms Cafe head off for vacation Dec. 24.

Read Full Post »

On Sunday my husband and I took in the painful stories of several formerly incarcerated women who work on getting their lives back on track with Mary Driscoll at OWLL. The occasion was the performance of a collaborative theater piece called Hidden Faces of Courage.

All the women had the cards stacked against them from childhood on and had little hope of a better future after serving time. A recurring theme was the near impossibility of finding work with a criminal record.

So it was with particular interest that I read an article in UU World today about a café in North Carolina that is giving such women a second chance at life, starting with helping them earn an income.

Michelle Bates Deakin writes, “There’s a classic Catch-22 for women who have served jail time. It’s nearly impossible to get a job with a criminal record, and without a job and an income, it’s hard to keep from reoffending.

“The Rev. Melissa Mummert, a community minister in Charlotte, N.C., has dedicated the past decade to helping solve this conundrum, providing career and life coaching to female prisoners …

“In August, she helped open a new takeout restaurant in downtown Charlotte run by women released from jail. Second Helping gives formerly incarcerated women valuable job skills, income, and new starts at life.

“ ‘I kept hearing the same theme from so many women: “When I hit the jail door, I can’t get a job, because there is so much employment discrimination against people with criminal records,” ‘ said Mummert. Second Helping helps women leaving jail or prison land that all-important first job.”

Monique Maddox is one of the beneficiaries of the effort. “Maddox has worked at Second Helping since November 2011, when it opened its first coffee cart. She credits Second Helping with giving her opportunity. ‘Each and every one of us value our freedom today,’ she said. ‘I would never give it up.’ ”

More.

Photo: UU World
Rev. Mummert helped open the Second Helping café in Charlotte. It employs and trains formerly incarcerated women.

Read Full Post »

Mark Guarino has a nice story in the Christian Science Monitor about a Chicago woman of great determination.

” ‘Pollinate’ is a word that Brenda Palms Barber likes to throw around when talking to people about her work.

She pollinates jobs for recently released inmates looking for a second chance. She pollinates faith among the people who take a chance in hiring them. She pollinates an upswing in North Lawndale, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, about five miles west of downtown.

“She also pollinates honey. At least that’s the job of the bees she has spent five years raising.

Indeed, Ms. Barber has brought swarms of bees to the city’s West Side, using them to foster job creation among a stigmatized group of people who live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder: black males who exit the state or county prison system with little formal education or job skills….

” ‘We have to be their first employers,’ she says. ‘We have to prove to society that people who did bad things, people who need second chances, can be positive in the workplace, that they will be loyal and hard-working and honest employees.’ “

More here.

Photo: David Harold Ropinksi/Sweet Beginnings
Brenda Palms Barber’s honey-products program has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After 90 days, they shift to the outside workforce.

Read Full Post »

“Want proof that the goals of business and the needs of the most vulnerable can align?” asks Sarah Treuhaft (in YES! Magazine, by way of the Huffington Post, by way of the Christian Science Monitor).

“Meet Jeff Brown, fourth-generation grocer and owner of the 10-store ShopRite regional chain based in Philadelphia.

“By mixing old-fashioned customer service with innovative new approaches, Brown is chipping away at the nation’s jobs challenge, starting in the communities hardest-hit by the financial crisis.

Treuhaft goes on to describe one of Brown’s employees: “After being sentenced to jail for five years for selling drugs in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa., Louis Rivera was determined to turn his life around. An eighth-grade dropout, he spent his first year in prison preparing for and obtaining his GED. Upon release, he moved to Philadelphia and sent out dozens of resumes, hoping, at age 31, to secure the first real job of his life. No employer responded. …

“He walked down the street from his apartment to Jeff Brown’s ShopRite grocery store … Louis had gone to the right place. He did not know it at the time, but ShopRite is the only grocery-store chain in Philadelphia, and possibly in the nation, with an explicit focus on hiring ex-offenders.”

And with proper screening and training, ex-offenders turn out to be just as satisfactory as other employees.

“Brown believes his success with hiring ex-offenders is due to a strong partnership with a nonprofit workforce training organization, ABO Haven, that screens ex-offender candidates to find those who are a good match for the grocery’s culture, provides training in ‘soft skills’ like how to be successful in a work environment, and then checks back in with the workers once they are on the jobs.” More.

City of Philadelphia photograph by Kaitlin Privitera
Mayor Michael Nutter visits ShopRite following ground-breaking for the expansion of the Cheltenham Brown’s ShopRite

Read Full Post »

I liked Jacki Lyden’s story at National Public Radio about some unusual artists in the 1960s.

“If you traveled by way of Florida’s Route 1 in the 1960s, you might have encountered a young, African-American artist, selling a lushly painted oil landscape from his car. They weren’t allowed in galleries during Jim Crow segregation — but motels, office buildings and tourists would buy their vivid works.

“Together, they formed a loosely associated band around Fort Pierce, Fla., that came to be known as The Highwaymen. At $20 a painting, they made their way out of agricultural jobs like citrus-picking and defined the cultural look of an era.

“Their paintings departed from an earlier tradition of landscape painting in Fort Pierce. A.E. ‘Beanie’ Backus, considered the father of the landscape movement there, caught the clouds and savannahs and inlets that were falling to developers in the mid-century. He would teach many youngsters who came to his studio, including the teenage Alfred Hair, leader of The Highwaymen.

“These artists would take off in their own direction. But success has brought enduring tensions on their home turf, raising questions about art, race and cultural legacy. …

“The who’s who of The Highwaymen can be tricky. (A curator named Jim Fitch coined the name in the ’90s and it stuck.) Gary Monroe, author of The Highwaymen, Florida’s African-American Landscape Artists, counts 26 original painters — 18 of whom are still living. That’s how many were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.”

Lots more.

Photograph: Gary Monroe
Alfred Hair (left) and Robert Lewis

Read Full Post »

I’ve blogged about Mary Driscoll and OWLL, the nonprofit she set up to help ex-offenders break vicious cycles. Soon she will launch her play Generational Legacy, about what happens to children when mothers are imprisoned. People who had experienced prison helped her write it.

Because I am very interested in this and other ways that people use the arts to help prisoners turn their lives around, an article about using Dante and Shakespeare in a women’s prison caught my eye.

Joel Brown writes in the February 24 Boston Globe,

“Lynda Gardner, Saundra Duncan, and Deborah Ranger will give a reading of a new play at a Harvard University conference next week. A different kind of alma mater qualifies them for this appearance: York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security state facility for female offenders.

“While behind bars at York, all three joined theater workshops with Wesleyan University professor Ron Jenkins and students from his Activism and Outreach Through Theater course. They got to know Shakespeare and Dante, and it changed their lives.

“ ‘I spent my first six months [in York] trying to figure out ways to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live,’ says Gardner. …

“Saundra Duncan said, ‘When I looked at Dante and saw how he was in exile . . . I saw a lot of that situation in [myself].’ ”

I especially liked this comment on the Inferno: “I’ve been in a lot of the circles of hell … It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope. Climbing out of those circles.’’

Read more.

Read Full Post »

I met Mary Driscoll in playwriting class last summer.

Mary has had a lifetime focus on social justice for marginalized people. She has traveled to foreign countries to work with refugees. For people with HIV, she has taught pilates and the healing art of telling one’s stories. She has performed with mission-oriented theater troupes. And she is the founder of  OWLL, On with Living and Learning, which helps ex-offenders build new lives after prison.

At Mary’s invitation, my husband and I found our way last night to what is a virtual artist colony in the long-abandoned but reemerging warehouse district of South Boston. In Mary’s loft apartment, one of the artists she has drawn into her orbit presented a wonderful cabaret show to raise money for OWLL’s production of Generational Legacy about mothers and children after prison.

Michael Ricca interpreted songs by Michel Legrand with great humor and feeling (including the theme song of our wedding, “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?”). Ricca is performing the songs and others by Legrand at Scullers in March.

My husband and I enjoyed talking to Mary’s guests  — artists, actors, musicians, social activists, old  friends. We’re especially keen to keep an eye on the doings of the Fort Point Theatre Channel in the Midway Studios building, where Mary  lives and works. The collaborative productions in the Black Box Theatre sound intriguing and offbeat. We like offbeat.

Phot0 Credit: OWLL

Read Full Post »

Went to see a new play at the Lyric Stage, Superior Donuts. Liked it very much.

Will Lebow was affecting as a disillusioned Chicago donut maker who gets a different perspective on life when a young African American with big ideas applies for work (Omar Robinson). Funny and touching production.

This post is not a review. Rather it is “What I did on Saturday when not doing work I brought home from the office.”

In the morning I was editing an article about Venturing Out, a program that helps ex-offenders tap their street skills to set up legitimate microenterprises. Watching the play, I had a shock of recognition, thinking at first that the story would be about an ex-offender. It wasn’t.

There certainly are plays about such topics. Venturing Out produced one of its own in December, The Castle. And my friend Mary from playwriting class is gearing up for a similar production: “Generational Legacy integrates music and dance and centers around the life of one woman  and her son, both of whom have been incarcerated for non-violent  offenses, … and the challenges and barriers they face as they re-enter their communities.”

I haven’t seen the plays, so I don’t know if they are didactic. Superior Donuts wasn’t. Here’s a scene from it.

Photograph: Mark S. Howard, Boston Globe

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: