Ronnie Baker and Willie Minor have turned it around in recent years.
The men have taken control of their lives through attitude improvement, training and employment, and bettered their families. And, in their own way, they are addressing the “opportunity gap” between whites and minorities in our community.
“I felt like a failure and blamed myself for awhile,” recalled Baker, 34, who also kicked a drug habit three years ago. “I learned at Twin Cities Rise that I have everything inside of me that I need.”
Baker, who also did jail time in his 20s, was relegated to day labor jobs until he enrolled at Twin Cities Rise, the 20-year-old nonprofit started by former business executive Steve Rothschild. It works with second-chance folks on “personal empowerment,” decisionmaking, education-and-skill development and job placement.
“I came in here with a positive attitude and everything pretty much worked for me,” said Minor, 44, who kicked a booze-and-cigarette addiction in 2013. He freshened his skills and now works as a tax preparer and real estate agent.
“The classes, the personal empowerment program, they helped my speech and gave me a boost and more confidence. People now find that I’m pretty driven, and focused. And I now have a great relationship with my sons. They are doing super.”
Baker, who has a genetic physical disability, was getting by several years ago on a $700-per-month Social Security disability payment. He wasn’t able to provide much to his wife and family on that. He occasionally worked a day-labor job. He was miserable.
He went through recovery. At Rise and another training program, he completed personal empowerment and skills training.
Baker took a job in early 2014 as a machine operator at New French Bakery at $11.50 an hour, plus benefits, often working up to 60 hours a week for overtime pay. In recent weeks, Baker is recovering from foot surgery. He hopes to return to his old job, or possibly drive a fork lift, or work a customer-service job, thanks to newfound computer and communications skills. He won’t have to stand as much.
“It’s hard to get work when you are a felon,” Baker said. “This job provided me a work history and a platform [for a better future]. I feel good about myself now.”
I’m not sure if there is a magic bullet for curing the education or opportunity gaps, particularly between low-income minorities and whites.
Chuck Denny, the former CEO who has tutored second-chance minority GED students for years, talks about how many, particularly the offenders, came from broken homes and fell behind in school right away. They lacked the supportive families and opportunities that most of us took for granted.
Success starts with a functional family, getting kids ready for school so they don’t fall behind at the outset and drop out, and support-and-training programs for those who need a hand up. The economic research tells us these are good investments. And the right thing to do.
The people who run Rise, Emerge, Summit Academy OIC and other education empowerment and skills training programs on the North Side of Minneapolis are the front-line resources for the second- and third-chancers in the toughest part of our community.
And our economy, with thousands of baby boomers retiring daily, will need everybody we can muster to work.
“I tell employers and chamber of commerce groups that I speak to that our economy has recovered, we are near full employment and most people know that the people disproportionately unemployed are people of color,” said Tom Streitz, the Rise CEO who has worked in law, business and government. “And some of them have challenges to employment such as run-ins with the law, chemical dependency, lack of education. … And by 2040 the majority of workers will be people of color, maybe sooner.
“We have a moment in time. Are we going to meet them, if they are willing and ready, to train them and help them become taxpaying citizens? Or will we say, ‘Good luck … see you back in prison. We need to help them prepare for a life of economic independence. They have to walk that path. We can support and guide them.
“I offer great employees to our employer customers. And 77 percent are on the job two years after starting. That’s better than the general workforce.”
Rise has trained about 4,000 people since its inception. The nonprofit business says that for every $1 the state has invested, it returns $7 to taxpayers through taxes and lower public services. The average Rise student goes from making about $5,000 annually to a beginning salary of $27,000.
This is not getting rich. It is about the first rung on the ladder to self-sufficiency.
Earlier this month Metro Transit, the bus-and-train system that expects to lose half of its mechanics to retirement over the next decade or so, struck a deal with Rise and Hennepin Technical College to train bus mechanics. Full-time mechanics start at $24 an hour, or $50,000. And Metro Transit will need a lot of replacement drivers, as well.
What a swing that it is from the $50,000-or-so cost of a year in jail.