Rooftop Revelations: Reformed convicts deserve a second chance, are an untapped labor pool

on Feb25
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America has often been called the nation of second chances. At the same time, America can seem quite unforgiving. In today’s culture wars, the principle of forgiveness, the very thing that makes second chances possible, rarely warrants a mention. Perhaps no group has felt that America may not always be a nation of second chances than the men and women who served their time in prison.

While there are men and women who are irredeemable and will re-offend, there are many individuals who have truly repented. However, their wrongful deeds mark them forever like the scarlet letter, no matter their efforts to prove otherwise. Where is the forgiveness? What does America lose when she does not offer the repentant a second chance?

On the 97th day of his 100-day rooftop vigil to build a community center to transform the South Side of Chicago into a thriving community, Pastor Corey Brooks invited Jeff Korzenik, the author of “Untapped Talent,” to the rooftop for a discussion. Korzenik is an economic researcher, author and chief investment strategist for Fifth Third Bank. 

“When we talk about ‘Untapped Talent,’ your subtitle says, ‘How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community,’” the pastor said. “I want to ask you, when it comes to second chance hiring and returning citizens, people who are returning into society from prison, why do we have this problem with these individuals in the first place?”

ROOFTOP REVELATIONS: EMPLOYMENT AND SECURITY ARE KEY TO UPLIFTING NEIGHBORHOODS

“The problem is a universal human condition that young people make mistakes, and in particular, young men make mistakes. And unfortunately, we have a system in our country and a culture that is very unforgiving,” Korzenik replied. “It is fine that there are consequences for bad actions. Some of those can rightfully include incarceration, but what’s not fine is when someone has done their time, paid their dues, that they are forever ever branded as less than a full citizen, as less than a full human being, and denied the opportunity to become contributing members of society.”

“Why do you feel that we’ve made it so much more difficult for these individuals to get jobs and to reenter back into society?” the pastor followed up.

“The justice system has overly relied on incarceration, and then we live in a society that has changed over time. The typical business owners may have had no interaction with people with criminal records, and so they’re the ‘others,’” Krozenik explained. “Then there’s a lot of fear of legal liability – it’s technically called negligent hiring liability – if you hire someone with a criminal record. And there are answers to all of these, but we’ve also had, until recently, just a surplus of labor in this country, so we never had to worry about it. There was never a need to dig deeper into our population from a business perspective. And that’s changing, but it’s left us in a [detrimental] position. And if I may give you the numbers?”

“Absolutely, please.”

“Nineteen million Americans have a felony conviction, and that includes one-in-three black men in America.”

“Wow.”

“And this has become an incredible barrier to being able to participate in society, taking care of your family, and it causes intergenerational poverty.”

“When you say one-in three-African American males—and then the fact that it’s creating generational poverty, two things that we’re trying to alleviate … Here at Project H.O.O.D, we want to fix that problem. How do we go about fixing that issue?” the pastor asked. 

“It has to start with the business community. They have to become open to this, and not just open in an easy-to-say way, ‘Oh, we’re a fair employer,’” Korzenik said. “They have to dig into their process and say, ‘How are we unintentionally excluding people? What do we have to do?’ And a key component of what they have to do is to partner with organizations like Project H.O.O.D.”

“Because you, as an employer, need someone who is going to help prepare young people who’ve made mistakes and, critically, for the employer, help determine who’s truly ready to be a good employee,” Korzenik continued. “And then employers also have to learn that this group may come with gaps — any talent pool comes with gaps, things they need to thrive. The gaps of this group are things we’re not used to thinking about in the business community: access to transportation and housing. Organizations like Project H.O.O.D. have to help provide those wraparound services in partnership with the business community.”

“What is it that caused you to come up with this idea? What happened that Jeff said, ‘Listen, I’m going to help with this area. I’m going to help fix it.’ What happened?” the pastor asked.

“I have two answers,” Korzenik said. “The official answer is: I’m a banker and our companies need employees. And I discovered that there are employers out there that have created pathways for people who’ve been marginalized from the labor force. This is a solution that supports our employers and also makes our communities better. So what better role for a banker?”

“Absolutely.”

“Here’s the unofficial answer. My father, who passed away in 2003, was my hero. I’m 60 years old, and my dad is still my hero. He was the first in the family to go to college. He was raised in deep poverty, and he never forgot his roots,” Korzenik explained. “As a kid, he would return on weekends to do what he called errands, and I later realized it was just visiting his old neighborhood. And one day, when I was eight or 10, I went along with him and he introduced me to a friend of his. They had a nice conversation. And when we walked away, my dad said, ‘You know my friend was in prison?’”

“Wow.”

“I said, ‘For what,’ and my dad said, ‘For murder. A crime of passion.’ And then my dad said something that stuck with me forever. He said, ‘He’s done his time,’ and I think that is something that drives me as an American. I’m the son and grandson of immigrants. This country has been the land of second chances for us. I want everyone to have a second chance and an opportunity to take part in the American dream.”

“When these brothers and sisters [return] into our community from the prison system, what is their response? How do they respond to the things that you’re doing for them and helping them find a place in society?” the pastor inquired. 

“People would hug me. I’d get letters from prison,” Korzenik remembered. “This gentleman wrote me from prison and said, ‘Your article hangs on our prison library wall. It gives all of us here hope.’”

Korzenik went on to explain that his book tells the incarcerated: “You think you’re a burden. You’re not. You’re a resource.”

“What’s the future of this type of market that you’re talking about? This ‘Untapped Talent’?”

“We stopped having enough babies 20 and 30 years ago in this country. We have a labor shortage that simply isn’t going away.”

“Right.”

“For the first time, everyone in the business community has to care about these issues and has to look to creating pathways for people who’ve been marginalized. The business community are really good problem solvers, and they’ve never had to help work on these problems. And I have to commend Project H.O.O.D. You’ve done an incredible job in partnering with the business community in Chicago already.”

“Thank you.”

“Really unusual for an organization like this. This is an opportunity to put all those talents to work, to making this right, and getting the business community to understand that people who are justice-involved are their future workforce,” Korzenik detailed. “I urge them to look at this as a true talent pool.

“Wow.”

“What I’m really concerned about today is businesses are going to go back to something we’ve seen before: ‘Gee, I can’t find labor. I guess I’m going to lower my standards.’”

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“Yes.”

“That’s not it. This is looking at people who’ve had unique life experiences, but bring real talent to the situation. And so I want businesses to understand that the core way you approach a talent pool, find who’s a good fit for what you’re trying to do with your enterprise and then critically understand the gaps they have and what you need to do to support them … The reason this works so well for businesses – the way they get such highly engaged and loyal employees – is because this is a talent pool that hasn’t been picked over. It’s an untapped opportunity for the business community.”

“Everybody who knows me knows that I’m a person that believes in giving people a lot of grace,” the pastor said. “I preach the Bible. One of the reasons why I preach the Bible is because it’s a book of giving people second chances. When you’re talking about Moses, who was a murderer, David, who was an adulterer, Jonah, who just didn’t want to obey God. The Bible is replete, it’s full. Paul, who was a killer of Christians. It’s full of people making mistakes, but God used them.”

Follow along as Fox News checks in Pastor Corey Brooks each day with a new Rooftop Revelation.

For more information, please visit Project H.O.O.D.

Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele.

Camera by Terrell Allen.



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