Startup helps people affected by gangs and gun violence find a way out | NPR News

Bretto Jackson hated a lot of things about federal prison, but not everything. This gave him access to people he would never have met otherwise.

“The problem with prison is that you all wear the same thing,” he says. “Everyone has the same new $ 40 balances.” Even, for example, the Wall Street criminals in Rikers Island. “These guys were just sitting across from me, drinking their coffee, reading their Wall Street Journals.”

Jackson’s fellow inmates opened his eyes to the concepts of investment and the tools of finance, a world far from the theft charge that put him in jail for 61 months. He became a the Wall Street newspaper reader too.

After leaving prison, Jackson wanted to use his newfound financial sense to allow others like him to find legal avenues to earn money.

Today, he and a partner run a small startup in Portland, Oregon called Leaders Become Legends. They mentor those involved in gun violence and connect them with companies that recruit for green jobs, such as solar panel installation companies and recycling facilities.

Unlike minimum wage or fast food gigs, this job pays well. The starting salary can be close to $ 20 an hour. A living wage, says Jackson, is essential to finding a way out of gun violence.

Damien Rouse is on the program. He first went to prison at the age of 14 and spent much of his late teens and early adulthood incarcerated. Last year Rouse’s brother was shot and killed. The two were close, only a year apart, the middle children in a family of six.

“When he died, part of me died too,” Rouse says.

He would like to leave Portland, he said. He never feels safe here.

Through Leaders Become Legends, Rouse worked with a local energy company to assemble and install solar panels. He says the most important skill he has learned in this program is not technical; this is how to compartmentalize. The job can be scary sometimes, installing signs 45 or 60 feet in the air. He cannot be distracted.

“When I go to work,” he says, “it’s like, OK, I’m just going to focus on the job and get there”. This wisdom is something he passes on to other program participants.

As a child, Rouse watched her uncles, cousins ​​and father go to jail. He is determined to give his own 6 year old son a different life.

Last year, Portland, Oregon – like much of the country – saw a devastating increase in gun violence. Homicide rates here are higher than they have been for two decades.

City leaders are working to resolve the issue with law enforcement strategies, including increased police presence and collaboration with the FBI. The Leaders Become Legends program, on the other hand, is funded by the city’s economic development branch, far upstream from the police.

This type of mentoring, Jackson says, takes time and patience. Six months ago, he and his partner received their first $ 10,000 grant from the city as part of a small pilot project. Before that, they did this work on their own and through other nonprofits they worked for.

Over the past year, Jackson estimates he has found work for 10 people. They plan to scale up with much larger sums next year through a municipal program subsidizing clean energy jobs.

Tax incentives and legal requirements for green energy are driving healthy demand for this business. In most cases, Jackson says, the bosses in this industry are supportive and the colleagues sympathetic. But not always. Part of the training, says Jackson, is managing expectations.

“You might see a swastika tattoo on one of these guys, you might see a Trump sign, a Make America Great Again sticker on one of those bumpers of these trucks,” Jackson says. He cautions participants not to let this distract them. “Think about your children,” he told them.

“Our total mission is not to let them go back to jail or be dead,” says Jackson. “Besides dealing with our trauma of just being so-called Black in America.”

This trauma is sometimes less dramatic than the arrests or shootings. Recently at the solar panel site, another program participant, Tay’Andre Churn, arrived late for the construction site after being arrested on his way to this affluent suburb.

“I think he saw a black dude, and it went from there,” Churn says. Getting arrested, he says, is “an almost everyday type thing.”

Despite their frequency, police stops are never so easy. Between these encounters and the violence in his community, Churn recognizes that he lives with a lot of fear and a deep sense of injustice.

But with two children to feed, he says, he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. Instead, he buckles up his safety harness and gets to work.

About Walter Bartholomew

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