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Workforce Development

The Miracle in Milwaukee

8 min read

How the Joseph Project renews hope for formerly incarcerated individuals through the power of faith, work, and relationships.

“Every single person received a job offer.” —Pastor Jerome Smith, founder of The Joseph Project

Historically, Milwaukee, Wisconsin has had a reputation for being one of the poorest cities in America. CBS News ranked it #2 on a list of America’s poorest cities with populations over 500,000.

The cause was the absence of jobs, according to city officials. Unemployment was especially affecting the African American community— Wisconsin had the highest African American unemployment rate in the nation (19.9 percent).

With so many individuals not working, Milwaukee became known as the “home of black incarceration.” In 2013, an eye-opening study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee showed the state’s incarceration rates were the highest in the country for African American men. In other words, the city was embroiled in unemployment and incarceration.

That was in 2013.

In January 2018, a local news source published a report stating the Milwaukee unemployment rate hit a new record low (3.4 percent), according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s a staggering drop from 19 percent to 3.4 percent over the course of five years.

It’s impossible to point to one organization, group, or person as the sole party responsible for the incredible transformation of the city, but the following story serves as an example of how a community effort led by social entrepreneurs living in the heart of Milwaukee helped break the cycle of poverty in the city.

In 2014, a group of local leaders, including Pastor Jerome Smith of Greater Praise Church of God in Christ and Orlando Owens of the office of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, gathered weekly to discuss the growing poverty in their community.

“Over and over again in the discussions, it always came back to a lack of employment and income,” said Pastor Smith.

Owens soon started a new job working for U.S. Senator Ron Johnson in Sheboygan County, a Milwaukee suburb, and made a shocking discovery. He immediately called Pastor Smith.

“We have 4,000 manufacturing job openings available in Sheboygan County but not enough people living in the area to fill the positions.”

Pastor Smith replied excitedly, “Well, we have a ton of people in Milwaukee needing jobs. We must figure out a way to bring the two together.”

Pastor Smith reported the news back to his weekly meeting and said they could use his church vans as a means of transportation to get people from the city out to the Sheboygan jobs.

A plan began to take form through numerous conversations between the senator’s office, Sheboygan employers, and Milwaukee pastors. Pastor Smith would identify and vet motivated candidates, Senator Johnson staffers and volunteers would lead workshops to prepare them for the workforce and provide inroads to building relationships with reputable companies, and manufacturers would provide entry-level jobs that offered better wages and life-changing benefits.

Over the next few weeks, Pastor Smith went around the community and asked, “Who needs a job?”

A mother’s son, a nephew, a grandson—word got out and names started to pour in. Unemployed and formerly incarcerated individuals made the list.

The first free five-day workshop launched in 2015. Seventeen individuals showed up. Each day consisted of three hours of training where participants took part in professional and personal training, including:

  • Spiritual fitness
  • Conflict resolution
  • Goal setting
  • Time management
  • Financial management
  • Team building
  • Resume building
  • Mock interviews

By the end of the week, 14 had made it through the workshop.

Just as was planned and promised, all 14 people received job offers from the Sheboygan manufacturers.

Thus, the Joseph Project was born.

A year later, the Pastor Smith began noticing a trend among the unemployed or underemployed participants in the program: Most individuals had been previously incarcerated. What if they could help break this cycle of poverty by training these individuals earlier and connecting them to jobs quicker -- before they exited the justice system and struggled for a period of time without a job?

At the same time, Pastor Smith also saw the inefficacy of existing prison programs. Individuals served their time and are released but a majority end up reoffending within six months, and end up back in jail. No lasting transformation ever took place. “Everyone else is selling people a bill of goods when they get out,” said Pastor Smith. “I wanted to do something different. We showed up at the jailhouse 3-4 times a day to connect with these people.”

The Joseph Project’s second chances program starts at the deepest level—a man’s soul and spirit.

Being faith-based is what sets the Joseph Project apart from other prison programs. It allows them to reach individuals in a deeper way than simply treating the external symptoms.

“Transformation starts with changing the heart of man. People can’t change, others or themselves. Only God can change people,” says Pastor Smith.

The program is founded on the practice that faith restores the foundational belief in oneself and lays the groundwork of hope to start building a better future. Faith restores the big “why” question in a person’s life and is a crucial part of the job training classes the Joseph Project teaches.

After faith, the next step in the Joseph Project’s model is work.

Under the Huber Law privileges in Wisconsin, any person sentenced to a county jail or on probation may be granted the privilege of leaving the jail during necessary and reasonable hours for a number of purposes including, but not limited to, employment.

Seeing this as an opportunity, the Joseph Project implemented a shuttle program for incarcerated individuals to get to a job.

“We picked them up, took them to work, and dropped them back off,” said Pastor Smith.

Soon, he and his team started to observe internal changes in the incarcerated individuals. “Workers would build relationships with other people [at work] and learn that there are good people out there who care about you,” said Pastor Smith. “That made it hard for them to walk back to where they came from. Plus, they also had income now. After 90 days of parole, they had money to stay put in a job.”

But it didn’t stop there. “Some people say it takes 21 days to form a habit,” said Pastor Smith. “I disagree. Three to six months is more like what it takes.”

To further anchor a positive belief in themselves, the Joseph Project created a special incentive program that offers a financial bonus to anyone who stays in a job 90 days from the time they are released. This incentive has helped reduce recidivism rates drastically. For the two years that the Joseph Project has been offering it, only two out of 47 people have re-offended after 30 days. Pastor Smith talked about the incentive as a benefit to employers, too: “‘I’ll take a chance on you,’ employers say, because there’s no way they’ll walk away from the bonus.”

For many people behind bars, it’s the belief that there is no opportunity to look forward to that makes it easy to slip into despair or back into their old ways.

But the Joseph Project reverses this—not only do they have an opportunity, but they also know they’ll earn a bonus at the end of 90 days, which is an incredible motivation to give their employer everything they’ve got.

Workers hired through the program typically earn between $14-$18.50 an hour—far more than any wage they’d make in prison—at good companies like Johnsonville Sausage and John Deere.

Today, the Joseph Project has nine shuttles and eleven different routes in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas. As they’ve expanded to adjacent townships like Green Bay and Wausau, they’ve partnered with Uber and taxi companies to provide more reliable transportation.

The last step in the Joseph Project model is where the lasting transformation happens.

Good relationships sustain a person’s transformation for the long-term.

By coming to work on time and doing the work, incarcerated individuals form new and healthy relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and customers.

These bonds protect against backsliding and downward spiraling.

For example, Pastor Smith told the story of an individual who had been with the Joseph Project for a while. “She started a job and she was doing well. She moved to a different job outside the area. [Outside of work] she got close to people who weren’t a good influence on her. But the relationships she had built while on the job pulled her back. It wasn’t worth it. If she didn’t have the work relationships, she would have moved and gotten into a world of trouble.”

Work not only instills a sense of self-worth and value in a person, but it also creates a positive community around the individual. Relationships are the safety net for hard times. Instead of returning to destructive behaviors or relationships, new and positive relationships through jobs spur a person to keep believing in themselves.

The three components form the heart of the Joseph Project’s second chances program—faith, work, and relationships—and act as a powerful combination in achieving personal transformation.

The Joseph Project started as an unlikely partnership in Milwaukee that stemmed from discussions by community leaders who wanted to help their city’s most hurting populations. By knitting together the power of faith, the dignity of work, and the love of committed relationships, individuals are transforming themselves and their communities and breaking out of the cycle of incarceration for good.

You can support The Joseph Project and help them serve more individuals in Milwaukee.

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