What both men remember, vividly in fact, about their first meeting was that Bruce Jones was skeptical. Fresh off a two-year stint in prison, he’d only enrolled in the Employment and Education Program at the BOSS Career Training and Employment Center in Oakland, because his parole officer had ordered him to, and, for the $12.50-an-hour paycheck.
But he really didn’t expect much, other than maybe some nerd with a clipboard greeting him at orientation with a list of local businesses, shooing him out the door while saying drily: “Here go some jobs; they’re hiring. Good Luck.”
And initially, LaMerle Johnson, a CTEC transitional work counselor at the time, fit the bill. With his buttoned-downed demeanor, eyeglasses and clean-shaven mien, “I look like a square boy,” LaMerle concedes. He led Bruce, rather robotically, through the orientation process, then turned the floor over to the younger man.
Now tell me, he prodded Jones, a little bit about yourself, And so he did, recounting how he had been convicted of robbery and kidnapping charges but had not, he insists, done the crime.
“Well, I did 20 years and 10 months for those same charges,” LaMerle told him, “and I definitely did do it.”
“He was skeptical at first,” LaMerle recalled of Jones. “But when I told him that I had been on the frontline too, we had his full attention then.”
Bruce is one of 17 graduates of CTEC’s third graduating class, and this Friday, the 31-year old will be at Oakland City Hall celebrating his transformation, from a heretic to a man of faith. Three weeks after he started at CTEC, Intake Coordinator Ronald Broach bounded into the office one morning, beaming like a lottery winner, and announced: “I’ve got the perfect job for you.”
Bruce today earns as much as $14.55-an-hour parking cars, and barely six months into the job, is up for a promotion to manager.
“I’m moving up,” Bruce says proudly. “When I went to jail I thought my life was over. But CTEC convinced me that you can redeem yourself by showing up and showing out, as Ronald always says. I could just relate to everyone at CTEC.
Every word that came out of their mouth was truth.”
The trust that Bruce underscores and finds its expression in almost evangelical terms is what social service providers refer to as “culturally-tailored” and that is what Donald Frazier, the executive director for the East Bay organization, Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, or BOSS, had in mind when he hired Broach virtually on the spot after hearing him speak at a meeting of Alameda County nonprofits two years ago.
Tall and angular with flowing dreadlocks, the 47-year-old Broach is the kind of guy who could conceivably charm a cat off a fish truck. From an idyllic, African American family in East Oakland, Broach sold his first bag of weed at 15, has been shot more times than you’d think possible for a human being who continues to draw breath, and spent the better part of his adult life in prison before he was released in 2013. He was working part-time for an Oakland nonprofit when his supervisor sent him to the countywide meeting of philanthropists and social service providers.
“She thought it might be good if everyone heard my story.”
In the hotel conference room of nearly 40 attendees, Broach listened intently as one service provider after another boasted of their efficiency in helping ex-offenders get back on their feet. When they were finished, he raised his hand to speak, commending everyone for their efforts on behalf of parolees, before launching into a broadside in which he explained how their programs were unplugged from the gritty realities of most ex-cons, and his own personal feeling of futility in trying to comply with their requirements.
“I speak for everyone who has found themselves in this position when I say that I feel like a rabid dog chasing my tail,” he told his audience.
Before he left that day, he had three job offers, one from Frazier, the CEO of BOSS, which was created in 1971 to address the burgeoning homeless crisis triggered by then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s deinstitutionalization of mental patients.
Initially, Broach was hired to pick up trash in downtown Berkeley as part of BOSS’s Clean City partnership with the city’s Department of Public Works. But employing his mantra – “show up and show out” – Broach proved his mettle, winning one promotion at BOSS after another, until he landed a case manager’s job at CTEC.
The result is a hands-on, whatever-it-takes-model to reduce recidivism, help citizens returning from incarceration find work, and reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, said training coordinator Joanna Martinez. On any given day at CTEC’s spartan offices you might overhear a conversation about the educational theories of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire one minute, or Broach telling someone to pull their pants up. (So constant is Broach’s crusade against sagging pants that one young man said that he was standing alone at an Oakland bus stop one afternoon when he thought he heard Broach admonishing him once again, reflexively he pulled up his pants, and turned to see if Broach was standing behind him.)
“I refuse to make this quantum physics,” Broach said. “Just do the right thing.”
If CTEC didn’t necessarily reinvent Jones and the 117 others who have graduated from the program, it has helped them remap the borders of what they once thought was possible, recalibrate their ambition and the trajectory of their lives, and perhaps most importantly, restore their faith in themselves.
“Graduating from CTEC is a very big deal for me,” said Jones. “I’ve never accomplished something this big that I’ve actually been recognized for.”
Story produced by Communications Team
Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox and Haku Production House