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Ferguson program preparing black men prepare for success

August 10, 2018

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The charcoal gray suit looked like it was tailor-made for Dorian Jordan’s tall, slender frame.

He tugged on the jacket lapels a few times, adjusted the perfectly knotted tie, and smiled.

“I’m a step closer to my new self,” Jordan, 43, said. The last time he had worn a suit, he was 11 and attending an Easter service.

Jordan had been out of prison for exactly one week after serving nearly 10 years for dealing cocaine. And now he was here, trying on a donated suit at an Urban League center built specifically for men like Jordan.

Officially called the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, the building opened a year ago and sits where a QuikTrip once stood. The convenience store was burned down during the unrest following the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of Michael Brown, becoming the backdrop for months of protests.

The center’s core program is Save Our Sons, designed to prepare African-American men for jobs, especially those who are not getting a foot in the door based on their criminal background, lack of education, work experience or color of their skin, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

“Somehow, this program came out of the ashes,” said Waheed Muhaimin, a graduate of the program commonly referred to as SOS. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, a nonprofit in the region for 100 years, began talking with African-American men following the death of Brown.

“We want jobs” was the cry, said Michael McMillan, CEO of the Urban League. The agency landed $1.2 million in corporate donations to start SOS, and has established 100 relationships with companies who agree to interview those in the program for employment.

In more than three years, 450 north St. Louis County and St. Louis city men have gone through the program; 400 have landed jobs. A graduation ceremony was held last week for the 29th SOS class. About half of the 25 men showed up, hugging family members and posing for photos with their framed certificates.

Muhaimin, 46, is college-educated and worked in hotel management. But a felony landed on his record for not paying child support. Suddenly, his experience and education didn’t matter.

“My confidence had been shattered. SOS helped to boost that for me,” Muhaimin said. Over a four-week period, those in the program learn interview skills, get help with résumés, hear from company executives and human resource managers on what they are looking for in workers, and share stories of success and struggles.

Those who run SOS say first impressions are just as important as experience. So providing a new suit, including a tutorial on how to properly tie a tie, is an integral part of SOS. The suits are donated from various retailers including Brooks Brothers, Macy’s and Men’s Wearhouse.

“We like to say this program is not for everyone, but it is for anyone whose desire is to change their life,” said Jamie Dennis, SOS director. “If you are actually tired of what you have been going through out on the street, the quick hustles, the cash under the table, we are here to legitimize the hustle, so to speak. We’re talking long-term change, not to just get a job but how you fit into the community and represent that community.”

Dennis said the overarching goal of SOS is to flip the script on how black men are perceived.

“Basically, we’re rebranding ourselves. We want society to see black men in a different light,” Dennis said. Doing that includes dressing professionally and being prepared for opportunities that pop up.

“A lot of times, African-American men have a braggadocious attitude,” he said. Putting a black man in a suit “doesn’t soften up their masculinity or make them any less of a black person in their community. It’s opening up more opportunity because they become more approachable.”

Howard Shelton, 31, went through SOS in its early stages when he was bouncing from temp job to temp job, frustrated by a lack of traction in a career. Today, he makes $23 an hour working on an assembly line at the General Motors plant in Wentzville.

He credits SOS for making his life “100 times better than where it was.” Even though the program is technically four weeks long, Urban League continues working with each man who completes the program for up to a year. Some come back and talk to other classes, serving as mentors and offering tips for how they landed jobs.

“It’s a brotherhood,” Shelton said. “I love this program.” As the father of an 8-month-old son, “he can have everything he needs and some things he wants. That paycheck does nothing but put a smile on my son’s face, and that gives me enjoyment. As a black man, we fall into that trap that we have a child, but we’re not able to do anything for them.”

Ronald Jones, 22, lives in the Canfield Green apartment complex, where Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer. He joined SOS in the spring while working at McDonald’s and now has a job packing boxes at a bakery, making $11 an hour. Jones already has his eye on becoming a forklift operator there, a position that comes with a bigger paycheck.

“A lot of the energy I have, I get from these men,” Jones said while sitting in the Urban League center. “I feel like they want to be here for me. Everybody wants success for everybody else. Not everybody outside these walls feels that way.”

Venterias Johnson, 17, said he didn’t expect to live this long. Three of his friends were killed in street violence, his mom died when he was 10, and his dad was not in the picture. He dropped out of high school.

“If not for SOS, I would have been dead by age 15. I was living a fast-paced life. I didn’t care about nothing at all,” Johnson said. But through the program, he got his GED and a job as a machine operator at a bakery. But that is only the beginning, he said.

“Machine operator, yeah, that’s cool,” Johnson said. “But I want to be a supervisor. They make $25 an hour. You can’t stop at one particular thing and live on $13.25 an hour all my life. I still want to go to college. I’ve got to make something of that GED.”

It’s that kind of drive that helps move the men past job readiness to job in-hand, said Sterling Higdon, a workforce development specialist with SOS.

“We polish them up and send them out into the world,” Higdon said. “When the individual wants it, it makes it much easier.”

The $4 million Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, built largely with private donations, is a joint operation of the Urban League and the Salvation Army. The opening last year served as the kickoff for the National Urban League’s four-day conference in St. Louis, which drew 25,000 people.

Brown’s parents attended the ceremony and ribbon-cutting, which took place on the parking lot and just a few feet from a memorial to the 18-year-old. It includes a bench on a large pad of concrete, the cement mixed with 100 shredded stuffed animals. They were part of a makeshift memorial that grew in the middle of Canfield Drive, where Brown died.

“This bench and decorative concrete base commemorate the social justice, change and movement toward a more just society that came about after his death,” the plaque reads.

“The issue with police, the division between black and white, middle class and poor. It was something fuming,” Muhaimin said. The eruption that followed Brown’s death “was going to happen. It was just a matter of when.”

Jordan, the newest member of the program, followed the Ferguson unrest from his prison cell in Marion, Illinois, reading newspaper accounts and watching CNN broadcast from West Florissant Avenue.

“I kind of thought there was going to be a revolution,” Jordan said, sitting in his suit, a GPS bracelet on his left ankle to monitor his activity while on probation. “I thought what they were doing was needed.”

It was in his cell where Jordan said he had plenty of time to think about his future. How he had never had a job — “a legal job” — and what he would do when he was back in the St. Louis area as a free man.

“I never had a chance to find myself, figure myself out,” Jordan said. He started selling crack cocaine when he was 13.

“It was a way of surviving poverty,” he said, helping a single mom raise a family. But it led to trouble with the law. Two stints in prison, including the last one, added up to 15 years.

Jordan has four children; a fifth, a 22-year-old son, was fatally shot near Union Station in January after quarreling with other riders on a MetroLink train.

Recently, as Jordan got used to his new suit, Higdon went over a quick résumé he had prepared. It was short on work experience but honest about Jordan’s past.

Under Education, a single entry: “General Education Development,” referring to the GED Jordan got at “Marion U.S.P., 4500 Prison Road,” in 2010.

Under Experience is listed janitor and “trash auditor.” Under skills: “Excellent communicator. Excellent problem-solving.”

It is important to get something down on paper as a starting point, Higdon said. It can be fleshed out later with job experience and completion of the SOS program, which Jordan has not officially begun. The suit-fitting and quick résumé writing were to have Jordan ready for a job interview the following day. SOS arranged for Jordan to meet with the hiring manager at a barbecue restaurant in need of a dishwasher.

But Jordan didn’t show, and the restaurant hired three people on Tuesday.

It is an opportunity most likely lost, Higdon said. Jordan told him he went “off the tracking path” and was confined to his halfway house.

Higdon hopes the wrong turn was not a dead end. That Jordan does come back to begin the classes and work toward getting the first real job of his life.

“We’ll see if he really wants it,” Higdon said, disappointment in his voice.

If SOS can save one more.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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