When Phillip Cooper completed a prison sentence in 2011, he spent months applying for jobs that he was told would be available to those with a criminal record. Living with his father in Candler, he was trying to support his two children, but no one would give him a chance.
“A Black man with a violent conviction is the hardest person to help get a job,” he tells Xpress. “When I got out of prison, I got told ‘no’ after ‘no.’”
Finally, CiCi Weston, a parishioner at his church, helped him land a job at the YWCA. It set him on the path where he is today — working at the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board at Land of Sky Regional Council, a multicounty planning and development organization. He is the project director for a Land of Sky program that provides job training and career support to criminal justice-involved young adults from the highest-poverty areas in Asheville.
The GO PLACES project is funded by a nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I can relate to the young guys,” says Cooper, who also understands what it’s like to live with a substance use disorder. “A lot of times people don’t know about the pathway. So, we’re brightening the pathway.”
‘People being left behind’
The GO PLACES project will zero in on men or women who are:
- Between the ages 18 and 24.
- Either live in Asheville’s highest poverty areas or who’ll return to those areas when their sentences are complete.
- Were either kicked out of school, have been on probation or parole, or were incarcerated.
- Have one or more risk factors associated with criminal activity, such as current or prior gang membership or a parent who is currently or formerly incarcerated.
According to Land of Sky’s grant application, the focus will be on Asheville’s two poorest areas. Poverty rates in these areas are 33.43% and 22.30%, for a combined poverty rate of 26.36%.
“We know that poverty is the main contributor to criminogenic activity,” explains Cooper. “The violence that we see, the poverty, the substance misuse, the lack of behavioral health treatment and everything — it’s coming from the same neighborhoods.”
The grant is set up so that more than half of participants will be referred by local offices for probation, parole, juvenile detention or the District Attorney’s Office, says Vicki Jennings, Land of Sky’s strategic initiative director. (According to the N.C. Department of Corrections, 53 individuals in that age group returned to Buncombe County from prison in 2022.) Other referrals can come from other partners with the project, such as school districts.
The project builds on research that shows certain factors keep individuals living in poverty. A racial disparity study released in February by Land of Sky showed that on average people of color in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties have less educational attainment, experience significant criminal justice disparities and earn lower wages compared with white individuals, says Mountain Area Workforce Development Board Director Nathan Ramsey. The report was derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The study found “stark disparities in almost every metric in our community,” Ramsey says.
The GO PLACES project is “an effort helping us make progress to try to reduce and eliminate those disparities,” Ramsey says. “We have a lot of people being left behind.”
Jennings anticipates the project can assist around 350 people, depending on their financial needs. Some may need tuition for job training, while others may not require any financial boost.
Training and living wages
Asheville’s GO PLACES participants will receive job training and individual development plans to ensure they’re trained for jobs that are in demand in the local labor market. Each participant is required to complete 200 hours of work experience, which could be on-the-job training, an apprenticeship, an internship, or paid or subsidized employment.
Land of Sky has several employers who have committed to becoming work experience sites, including Linamar Light Metals, Silver-Line Plastics Corp. and Mountain Area Health Education Center, says Gene Ettison, GO PLACES project mentor.
Participants can take classes at schools with short-term job training programs, such as A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Community College, in fields such as phlebotomy, construction management technology or office administration. “Our goal is probably not going to be a two-year business degree at A-B Tech. The point is short-term job training for a credentialed position,” explains Jennings.
The program also will pay participants to learn. Otherwise, they would have to focus on earning money rather than taking classes. “We’re actually paying them a wage while they’re in this training,” Ettison explains.
GO PLACES is focusing its efforts on jobs that pay at least $15 per hour. The program also will bring participants up to the current living wage of $20.10 as determined by Just Economics of North Carolina. “If an employer takes a chance on an individual and that [role] is only paying $15 an hour, we will subsidize and actually bring them up to a living wage,” Ettison explains. (The statewide minimum wage is $7.25, according to the N.C. Department of Labor.)
The grant also requires Land of Sky to partner with violence prevention organizations that have “experience in delivering culturally competent outreach to individuals with a high risk of committing violence (and/or becoming a victim) to interrupt the cycle of violence.”
It’s working with the YWCA, youth development nonprofit My Daddy Taught Me That and the SPARC Foundation, which works to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Jennings says participants will be able to take advantage of these partners’ resources, including child care at the YWCA.
The three organizations were chosen because they’re already embedded in communities most affected by poverty and violence. “Some of the shootings that happen, we know the parents and we know the people doing the shootings,” Cooper explains. “So, it’s not going to be a heavy lift for us to be able to get into these communities … because we’re already trusted by the community.”
‘This world is cold’
An aspect of the project that excites Cooper is mentorship. “When I see what it took for me to be successful, I wanted to replicate that,” he says, noting individuals from his church and his 12-step recovery group have supported him. “Everybody needs access to something like a sponsor, like a mentor, a coach — somebody that’s pouring into their cup,” he says. “This world is cold out here, and they need somebody to help them get through.”
Mentors will help participants with “stuff that goes on outside of the job” that can affect job retention, like “if you’re sick, let your employer know ASAP — don’t just [not show up],” Cooper says. “‘Oh, you got a better job opportunity?’ Work out a two-week notice, homie. Don’t just quit on the people. … ‘Oh, you’ve got baby mama drama?’ Talk about it with somebody, bro. Don’t just blow up.”
The USDOL grant allows six months of planning for the project. However, everyone involved is eager to get started, says Ettison. The YWCA and My Daddy Taught Me That already are hiring community health workers, he says, and the initiative may kick off as soon as June or July.
Once participants are paired with a community health worker, he or she will set personal goals, Ettison explains.
Like Cooper, he’s thrilled to help young adults from a background similar to his. Ettison, who grew up in the Erskine Street Apartments and has been incarcerated, is excited to “bring positivity and ensure that the next generation has a fighting chance at sustainability of life, employment education that I never had access to,” he says.
“It’s an amazing feeling. Like I can’t even put into words — it’s an amazing feeling.”
UPDATE, May 22, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect Cooper’s correct release date and job title.
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