Returning citizens in Mecklenburg County are getting much-needed support in finding job training and job placement.
GreenLight Fund Charlotte announced Thursday its second investment, an expansion of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) into Charlotte. The New York-based organization provides job training, job placement and retention services to people coming home from prison through its reentry jobs program. Carrie Cook, executive director of GreenLight Fund Charlotte, lauded CEO’s proven model now implemented in 30 sites across 11 states.
CEO Charlotte will start with a $600,000 investment from the GreenLight Fund over four years, with the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County each kicking in $300,000 initially to support CEO jobs.
Why it matters
Cook said jobs and justice are the community investments needed now.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Racial Wealth Gap report, produced by UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, highlighted criminal justice reform and smart decarceration as key strategies to close the racial wealth gap. In Mecklenburg County, 70% of returning citizens are released to opportunity desert neighborhoods where employment and other quality of life indicators remain challenged.
“For too long, folks who look like me have been locked out of opportunity,” Cook said during a press conference outside of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
How it works
CEO Charlotte will work with individuals immediately upon their release from jail or prison. Returning citizens interested in joining can apply by contacting the local CEO office. Cook said more than 30 people have inquired about the program since Thursday’s announcement. They were placed on a waiting list for the next cohort.
Charlotte native and prison reform advocate Tiawana “Tia” Brown was hired as CEO’s Charlotte director to oversee implementation of the program. A returning citizen herself, Brown said she truly understands what each participant needs to be successful.
“I spent many days in Mecklenburg County Detention Center. I know I don’t look like what I’ve been through, that’s why we shouldn’t judge,” Brown said. “We have a justice system that fails us every single day. And when we come home, we don’t have anywhere to live, and we don’t have anywhere to sleep.”
According to Brown, the period following an inmate’s release to the time they find employment is when they are most at risk to recidivate and most financially vulnerable.
Newly enrolled participants start with a one-week training program to assess their skills. CEO then places them in jobs that provide daily pay that can be critical for someone coming home trying to get back on their feet.
Harlee Strickland, 28, is proof of that. Strickland is a member of CEO’s first cohort.
“Within two weeks, I’ve met some amazing people,” she said. “Before I came to CEO, I had no family, I had no one. Now I have family. I have a chance at life.”
Participants will spend three to four months on transitional work crews that include site supervisors serving as mentors and job coaches. They also work one-on-one with a coach to build skills for longer-term employment.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles shared that the city will be launching two work crew opportunities in mid-October, and participants can start as soon as they’re finished training. She explained that one role would be landscaping in city cemeteries.
“I don’t know if you know that we have over 200 acres actually of what I would call the parks that are most quiet. They’re usually called cemeteries,” Lyles said. “We want to make those cemeteries a place where people understand that you can come in and see a part of the city and see a part of our history. I think that the crews will be really, really effective here.”
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said the County already works with returning citizens, and the staff is excited to expand that work with CEO. Bojangles is another employer that already began hiring returning citizens. CEO’s program is set to reach nearly 800 returning citizens in Charlotte-Mecklenburg by 2024.
Beyond workforce needs, CEO also works with community partners to help secure housing and other wraparound services. The organization remains in close contact with participants as a support system and provides resources for a year to help them avoid returning to the prison system.
New director Tia Brown, seemingly the crowd’s favorite speaker Thursday, recalled being incarcerated in her early 20s and returning to jail 20 times.
“What I didn’t survive was recidivism because when I came back home in Mecklenburg County three months later, I went back to prison,” she said. “My family had to relive that all over again. And they did it because we didn’t have resources like the Center for Employment of Opportunities.”
For more information about CEO Charlotte, contact Site Director Tia Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.