Hiring Offenders-DC Central Kitchen

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at http://media.csosa.gov

See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/04/offender-employment-dc-central-kitchen/

Leonard: From the nations capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen the program today is about hiring offenders with a focus on an extraordinarily successful program here in the District of Colombia, DC Central Kitchen. We have three people by our microphones today. We have Sarah Riley. She is the program administration manager for DC Central Kitchen. We have Persus Johnson a recruitment and intake coordinator, again for DC Central Kitchen, and we have Luella Johnson. She is a supervisor revocation and development specialist for my agencies Court Services and Offender Supervision Agencies. She heads up vote. The vocational opportunities for training, education, and employment division. Ladies welcome to DC Public Safety.

Sarah Riley: Thank you.

Luella Johnson: Thank you.

Persus Johnson: Thank you.

Leonard: All right, I want to go around the room and explain to our listeners first of all, what DC Central Kitchen is and then we will go over to Luella to talk about our agency Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in her division vote. So Sarah, you going to start us off?

Sarah Riley: Thank you. Yes, so DC Central Kitchen is a not-for-profit organization, founded in 1989 by Robert Egger. Our mission statement is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities. So Persus and I work at the culinary job training program, which is one of the many programs DC Central Kitchen offers.

Leonard: Okay, but DC Central Kitchen in essence is more than just a training program?

Sarah Riley: Yes.

Leonard: Okay, tell me a little bit more about that.

Sarah Riley: Well, we have a food recovery and meal distribution program that recovers food from the local community and we send it out to homeless shelters, after school programs, transitional programs, so we feed different organizations so they don’t have to spend their own money on food.

Leonard: Okay, so you act as a food bank?

Sarah Riley: Of sorts yes.

Leonard: Okay, good. So you have that distribution at intake and distribution of food, plus you have a training program, training people in culinary arts.

Sarah Riley: Yes.

Leonard: Anything else to it?

Sarah Riley: We also have a healthy corners program, getting fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks out to food deserts in wards seven and eight here in DC.

Leonard: Wow.

Sarah Riley: Then we also have our campus kitchen program, which replicates the DC Central Kitchen model in campus kitchens across America. We are in forty-two different universities.

Leonard: Tell me about that. What does that mean? Forty-two universities. You are in forty-two universities doing what?

Sarah Riley: Well, the students their kitchen space when it is not occupied, to work with their local community, so some are feeding single mothers, some are feeding the elderly, some are feeding after school programs. They work with their community to find out where the need is and then try to fulfill that.

Leonard: I am very impressed. I am assuming DC Central Kitchen is a DC centered program and you are in forty-two locations throughout the United States.

Sarah Riley: We are all over the place.

Leonard: You are really devoted to this whole concept of food and getting food in the hands of people who need it.

Sarah Riley: Yes. Using food as a tool to build communities.

Leonard: Okay, so the training part of it is just a small part of it then.

Sarah Riley: It’s our flagship program, it’s the biggest program most people know us for, the training program because we are getting men and women back to work, especially people that have been incarcerated but we do have several things.

Leonard: Well, it’s an extraordinarily interesting program and I do want to talk more about it, but I am going to shift over to Luella Johnson the supervisor revocation development specialist here at our agency. Luella, Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency. Tell for the other initiated, what is the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency.

Luella Johnson: Well, CSOSA is an independent federal law enforcement agency that supervises individuals on probation, parole and supervised release here in the District of Colombia. We are a very unique federal government agency in that our jurisdiction is strictly in the District of Colombia. I am very proud to supervise our vote unit where we have a staff of twelve dedicated professionals who identify employment training and educational opportunities for those clients, and at any given time, we have approximately about five hundred individuals on our case load that we are providing services to.

Leonard: That’s an amazing amount of people.

Luella Johnson: Yes.

Leonard: So, anybody who has an educational or a vocational efficiency, they come to your unit to re-mediate.

Luella Johnson: That is correct. There is a criteria, however. These individuals, if they are coming seeking employment, they have to be thirty days drug free before they are referred to us. We do take marijuana users in our learning labs, but that is the only drug.

Leonard: The bottom line is, is that they are ready for employment in most cases, and the bottom line is that the people who we put up for the employment process are ready for training, they’re ready for employment. In most cases, they’re far beyond any drug history at all. In most cases they’re stabilized, so when people say, when we talk about hiring people caught up in the criminal justice system, we are not talking about someone fresh from prison, we are talking about somebody who is prepared.

Luella Johnson: Absolutely, and I think we are very proud of our process, because what we do is, as individuals who are referred to us, we place them in three categories. They are job-ready, job-preparatory or adult learning and we refer individuals who are job-ready for our best training partners and out best employer partners and with that, that allows for success, it allows for us to continue to have a direct pipeline to suitable employment and training opportunities because we are continually given our partners quality individuals.

Leonard: I think that is the key into this, because we do have a problem with employment of people under supervision, in the District of Colombia. Earlier we were talking about those who are eligible for employment. Now, if you are caught up in a residential training program or if you are going for drug treatment or you are going for mental health counseling, you are not an eligible individual, but for those eligible individuals, we are only talking about fifty percent of our people being employed on any given day. We have said that there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people ready to employ now correct?

Luella Johnson: I wouldn’t say that it’s hundreds and thousands. Unfortunately, many of our offenders, they face a lot of different challenges and also when you look at they area that we are in, it is very challenging in the District of Colombia, because you have a city that has a lot of individuals who have advanced degrees, who have advanced experience, no criminal history and unfortunately many rock lines are competing with these individuals and so in that regaurd, that is a challenge for those individuals and for us we have to do what we can with the resources that we have to give these individuals prepared to compete with individuals who far exceed their experience and qualifications.

Leonard: I just wanted to say that I have interviewed lots of people who are under supervision who are looking for employment before these microphones in the past and you sit there across from these individuals in suits, coats and ties and they are carrying themselves perfectly. In many instances these people have some education or some experience and you wonder why aren’t they employed, but I am going to go over to Persus Johnson who is the recruitment and intake coordinator for DC Central Kitchen. Who do you look for up here Persus?

Persus Johnson: We are looking for various things when it comes down to an individual that we are looking for. We recruit at a lot of different agencies, so we are recruiting at places where there are citizens who are in recovery from addiction where they may be in halfway housing, where they may be in another employee training program even in find that they are interested in culinary. So we are looking in different places but when it comes to the actual individual and their qualifications, we are looking for someone who has stable housing, we are looking for someone who has 120 days drug free. We are looking for someone who, if they have children has a plan to take care of those kids during the day and they are in our full time program. We are looking for people who have a support network.

They may have been coming out of incarceration, but they may have family members or former bosses, or coaches or things like that who are supporting their efforts for them to get back on their feet. We are looking for a lot of different things and it’s a really good question but it presents the biggest challenge for us in a way.

Leonard: Right

Persus Johnson: Because everyone is different and we can never say with certainty that X individual is going to do really well because they have met all of those criteria. It’s just kind of the framework that we operate in.

Leonard: I wanted to give out the website to DC Central Kitchen. WWW.DCCentralKitchen.org. WWW.CSOSA.gov. What is the secret sols to DC Central Kitchen. Now that we gotten the preliminary taken care of. DC Central Kitchen is phenomenally successful. You have taken individuals who have been caught up in the the criminal justice system. They are working. They are working full time, they are taxpayers who are no longer tax burdens, are taking care of their families. There is something really interesting about DC Central Kitchen. We did an interview with a national culinary arts magazine a little while ago about that relationship between our folks and people we try to place in DC Central Kitchen and in fact, this coming Thursday, tomorrow in fact, we are dealing with another interview about DC Central Kitchen and the folks that we refer there. There is something secret, something interesting, something magic that’s happening with DC Central Kitchen. I want to know what it is.

Sarah Riley: Like Persus said, everybody is an individual. Persus and I, our task is to hone in on who’s ready for change. We use the word change a lot at the kitchen, because we are really looking for somebody that knows that they don’t want to go back to prison, knows that they cannot continue doing what they have been doing in the past and has some self awareness and on the continuing of change, is ready for change. Is continuance and our plan, I guess how we work it, is a holistic approach. So, we are not just doing, here are some knife skills, here is a resume, good luck int eh job field. We have a class called self empowerment, which is dealing with he trauma that we have all been through, dealing with issues that they have had stemming from childhood, dealing with issues coming out of incarceration and reintegrating back into society. And then we couple that self empowerment with the hard skills in the kitchen. You do learn how to cook at DC Central Kitchen, but then we also do job readiness skills and then we do the soft skills, time management, conflict resolution. Our holisitc approach is to get at it from all different angles and then we assist them with their employment as well.

Leonard: All right Persus, so what we are talking about is a holistic program that trains people to go and work within the culinary industry, either in DC or beyond.

Sarah Riley: Yes, absolutely, and I would add too, that we really try to meet individuals where they are. We are not trying to convince them of anything. Most of them are ready for change, but at the same time we want to meet them where they are, if they’re presenting certain challenges like they have a specific challenge with housing maybe. We want to work with them on that and not necessarily disqualify them from our program, but say how can we assist you on this one thing that would help you successfully complete our program.

Leonard: How many people have successfully completed the program?

Luella Johnson: Over 1,000. In last year alone we graduated 85 students.

Leonard: Okay. What percentage of the people that go in graduate.

Luella Johnson: The retention rate is really high. It’s in the mid 80’s.

Leonard: Okay, and that is the point that I want to get to, because I have been looking at research and been involved in the criminal justice system for decades and a lot of these programs that are out there throughout the country, the retention rate and the success rate is like 30%, 40%. A lot of drop outs. You are talking about eighty percent. That is dag on phenomenal.

Luella Johnson: In the mid 2000’s, our graduation rate was around fifty percent. We beefed up the program and added a couple of layers and that’s why we have such a high retention rate now and because we screen people so closely on the intake. Thankfully, we have been around since 1989, so people know about us. We have a really strong partnership with CSOSA, so we have a ready influx of candidates that know about the program and really want to get in, see the results and so we are really able to screen the applicants.

Leonard: Okay I am going to take one more crack at this. The reporter from the national newspaper that interviewed us about why DC Central Kitchen is so successful with people caught up in the criminal justice system. She wasn’t satisfied with our standard answer. She said there is something unique going on here that neither one of you are getting to. Anyone want to take a crack at that, I am going to give the interview one more chance. What is it about DC Central Kitchen. She suggested is that this is a creative world. A world that brings that persons personal sense of creativity to that forefront. That persons personal sense of expression, so its not like the rjkl on a construction site pouring concrete. They’re in there creating and she suggested that, that may be the secret sauce. I’m not putting words into your mouth but you go from there.

Persus Johnson: Maybe an outside perspective would help. I don’t know, Luella. Do you happen to know?

Luella Johnson: I really think its about that particular individual deciding to make a change. Generally when we have individuals who are on parole. They really do not want to go back into the bureau prisons and they want to really come out and make a difference in their lives and when you encounter individuals who are determined to make a difference; That’s a really nice tasty, spicy sauce so to speak. I mean, that is what really gets those individuals able to really be successful. All you have to do is kind of really guide them a little bit, but they are doing all of the work because they made the change.

Leonard: Its personal change and I accept that because, again, when interviewing people under supervision by these microphones for over a decade, they all say the same thing. They say you’ve go to want it within you heart. You’ve got to accept it within your heart. You’ve got to make that personal change, but the retention rate in some other jobs where they are placed is not nearly as high as we have with DC Central Kitchen. When they graduate how many people go out and actually find jobs?

Sarah Riley: Pretty much the whole class will find employment eventually.

Persus Johnson: I mean we also make it a point to, I don’t want to say stock, but we stick with our students throughout, not only the process for which they are in the program, but well after that because ultimately there success no matter when that happiness is our success. So, if at graduation they’re not ready to start a job maybe three weeks after graduation they are. Maybe six weeks after graduation they found something. Our workforce coordinators work very hard to followup and to allow DC Central Kitchen to be a space that they can always return to. I think that is an important element.

Leonard: Any percent completion rate nearly 100% rate of placement  within the occupational area in which they had been trained is phenomenal not just for people in the criminal justice system but any job training program across the board. Ladies and gentlemen we are doing a program today about hiring offenders. We have people from DC Central Kitchen and we do love DC Central Kitchen. They have a national reputation and now I know they are in how many colleges. Forty-eight?

Sarah Riley: Forty-two

Leonard: Forty-two colleges throughout the country in terms of using their kitchens for food redistribution. We have Sara Riley program administration manager from DC Central Kitchen. Persus Johnson recruitment and intake coordinator and Luella Johnson supervisory revocation development specialist from my agency Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency. WWW.DCCentralKitchen.org. WWW.CSOSA.gov, Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency dot gov. All right, where do we go to from here. People are listening to this program throughout the country. We have a national audience. Twenty percent of our audience is international. So you have got people in France, in England listening to this program now. You have got people in New Zealand. What message do we give them about people caught up in the criminal justice system in the employment process? You didn’t expect that question did you?

Sarah Riley: No we didn’t. I’ll speak to that because I find that it’s something that comes up daily when I speak to a lot of our students. That is , you know, we always talk about how DC Central Kitchen is kind of like the house of second chances. We can give second chances, but we also need for the community and the employers to buy into giving second chances because ultimately we can prepare a student as much as we want, we can vouch for them and say that they are working really hard to shake, as my mother would call it, the monkey off your back, which is your record. Ultimately we need employers to say okay, I am willing to set aside your record and take you as an individual and see what you can commit and bring to the table. You have completed 14 weeks of a program where is was rigorous and so lets give you an opportunity to work with us.

That’s kind of what we need. We get buy-in community agencies, we get buy-in from people that want to participate in the program, but we need employers to buy-in because those are the people who really the ones who are providing the second chance.

Leonard: And how difficult is that process of inviting employers to participate in the hiring of people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Persus Johnson: I think it depends, it depends on what that employers experience has been. If they have had a positive experience they are very open to it. If they have had a couple of situations where providing that employment opportunity to an offender didn’t go quit well, they may be a little susceptible, but that only means that we have, as advocates, for these offenders who are seeking employment have to really dig in deep and really do our very best to reach out to these employers and say individuals need second chances and sometimes they need a third and a fourth. If you keep that in mind that these are our neighbors, these are people that we see in out communities, then that will change the perspective. That if we are able to give them a chance, we can turn them into tax paying citizens, as opposed to someone who is a drain on our economy, if we are constantly putting them away.

Leonard: Plus making society much safer.

Persus Johnson: Much Safer.

Leonard: The research is very clear that the benefits of having people employed when they come out of the prison system or when they’re on probation, because a majority of our folks are on probation, not coming from the prison system, finding them work. Everybody does better and everybody benefits and yet we say that and I am not quite sure that message carries the day. What you are all saying is that there are good people ready to go to work today that will be a benefit to that individual. That’s your message correct.

Sarah Riley: Absolutely.

Persus Johnson: Absolutely. Individuals, like I said before, are like the people that they encounter everyday. They have families, they want to be good parents, they want to be good husbands and wives, and they want to be self sufficient. They just need the opportunity.

Leonard: But let me go back to the question opposed by that national reporter. Her sense was once again, its the creativity of working in the culinary interesting. It’s the creativity of making something. It’s the immediate gratification of a customer consuming what they’ve made. There are rewards and creative benefits that you are not going to find in a lot of jobs.

Sarah Riley: I think that’s true I think that a lot of returning citizens, a lot of people that are coming out of incarceration that come to our program have cooked while they were incarcerated. They cooked in prison, so they have experience with it. It’s something they know that they can handle and then they do get the gratification of people enjoy their food knowing they get the self confidence knowing that they can handle this job and then I think its an art. You can be creative with culinary and its one of those jobs anywhere you go. So they know everybody eats hopefully a couple meals a day and that there is job security in the culinary industry, and its one of those industries that’s forgiving to people with criminal backgrounds.

Leonard: And why is that?

Sarah Riley: That’s a good question. I don’t know… You know what, I am sorry to cut you off Luella, but I think one of the reasons is because… Persus and I both have backgrounds in the restaurant industry and they just want you to show up. Show up, be on time and do your job. If you can learn what the chef is teaching you and show up on time, that’s all there is to it. That’s one of the things we are really adamant about in the program is punctuality, and then saying yes chef. Listen to what the chef is saying, no back talk just yes chef, yes chef, yes chef. Then you can do it, its one of those jobs you don’t have to have an education for. At the program specifically you don’t have to have a high school diploma or and GED. So its open for people that might work better with their hands, but also not want to work outside all the time.

Leonard: I mean it just strikes me that if DC Central Kitchen could expand twenty fold off of the people Luella that we have under supervision who do not have jobs, would have jobs. I know that’s a stretch but never-the-less it is that opportunity, the opportunity that the culinary industry offers to people under supervision. The fact that what Sarah just said and what Persus just said. The idea that the welcoming… you know… did I get it wrong?.

Persus Johnson: That’s okay.

Leonard: Correct me, correct me, correct me.

Persus Johnson: Its Persus.

Leonard: Geez, Persus. Ill probably screw it up before… I have a group of listeners from New York City who say Leonard, you cannot pronounce a name to save your life. It is an industry that welcomes all comers, which is a bit different, a lot different from a lot of other industries that welcome mat is felt by the people that we refer.

Persus Johnson: I would say that’s true. I would say that’s true.

Leonard: You know.

Persus Johnson: I think there is also an opportunity too for people who haven’t necessarily explored what they’re interested in because they have never completed anything. So this is an opportunity for them, not only to explore and be creative, but to follow through and complete something. Its not just about the food, its not just about the creativity, but its about finishing something. Its about graduating. We had a guys who graduated last week who’s mother, this was the first time his mother was able to attend something that he had completed. The first time in his life. So I think that’s an important piece of it, is this is another chance for those coming to us to follow through with the process, complete something and actually see that there are people who can care about them who are not trying to use them or who are not family members but who are committed to seeing them successfully follow through and finish.

Luella Johnson: And Leonard I don’t think you can emphasize that enough. I know Persus and Sara talks about this buy I think we really need to emphasis the fact that you have individuals who have little to no support system and now you have an entity who is willing to walk with them from beginning to end and that end does not necessarily mean the end of the program, it means the end until they are comfortable, that they can stand on their own and I think maybe that’s the key sauce in it. That they now have the support and backing of an entity that truly cares about their success and its their own internal motivation combined that allows them to be successful. I really think that, that’s an awesome awesome thing that the DC Central Kitchen as a unit does in terms of holding that individuals hand from beginning to end until they can stand on their own. That really contributes to the success and then those individuals by word of mouth are able to say hey, this worked for me, look at where I am, this can work for you and it just continues a positive process.

Leonard: Sarah do you have something?

Sarah Riley: I would just like to add that, that is so true. Everything you just said, but also our favorite phrase is trust the process. Day 1 we sat all 25 students down and we say listen, you are going to go through some hard times, you Are going to want to fight back, you are going to want to fight us basically. Trust the process and we are not kidding ourselves we know that trust is the number one issue that our students face because they have learned to survive by not trusting. So for us complete strangers telling them, hey trust us, trust the process. They are like no, no, get out of here.

So, its an uphill battle but that’s what our culinary dog training program and CSOSA, that’s what we work really closely with all of the CSO’s the community supervision officers to really show that we are supporting you. We want to see you be successful, we are here for you. We are going to make sure you make your appointments, we are going to make sure you make your urinalysis. We are going to make sure that you are here for the program every day. So they really learn to trust the process throughout the 14 weeks but it is not easy. The first couple of weeks whoo… People who want to fight.

Slowly but surely, some people fight it until they are dismissed from the program but some people make it through and say wow I cannot believe I just did this.

Leonard: Most people do make it through, that’s the astounding thing. Now is this a realistic business model again for all the people listening throughout the country and throughout the world. Is this a realistic business model to have an employer display that level of concern for an individual. I mean is DC Central Kitchen a model, part of the secret sauce for getting people caught up in the criminal justice system, for getting them employed, or is this a little unrealistic?

Sarah Riley: Well, its realistic because its real, its happening, so its realistic.

Leonard: You are successful but will an average employer take that time and take that care and take that extra four or five steps to keep that person?

Luella Johnson: I just think that’s the wrong question. I think the question is why won’t they make that commitment to that individual. Like we had talked about before, these are members of our community, these are individuals that need a second chance and the only difference between them and some of the other individuals that are not on supervision is that maybe they got caught. So the question is not is it realistic, its something that can be done, there’s no question. The question is why won’t more employers take a chance to invest in these individuals? Why won’t they take a chance to really be true members of a community?

Leonard: And when we place individual with an organization at Court Services of Offenders Supervision Agency we do provide that support network.

Luella Johnson: Absolutely.

Leonard: We do provide a support network that DC Central Kitchen employs, but we do it for them employer.

Luella Johnson: Absolutely, and so if there are any outstanding issues, like what Sarah said we work very closely with the community supervision officers as well as the vote staff, we have vocation development specialists who are able to help provide assistance to those individuals while they go through the process.

Leonard: Fifteen seconds, how do we sum up DC Central Kitchen?

Sarah Riley: A full time training program helping people get back to the workforce. I am just going to say that we use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds and build communities. That’s what we are doing at DC Central Kitchen.

Leonard: Bottom line is that you are doing it successfully.

Sarah Riley: Thank you.

Leonard: I say it again. Eighty percent completion rate and your 100 percent successful placement rate upon graduation.

Luella Johnson: Yes.

Sarah Riley: Can we get some numbers quick? For 2014 we graduated 85 students. We had 90 percent job placement rate and at 6 months eighty-six of them were still employed.

Leonard: Incredible.

Sarah Riley: Twelve dollars and fifty-one cents average wage.

Leonard: We have been doing as program today on hiring offenders and the focus has been on the phenomenal DC Central Kitchen. Sarah Riley program administration manager, Persus Johnson recruitment and intake coordinator and Luella Johnson supervisor revocation development specialist. Ladies and gentleman this is DC Public Safety, we appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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