“Its hard to get ahead, when you start so far behind,” President Barack Obama said in an online video posted to Heads Up America campaign’s website, a movement to make two years of community college free for students willing to work for it. And many young, talented and at-risk black men face the challenge of getting ahead in life, but – due to circumstances outside of their control – have been set so far behind.
Lorenzo Johnson, 23, of Detroit had already served time before the age of 22 for dealing drugs and larceny.
Upon his release, Johnson joined Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit’s Flip the Script program, Michigan’s largest prison diversion program, whose efforts are changing hundreds of lives and saving taxpayers millions of dollars in prison expenses.
Goodwill’s mentoring and job training program prepares minority men, ages 18-30, for non-traditional careers in the skills, building, and construction industries with math, reading, social and life skills training. Through the Safer Communities Stronger Families Initiative, a project funded by the Michigan Department of Corrections, Flip the Script provides services including career counseling, computer training, cognitive thinking instruction, conflict resolution, financial literacy, GED preparation and job placement as an alternative sentencing program in partnership with a local district or circuit courts.
Johnson’s progress shows how well Flip the Script diverts at-risk black men from incarceration.
Program representatives said Johnson has worked hard in the program, quickly earning his GED and honing his job readiness skills. This has earned him a shot at working as a trainee for Green Works, a Goodwill industrial recycling business.
“Johnson is one of our outstanding stars,” said Keith Bennett, Flip the Script director. “He entered into the program very focused and receptive. He came every day as an active participant and demonstrated an eagerness to learn.”
Bennett said Johnson did so well as a trainee that, in fact, he was offered the full-time job working for Green Works at its DTE Energy site.
“His manager, Dennis Karczynski, describes Johnson as ‘one of the hardest working trainees’ he ever had,’” Bennett said. “He (Karczynski) can never give him (Johnson} and others enough work. They always want more.”
Johnson’s said his experience with the program has been transformative. His job at Green Works has enabled Johnson to pay for a car and a place to live. Now he is able to provide for his daughter, which he said means the world to him.
“I have everything I need now,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day I’m still reaching for the sky, it is the limit to me.”
Johnson’s story isn’t unique. His success was among the “untold success stories” that were shared and celebrated during “Broken Crayons Still Color,” a Goodwill Detroit learning lab and awards program on Sept. 19.
The event, held at Fellowship Chapel, included a keynote from Dr. Carl Taylor, professor of sociology, Michigan State University. In Taylor’s address, he applauded the men in attendance and also delivered a stirring message.
Taylor said he didn’t grow up fighting his brothers.
“My father told me at an early age ‘you’ve got a whole world you’re going to be fighting,’” said Taylor. “‘You do not have the luxury to physically fight your own brother.’”
The MSU professor and criminologist urged that the black community focus on bringing education and mental health together and to the forefront of our community.
“We have to put more money into looking into mental illness,” Taylor said. “Something is wrong with Pookie killing animals, and when he is doing things to his sister that you know is wrong.”
Taylor said it’s documented that there are more children who are not in school than there are in school.
“We have a whole segment of children who cannot drop out of school because they have never dropped in,” Taylor said. “If you do not give your child an education, then you have just given them a pass to prison, which is the highest tuition in the state of Michigan.”
Participants also attended workshops by the city’s community leaders, as well as a panel discussion with former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee and state Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit).
The workshop leaders also mentor the participants to help keep them on track.
“We’re working to block the pipeline to prison,” said Felicia Hunter, executive vice president employment and training at Goodwill Detroit. “With tools, guidance and encouragement, these young men are able to transform their lives.”
To learn more about Goodwill Detroit’s Flip the Script program, visit www.GoodwillDetroit.org and www.FlipTheScript.org or call 313-557-4818.
Contact Jason Flowers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (313) 963-5522.