A jobs program created to help African Americans in Seattle with criminal backgrounds and other “barriers to employment” find work that became a hot button issue during the election may have emerged as the biggest winner of the race for District 3.
Over the course of last year’s election season, funding for Career Bridge — a workforce re-entry program managed by the Urban League that connects men of color with barriers to employment (like criminal records or homelessness) to jobs and social services — was championed by the final two contenders for the District 3 seat: socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant and Urban League CEO Pamela Banks. During a September press conference on gun violence in Seattle, Banks said Sawant wasn’t prioritizing the issue and promoted her public safety program which included doubling the funding for Career Bridge. Sawant later praised the program at a District 3 candidates debate and, a few months later during the city council’s haggling over the 2016 budget, lawmakers voted to increase its funding.
Mayor Ed Murray’s original 2016 budget proposal didn’t include any additional money for the program, so council member Sawant — fresh from re-election — publicly went to bat for doubling the city’s allocation from the original $400,000 to $800,000. Some behind-the-scenes haggling went down between Sawant, former budget committee chair and council member Nick Licata, and Tim Burgess, who wanted $200,000 instead, telling CHS that the Urban League wasn’t in a position to effectively spend $400,000 in 2016 alone. Banks said Sawant’s office had not contacted the Urban League about her proposed $400,000 amendment. Licata negotiated a compromise, opting for Burgess’s $200,000 as well as an additional $200,000 for the City Human Services Department to allocate for general jobs programs — money which the Urban League can apply for. All-in-all, it was a win for Career Bridge.
Banks partially attributes the council’s support for the program to the attention Career Bridge got on the campaign trail. “It was a campaign issue so it was pretty darn easy [to get more funding],” Banks told CHS. “They supported it more because of the campaign.”
But while more funding for Career Bridge wasn’t exactly a hard sell for last year’s council, the program has faced cautious skepticism from city lawmakers over the course of its budding three-year lifetime.
The program was conceived under the wing of former Mayor Mike McGinn, who, after a spike in gun violence in 2012 and meetings with organizations, advocates such as the Black Prisoners Caucus and Village of Hope, and leaders in the African American community, allocated $210,000 in the 2013 city budget for a week-long pilot of Career Bridge with fifty participants to be jointly managed by City’s Office of Economic Development and the Human Services Department. An audit of the program was also ordered along with the initial funding, which continued its review through 2014. In the spring of 2014 management of the program was transferred to the Urban League, and a hike in funding to $400,000. Then McGinn lost his reelection bid to Ed Murray in the end of 2014, ushering a key anchor for the program out of City Hall.
“After McGinn lost, I had to reach out [to the Murray administration] and say don’t kill this,” said Banks. “There was some hesitancy [on the old city council]. That’s the reason the audit was done.”
But the audit report came back in the summer of 2015 with a glowing review of the pilot, with 81% of the initial batch of participants from 2013 and 2014 finding employment after graduation of the brief course. More specific and recent numbers follow the same trend.
“Dress code, job interviews, best places to look for employment — especially if you have a criminal history — and how to market yourself to an employer.”
According to Augustine Cita, Career Bridge program manager, in 2014 56 of the 57 enrolled participants graduated the program, while 39 were placed in jobs and 15 entered internships, apprenticeships, or community college classes. In 2015 the same held true, with 76 out of 82 participants graduating the course, 67 placed in jobs, and 8 went into apprenticeships or college classes.
The new public money in addition to private dollars raised, will allow Career Bridge to expand its programming, post-graduation services for participants, hire more staff, and enroll more individuals, particularly women of color and youth though the youth programming is slated to start late in 2016.
What began as a brief, one week-course for several “cohorts” of up to 10 to 12 individuals each is now morphing into a month-long program where participants work with instructors to identify and deal with personal obstacles such as drug addiction and mental health, build resumes, cover letters, computer skills, and financial literacy.
With the new money, Career Bridge will be able to expand its programming, post-graduation services for participants hire more staff, and enroll more individuals, particularly women of color and youth. Representatives from local employers and labor unions are brought in to talk with participants about what they look for in employees and how to get into trade apprenticeships. Participants also receive a $75 stipend every two weeks, ORCA cards for transport to the courses, earn six college credits over the course of the program, and are automatically enrolled in South Seattle College.
“They [the instructors] go into about everything that’s required to be ready to enter the workforce,” said Cita. “Dress code, job interviews, best places to look for employment –especially if you have a criminal history — and how to market yourself to an employer.”
In addition to the official course programing, graduates of Career Bridge are offered regular support by case managers and job developers (who works with participants on their career goals) to help them get on their feet. The level and type of service offered varies depending on a case-by-case basis, such as providing temporary rental housing assistance, having staffers drive participants to appointments, and providing general emotional and moral support.
“We’re not sending people through like you come in and get a job and you’re gone .We provide ongoing assistance,” said Banks, who was about to drive a currently homeless Career Bridge graduate to a drug treatment center when she spoke with CHS over the phone. “This is about building relationships and building trust in your community.”
John Johnson, a 41-year-old African American man and recent Career Bridge graduate who suffered from a cocaine addiction for most of his adult life and was in and out of prison (the most recent stint was 18 months in Monroe for second degree theft), attests to this aspect of the program.
“Every step of the way, they’ve been there. Anything that I brought to them, they had a solution for. It’s all about you personally forming a plan and them being supportive.” Johnson is on his way to starting classes at South Seattle College, with dreams of eventually becoming an accountant.
But while Career Bridge has been largely successful within its niche, barriers and limitations still exist for graduates once they start looking for work. Aside from the fact that graduates with limited education on top of criminal records don’t necessarily have the qualifications for the higher paying industries like Seattle’s booming tech sector, graduates are also getting snubbed by employers strictly for the criminal record.
Seattle did pass a ‘ban the box’ ordinance drafted by Council’s Bruce Harrell back in 2013, preventing employers from including check boxes for criminal histories on application forms and requiring that employers go through a series of procedural steps if they want to turn away a applicant strictly because of their record. But many employers still run background checks at some point and can turn away applicants even after they’ve gotten their foot in the door.
“People are getting jobs and then when the background check comes, they get kicked out anyway,” said Cita. “One [graduate] had worked for an entire week, and then got an email saying that his background check had come back and he was let go.”
Cita says that employers in construction, the service industry and warehousing have been the most “fair” when it comes to criminal history. Those industries are also where the majority of Career Bridge graduates find jobs.
Despite the limitations for some Career Bridge graduates due to the stigma of hiring felons and individuals with criminal records, graduates like Johnson feel that the program fills a vital niche and he hopes that funding will continue to come.
“It’s a real good program. It needs to stay around … I think that the powers at be need to understand that these programs really do work. They really do work.”
“I think it’s going to be closely watched but again, the results that we’re getting for the cost is phenomenal,” said Banks. “It’s worth every damn dime.”
You can learn more at urbanleague.org/career-bridge/