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MILWAUKEE & SHEBOYGAN, Wis.—Milwaukee native Christopher Lane avoided some of the common pitfalls of his inner-city upbringing, but fell into others. Although his parents were married for most of his childhood, their conflict and repeated separation deeply affected him. He largely avoided drugs but spent more than 20 years behind bars for armed robberies in 1989 and 1993.
In 2011, at age 40, Lane secured a job with the city of Milwaukee—the first time he’d ever been gainfully employed. But four years later, authorities arrested him for possessing a firearm as a felon. He spent nine months behind bars. “Everything I worked for all those years was gone,” Lane said.
As Lane tried to rebuild his life late last year, he found few employment prospects and nothing resembling a career. Then a friend told him about something called the Joseph Project. The program didn’t have a fancy website, paid staff, or a building, but it had what he needed most: the chance to earn an interview—and redemption.
“That was the biggest blessing I ever received,” Lane, a muscular African-American with a deep voice, told me shortly before heading to work at Johnsonville Sausage one July evening.
The Joseph Project started last year through the combined efforts of a U.S. senator, his staff, and an inner-city church to match jobs with joblessness in eastern Wisconsin. The program is still in pilot phase, but the compelling early results illustrate a reproducible, privately funded approach to reducing unemployment and poverty.
“This is not a government program,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who touted the program’s faith-based, individualized approach: “We may not be able to save the entire world or the entire nation, but boy, you certainly can turn one person’s life around.”
A study last year found Wisconsin’s 2014 black unemployment rate to be the highest in the nation (almost 20 percent), but the real jobless rate is much higher, since unemployment figures do not include residents who have stopped looking for work. Many working-age African-Americans have felony convictions, no high-school diploma, or a suspended driver’s license due to unpaid tickets—all contributors to rampant joblessness.
Drive about an hour north on Interstate 43 and you’ll find the opposite problem: Sheboygan County has a 3.4 percent unemployment rate with 3,000 open positions across a range of companies. On average, every day three workers retire and only one student graduates high school, creating a growing gap between available jobs and available workers.
The Milwaukee and Sheboygan problems collided at Johnson’s office last year. The Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC) was seeking Johnson’s help promoting manufacturing to high-school students. But Johnson staffer Orlando Owens, who had been meeting with inner-city pastors, explained the desperate need for jobs among Milwaukee residents.
“It became very clear that if you take their problem and our problem together, it really solves both of our dilemmas,” said Dane Checolinski, the SCEDC director. “From there it was just the logistics on how we were going to make it happen.”
Owens found a ready partner in Jerome Smith Sr., pastor of Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, a congregation that meets in a red, windowless building converted from a bar. (The church sits less than a mile from zip code 53206, where 62 percent of men have spent time behind bars—the highest incarceration rate in the nation.) Smith agreed to let the fledgling project use the church’s 2003 Chevrolet Express van to transport workers.
While putting out a call for applicants among local churches, Smith, Owens, Scott Bolstad—another Johnson staffer—and others cobbled together a curriculum to teach soft skills such as job interviewing and punctuality to prospective employees. The first class featured 14 vetted applicants, who each received an interview with Kohler, the first participating company. All 14 received job offers. One failed his drug test, but the remaining 13 accepted offers and began work last October.
Johnson, who spent three decades in manufacturing before running for office in 2010, jumped in with both feet. He talked up the program to companies as he traveled the state, and he attended the launch of the second class at Greater Praise.
“The church was packed,” said Smith, calling the atmosphere that day magical: “God has used the Joseph Project to bring together blacks, whites, Hispanics, even Indians.”
Johnson has attended most class launches since then and sometimes addresses groups via conference call. Drawing on his business experience, he explains what employers are looking for in workers and also exerts some positive pressure.
“The reason we’re in the 10th session is because the individuals that ran through sessions one through nine did succeed,” Johnson told program participants during a July conference call from his Capitol Hill office. “We can’t make you want to succeed. … This has got to be completely self-directed—not only for yourself, but for the people who will come behind you.”
Through 12 classes, 139 applicants have completed the weeklong workshop, and 79 landed jobs. Four more are awaiting their start date, and 30 are in the hiring process. Although 19 participants have quit, been fired, or changed jobs, 60 are still employed.
And many are thriving. “They’re engaged, making good contributions, and their attendance is very good,” said Heather Martin of Johnsonville Sausage, which has so far hired eight Joseph Project applicants. Christopher Lane was the first, and he earned a promotion in his first four months on the job. Another Joseph Project hire saved Johnsonville thousands of dollars when he caught a broken piece of machinery on the production line.
The program has now expanded to include five participating companies (more are waiting to hire) and five vehicles that rack up more than 10,000 miles per month shuttling employees between Milwaukee and Sheboygan County. Two of those vehicles came courtesy of the SCEDC: In May the organization donated a pair of new minivans to the cause.
“We’re dealing with people who have had real problems in their lives, but we’re having enough success—and I think a pretty high rate of success—that we’re definitely proving the concept,” Johnson told me. “It’s pretty powerful.”
THE JOSEPH PROJECT got its name from Robert Woodson’s 1997 book The Triumphs of Joseph, which argues inner-city renewal must come from within—free of government interference.
Many jobs programs exist, but the Joseph Project includes an unusual mixture of stakeholders: the job-seeking participants, the hiring companies, the church, the county development corporation, and the senator and his office. Five of Johnson’s staffers spend time each month administering the program as a constituent service.
Those stakeholders pointed to three keys for the program’s success: (1) The program is faith-based; (2) participants must commit to succeed; and (3) stakeholders are reliant upon each other. “We all succeed together or we fail together,” Johnson said.
Smith, who credits God for orchestrating the ingredients of the program, integrates spiritual principles with the process. He starts each class with prayer, requires group prayer before vans depart from the church, and only allows gospel music to play during the drive. All participants must attend a church twice per week.
New participants can’t miss any of the Monday through Thursday classes. They’re allowed to be late only once, and “you gotta have a good excuse,” said Smith, who professed Christ after a failed suicide attempt in 1997. Smith even administers random drug tests: “We want people to know we mean business.”
The discipline is good practice: Morning shuttles leave the church at exactly 5:30 a.m., and dependability is crucial in the early, probationary months of employment. Smith tells participants they have to fight against perceptions that people from Milwaukee don’t want to work: “You prove that right when you don’t show up for the van on time.”
The payoff for participants is worth it. Most wages range from $12.80 to $18.50 per hour, but they reach as high as $26.50. “That’s some money!” laughs Smith. He points to the biblical story of Joseph saving 20 percent of plentiful harvests for Pharaoh and instructs participants to save 20 percent of their income, tithe 10 percent, and live on the remaining 70 percent. Some have money in the bank for the first time, and one man in his 60s purchased the first new car he’s ever owned.
The project’s biggest challenge? Perhaps financial sustainability. It runs entirely off of private donations, and organizers want to keep it that way, since they consider the faith component crucial to its success. Smith said his church is tighter financially than it was a year ago, but Johnson’s encouragement keeps him going: “He said if you don’t give up on this program, neither will I.”
For Christopher Lane, recently becoming a regular van driver—so the church can hire one less—is one of the ways he’s giving back. He takes pride in encouraging other participants to succeed as he has and says he loves going to work every day.
“I’ve never seen a program like this,” Lane said. “It’s more than just a job. … This is like a movement.”
Slippery Senate seat
Republicans control the Wisconsin State Assembly, Senate, and governor’s mansion, but most recent statewide races have not turned out well for the party: No GOP presidential candidate has carried Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Ron Johnson is only the second Republican in the state to win a U.S. Senate seat since 1962.
It’s little surprise, then, that Johnson is one of the most vulnerable Republican senators in 2016. Johnson ran as an outsider in 2010 and is taking the same approach this year against the same opponent: Former three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has announced he wants his seat back.
Feingold is best-known for campaign finance reform and has criticized Johnson for taking too much money from outside the state (Johnson mostly self-funded his first campaign). Johnson accuses Feingold of hypocrisy, since after leaving office he set up the kind of PACs he previously tried to outlaw.
Johnson has focused on economic growth, the federal debt, veterans’ issues, and border security, but he’s perhaps best-known as the senator who elicited Hillary Clinton’s infamous response regarding the cause of the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack: “What difference at this point does it make?”
In January 2015 Johnson became chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and under his leadership the panel has seen Obama sign 27 of its bills into law. This year Hloom.com named Johnson the Senate’s second-most-productive member, based on pages of legislation signed into law.
Among the Senate’s endangered Republicans, Johnson has stood apart from those who have sought to adopt Democratic positions and was the only one to accept a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. He said he’s at peace with the outcome of the election and that forsaking principles to win isn’t tempting: “I’d rather go home.”
August polling found Johnson outperforming Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but still trailing Feingold by 11 points. Since Feingold benefits from higher name recognition, Johnson’s campaign believes the gap will close as more voters focus on the candidates. If Johnson wins, the state’s strong conservative ground game—which helped Gov. Scott Walker win three times in four years—will be a big reason why.
Jerome Smith says he is not a Republican but supports Johnson. The pastor isn’t worried the election will affect the Joseph Project’s ability to continue: “I trust God. … I don’t believe God would allow something this powerful to start and not provide a way.” —J.C.D.