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Empowerment and support helps African-American men overcome adversity

A sense of brotherhood and empowerment serves as the foundation to success for the men of Ujamaa Place, an organization that changes the lives of young African-American men and their families through a wide range of programming and supports, testifiers told the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division Thursday.

HF1155, sponsored by Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair, would appropriate $1 million to support employment initiatives at Ujamaa Place including job training, employment preparation, internships, education, vocational training, housing, and capacity building for the organization.

The proposed legislation was held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. The companion, SF1209, sponsored by Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul), awaits action by the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee.

Ujamaa Place works with African-American men between 18 and 30 years old, who have been involved in the criminal justice system, to “disrupt” cycles of systemic poverty, homelessness, and chronic unemployment in an atmosphere of acceptance and second chances, President and CEO Otis Zanders said.

Of the program participants: 92 percent are chronically homeless, 40 percent were convicted as a youth, 30 percent dropped out of high school, 23 percent have a disability, 22 percent lived in foster care, and 45 percent have children.

Each participant works with a mentor to create an individualized “transformation plan” that sets goals aligned with their personal vision of success as related to employment, education, housing, and family and community involvement.

Recidivism rates for Ujamaa participants are only 2 percent, compared to 76.6 percent nationally, and Ujamaa Place serves as a diversion program, Zanders said.

Ujamaa Place would use additional state resources to serve more people and hopes to improve the wages available to men by increasing educational opportunities and technical experiences, COO Lee Buckley said.

The median wage for Ujamaa participants is only $11.50 an hour, but they could access better, living-wage positions with additional opportunities, she said.

Ujamaa Place offers GED prep courses and tutoring, information about how to get into college, one-on-one coaching, college tours, and certification training courses for construction, automotive technician work, auto detailing, and financial literacy, as well as other vital supports needed to secure and keep employment.

Part of its Theory of Transformation focuses on teaching men the skills they need to advocate for themselves and others, both in their individual lives and on a larger, public stage.

“(We) will never make a phone call for a man that he can make for himself,” education coach Corey Stewart said.

Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) and others commended Ujamaa Place staff and participants for their work in eliminating disparities and the positive impact that the program has had on on families and the wider community.

“We have men supporting men,” Moran said. “They can do this work, if they are given the tools.”

The program costs between $8,000 and $10,000 per client, depending on each man’s specific needs, and is available to men throughout the metro area, Buckley said.

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