Stay the course. That was the message given to those sitting in the front row of Oakland’s city council chambers Friday night, when friends and supporters gathered to watch 29 men and women graduate from the BOSS Career Training and Employment Center, in a ceremony that acknowledged the significant hurdles they had overcome to gain employment while under the supervision of the Alameda County Probation Department.
BOSS, which stands for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, is an East Bay non-profit which helps people access housing, education and employment. The organization’s career training program, which has now seen four graduating classes, specifically focuses on assisting ex-offenders and at-risk youth in getting work.
“I feel like it was a milestone. It was life-changing,” said Oakland resident David Lovell after receiving his certificate. Lovell’s past is present on his face: A large spider, drawn in ink, creeps further up his cheek when he smiles. Now employed as a warehouseman at Tru Shoes, Lovell speaks softly and talks with deference about the program he’s just completed. “It shows that anybody can do anything, especially me with face tattoos. I got jobs while being here, everything. So it’s opportunities,” he said.
Opportunities are at the heart of BOSS’s mission. Participants arrive at the program through referrals from probation officers or word-of-mouth endorsements from program alumni. Once they’re in the door, BOSS advisors conduct a needs assessment to establish whether a participant is “job ready”, or whether they would benefit from extra training. That training could be in anything from construction to pest control, customer service or HAZMAT courses, or could be acquiring a GED certificate or starting community college.
For those ready to enter the job market, BOSS advisors provide help with resume development and conducts mock interviews. According to executive director Donald Frazier, BOSS boasts links with almost 100 employers across Alameda County, who often take on participants despite their criminal record and lack of formal qualifications.
Many participants undergo on-the-job training, or attend classes and workshops with BOSS partners, such as Peralta Community College District, while employed. Some of those graduating Friday night were completing a GED program through Five Keys Charter School, while others were taking community college classes in subjects such as business administration or psychology. The program lasts for six months, and participants can graduate when they have obtained full- or part-time employment.
But, as BOSS staff know, getting their participants into work isn’t the biggest hurdle. According to employment advisor Nathaniel Rouse, “The hardest part is getting enough street life out of them so they’re able to retain those jobs.”
Rouse, who goes by the single name Shahid, draws on personal experience when he advises those in the program. He describes men who grew up without the support of relatives and instead turned to the security and family of the streets: “Homeboys … who consider themselves that way to you, but trying to teach you how to sell dope at the same time.”
This had been the reality for many of those in the city council chambers on Friday night. But, gathering under the gold columns, the graduates laughed as they adjusted their ties and posed for selfies in their graduation caps. Men embraced in bro hugs, and as they rose one by one to collect their certificates each graduate was met with thunderous applause from a 100-strong audience of friends, supporters, mentors and family members.
Alongside her mother, boyfriend, best friend, cousin and others, graduate Antoinette Butler made sure to bring her young daughter, Dezire. “I came from a felony background, a terrible background where I made a lot of mistakes,” Butler said. “I just wanted to bring her so she could see it’s good to graduate.”
Dezire, for her part, could barely contain her pride. As the chambers emptied at the end of the ceremony, the elementary school student took the microphone to announce: “Shout-out to my mommy, cuz she graduated!”
There’s family, too, at BOSS. After the ceremony, participants and their guests were invited back to the organization’s career program office, down the street on San Pablo Avenue, for a dinner reception. As he stood talking outside, Shahid was regularly interrupted by graduates offering thanks and wishing him farewell. He dismissed the idea that he is well-loved. “They know, I’m strict with them. Well, I would say ‘firm,’” he said, seriously. “This is your life. You’ve only got one of them.”
Frazier agrees with Shahid’s philosophy of tough love. “The idea was to create a culture for them where they had a sense of belonging, where they were respected, where they felt loved and safe. So the idea is once we’ve created that relationship with them, then the work starts,” he said.
Joanna Martinez, careers service coordinator at BOSS, described students’ struggle to bridge gaps in their formal education. Participants, she said, are “super intelligent, super critical, super brilliant—but the formal education aspect is a little shaky.”
BOSS also provides an outlet for participants to express their own stories. Paris Anderson, who brought his young son to Friday’s graduation, said he has been writing poetry since he was 12 years old. But Anderson hid his talent until recently, because of the stigma associated with a young man in his neighborhood expressing himself through verse.
When he arrived at BOSS, he said, he found the support he needed to pursue his passion. “They all found out I wrote poetry,” he said. “That was the outlet for me to express myself, but it was another outlet for them to get to know me a little more, in an intimate setting. And really bring out the best in me.”
Anderson is hoping to help set up poetry workshops for program participants in the future, and recently self-published a book of poems titled Dopoetry.
On Friday he joined Lovell in performing a co-written poem describing his love for his son and support for Black Lives Matter. Under the lights, back-to-back with his co-writer, Anderson recited: “All my friends in jail or hearses/Can’t shoot a basketball for nothing, so I tried my luck with verses.”
BOSS has just been awarded a contract to continue expanding its services countywide. Earlier this month, the Alameda County Probation Department approved a performance-based contract to help finance work done by BOSS through 2018. The funding comes in part from tax imposed through Oakland’s Measure Z, which was passed in 2014 to reduce youth violence. Frazier hopes this new contract will enable BOSS to reach an extra 800 people in need of its services, and allow the organization to open new career training offices in locations including Berkeley, West Oakland and Hayward.
But for Frazier, this recent success isn’t enough. “If we had a job training and career center on every corner in distressed communities in Alameda County, we could not just change the narrative but really transform individuals’, families’, and communities’ lives in a very meaningful way,” he said.
In Oakland on Friday, most of the graduates had left with their families by 8 p.m. Frazier leaned back in his chair behind the reception desk, the music turned down to a soft hum and a paper plate forgotten on the side.
A successful evening? He nodded, yes.
Before he could elaborate, someone else appeared at the door. It was another friend, just passing by. “How’s it going man?” he asked.
“Oh, you know,” Frazier said. “Just working hard, trying to change lives.”