At graduation ceremony, nearly 100 formerly incarcerated people celebrate new jobs
on October 29, 2019
On Friday evening, the sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland was packed with people—some in dress shirts and slacks, some in jeans, one in a reflective yellow vest. But one thing unified them: They were all wearing graduation caps.
The emcee, Arnold Perkins, had the graduates all stand and repeat after him: “I’m ready to move on.”
The graduates had all recently completed programs with the Career Training and Employment Center (CTEC), a group that aims to help formerly incarcerated people and others who don’t have the resources to navigate a job search on their own. On Friday, which marked the program’s eighth graduating class, 96 people stepped off the stage with a diploma in hand and a job offer already lined up.
The center is run by Berkeley-based Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), in collaboration with La Familia Counseling Services, which provides mental health services in Alameda and Contra Costa counties; Five Keys Schools & Programs, a nonprofit that began as a charter school run out of a county jail; the Alameda County Probation Department and Peralta Community Colleges.
BOSS began in the 1970s as a program focusing primarily on mitigating homelessness in Berkeley, spurred by then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s policies that dramatically cut resources to mental health services across the state and led to an increase in the number of people with mental illnesses who were without permanent housing. Over the course of a few decades, program directors and volunteers opened and ran shelters across the Bay Area in places like Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward.
In 2013, Donald Frazier stepped into the role of executive director for the program. He decided to focus his attention on Oakland, which he said is “ground zero” for homelessness, violence and people returning home from incarceration. He said that when people come home after being incarcerated, they face an uphill battle in terms of finding employment. Their records, especially past felony convictions, can prevent them from getting professional certifications. Frazier said formerly incarcerated people are kept from becoming therapists, real estate agents, car salespeople and barbers.
“These issues are impacting people’s lives who made a mistake,” Frazier said over the phone. “They got caught, did their time, completed their probation. They should be given a legitimate second chance and not held back.”
He helped launch the CTEC, which offers job search assistance including mock interviews; preparation for the General Education Development (GED)—a test that serves as an alternative to a high school diploma; training on how to use a computer to create a resume, search and apply for jobs; and individual help with job hunting. Many of the people who work for the program are graduates themselves.
This year’s CTEC valedictorian, Jennifer Dungan-Moseley, hadn’t had a job in over a decade when she started the program. The last time the 36-year-old mother worked was when she was in college in Texas. After moving to California in 2004, she fell into what she called “a very long period of poor decision making.” She was last incarcerated just after her daughter was born in 2017. She said the birth of her daughter was the major driving force in her decision to change her life.
“I have this brand new little life that is dependent upon me to show her and teach her everything about the world, and the way to be,” Dungan-Mosely said in a phone interview before her graduation. “I had to make sure that I provide a good life for her and to lead by example. That was really what motivated me to finally grow up and get it together.”
While incarcerated for two and a half months, she enrolled in a year-long substance abuse program. As she was nearing the end of that program, her probation officer told her about BOSS. She showed up to the career training diligently, bringing her infant daughter along with her. The facilities included a room with toys and napping spaces for kids whose parents couldn’t arrange childcare during their training.
By the end of the program, she had landed a job as a clerk for Alameda County. Her fellow graduates are now working for employers like Alameda County Juvenile Hall, Coach Automotive Restoration, DoorDash, Home Depot, Local 510, Uber and Valero.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” Dungan-Moseley said. “I enjoy my job. I enjoy coming to work every day. I enjoy the things that I do, and I enjoy my coworkers.”
Dungan-Moseley delivered a short speech Friday night, her fussy daughter on her hip. The crowd also heard music from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, a speech from the aptly-named Marlo Da Motivator, who travels around the state giving inspirational talks to men in prison and people on parole, and the keynote speaker Nathan Pirtle, who was formerly incarcerated but who has gone on to become a nationally-recognized marketer and speaker.
“Most of the people that don’t want to see you move forward can’t even visualize themselves moving forward,” Pirtle told the crowd. “So you have to block out all of that negativity, all of those roadblocks, everybody telling you what you can do and what you can’t do. And you have to have that one little piece of faith, that one little piece of hope to continue to go on.”
Larrie “Ray Ryda” Noble, Jr., a 2018 CTEC graduate, performed an original rap called “BOSSible”—with lyrics that told his personal story with incarceration and the CTEC program, shouting out the program’s leaders by name. He sang along with a backing track: “Anything is possible / put your mind to it, man, I promise you it’s BOSSible.”
“Tonight is a celebration,” Perkins said during the ceremony. “And I want you to celebrate because for some of us, this is the first time we’ve had a reason to celebrate in a long time.”
Toward the end of the ceremony, just before the graduates’ names were called, Perkins asked them to repeat after him once more. This time, they shouted in unison: “I have a choice.”
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