Bring­ing to­gether faith and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties

Joseph Project pas­tor brings hope, ‘dig­nity of work’ to Wis­con­sin

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By M.D. Kit­tle M.D. Kit­tle is the Wis­con­sin bu­reau chief.

Pas­tor Jerome Smith Sr. is grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to chang­ing lives. He seems to be the right man for the job. The pas­tor of Milwaukee’s Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, has seen first-hand the power of bring­ing to­gether faith and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties to de­liver op­por­tu­nity and hope to un­der­priv­i­leged neigh­bor­hoods. His Joseph Project has con­nected scores of low-in­come, in­ner-city African Amer­i­cans with south­east Wis­con­sin com­pa­nies look­ing for work­ers to fill empty po­si­tions. The ini­tia­tive pro­vides trans­porta­tion to those com­pa­nies and job train­ing to par­tic­i­pants.

In early Novem­ber, the pro­gram cel­e­brated the one-year an­niver­sary of its first suc­cess­ful con­nec­tion.

By the end of Novem­ber, 32-year-old Kenyetta Wil­liams be­came the 100th per­son to find a job through the Joseph Project. The pro­gram has added a Milwaukee church and an­other in Madi­son.

Ms. Wil­liams was part of the first Madi­son Joseph project class in Oc­to­ber. She moved from the class­room to a job at a large She­boy­gan man­u­fac­turer.

Mr. Smith said em­ploy­ers ea­ger to fill po­si­tions are jump­ing at the chance to con­nect with a ready work­force.

“The Joseph Project has done a great job im­prov­ing the lives of poor peo­ple and mak­ing them more pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens,” Mr. Smith told Wis­con­sin Watch­dog last month.

The pro­gram draws its name from Robert L. Wood­son Sr.’s book, “The Tri­umphs of Joseph,” about com­mu­nity-based ini­tia­tives. Pro­gram churches host week-long classes to teach job­seek­ers the “soft skills” to land a job, to keep it and to move up the ca­reer lad­der.

The Joseph Project res­onates in com­mu­ni­ties that have lost pa­tience with politi­cians and gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crats push­ing hand­outs with­out hope, in so­cial wel­fare sys­tems that have left fam­i­lies chained to poverty for gen­er­a­tions.

And Mr. Smith is not afraid of con­fronting power — he stood fast in the face of an as­sault by Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­date Russ Fein­gold, who crit­i­cized the pro­gram. “It’s not enough to pick peo­ple up in a van and send them away a cou­ple hours and have them come back ex­hausted at the end of the day. That doesn’t make a com­mu­nity,” Mr. Fein­gold said in a ra­dio in­ter­view in Oc­to­ber.

Mr. Smith did not engage, although U.S. Sen. Ron John­son, who helped launch the project and was run­ning against Mr. Fein­gold, came to his de­fense. The Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can, who spent his pri­vate life build­ing a plas­tics man­u­fac­turer in Oshkosh, said he saw a glar­ing dis­con­nect in Wis­con­sin’s grow­ing econ­omy.

“There are 80,000 to 100,000 jobs go­ing un­filled in Wis­con­sin, yet you have all these high lev­els of unem­ploy­ment here in the in­ner-city of Milwaukee,” he said in a cam­paign ad. “The Joseph Project’s goal and mis­sion is to make those con­nec­tions.

In the same ad, Mr. Smith said the Joseph Project is break­ing cy­cles of poverty.

“With­out a good-pay­ing job, you can’t put food on the ta­ble, you can’t keep the lights on,” the pas­tor said.

Wis­con­sin’s 2014 black unem­ploy­ment rate was the high­est in the na­tion, at nearly 20 per­cent. As Mr. John­son notes, those fig­ures don’t count the res­i­dents who have given up hope and stopped look­ing for work.

Black house­holds’ me­dian an­nual in­come in Wis­con­sin is $26,053, sig­nif­i­cantly lower than for black fam­i­lies na­tion­wide.

Work­ing-age African-Amer­i­cans have higher rates of felony con­vic­tions, lower rates of grad­u­a­tion, and greater in­ci­dents of sus­pended driver’s li­censes due to un­paid tick­ets — a recipe for ram­pant job­less­ness, Mr. John­son said.

Pro­grams like the Joseph Project can break the chain of job­less­ness, hope­less­ness, Mr. John­son says, and it can do it with­out fur­ther bur­den­ing tax­pay­ers.

“This is not a gov­ern­ment pro­gram,” Mr. John­son said in a state­ment ear­lier this year. “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.”

Mr. Smith sees the im­pact ev­ery day, one life at a time.

“The folks we work with love the Joseph Project, and I love the fact that it pro­vides hope and op­por­tu­nity for folks in our com­mu­nity who had been left to be­lieve that all that was avail­able to them was min­i­mum wage, temp jobs, gov­ern­ment pro­grams, or crime,” he said.

“This is about giv­ing peo­ple the dig­nity of work — that’s some­thing no po­lit­i­cal attack can take away,” the pas­tor added.

Es­pe­cially in the Christ­mas sea­son, that makes Pas­tor Jerome Smith Sr. a Washington Times un­sung hero.


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