Sen. Ron Johnson’s Milwaukee Mission
By: Collin Roth
April 22, 2016
“I want to put a little pressure on you,” said Sen. Ron Johnson as he looked around at the faces in the small church on Milwaukee’s north side. “You have to succeed.”
Johnson stood before 13 new graduates of The Joseph Project, an initiative run by Pastor Jerome Smith of Greater Praise Church of Christ and supported by Sen. Johnson’s staff, that trains men and women on Milwaukee’s north side in the “soft skills” of how to interview for a job and the importance of attitude, hard work, and responsibility. When the graduates complete their training, as they did this past Friday morning, they are loaded up into vans for the one hour drive north to the Sheboygan Job Center where they have interviews with area manufacturers and employers. It’s all about connecting those who want work with those who need workers.
“Having employed people, I really understand that it’s not really the skill set, it’s far more the attitude of the inpiduals,” said Johnson. “People with brains who are willing to put in the time and effort with the right attitude, there’s a lot of opportunities out there and they can really succeed.”
Johnson became involved with The Joseph Project after reading Robert Woodson’s book “The Triumphs of Joseph ”, which uses the biblical story of Joseph as a parable for those community leaders who work daily to change the lives of those in America’s most desperate neighborhoods. The book encourages America’s leaders to identify “The Josephs” and work to assist them, not replace them with government.
In this case, Pastor Jerome Smith is a Joseph. And Johnson has become something of an evangelist for the project, touting the program to employers and inviting them to observe and interview candidates. He believes in the program at his very core.
“There’s not one political party that has a monopoly on compassion. I truly believe we all share the same goal,” he said. “We may be pided in how you provide those opportunities, but we start with the recognition that we share the same goal and we want everyone to succeed. That’s what we’re trying to do here; helping people succeed.”
Optimism was brimming among the twelve men and one woman who were on their way to job interviews. They were dressed up, with the men in suits and ties and the lone women in a skirt with a suit coat.
“Today’s the day,” said Orlando Owens, a staffer for Sen. Johnson who has worked closely with Pastor Smith. “Be confident. Be confident.”
After brief remarks to the group, encouraging and pushing the new graduates to embrace the opportunities before them, Johnson took questions. One young man asked a question Johnson is used to answering: Why did he decide to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010?
Johnson’s story is familiar, deciding to run after speaking at a Tea Party rally about the increasing burdens of the federal government on employers. But this was a different audience than a campaign rally, a Lincoln Day dinner, or a business group. These were African- American men and women who in all likelihood didn’t vote for Johnson in 2010 and probably supported and continue to support President Obama. Frankly, this was the type of audience that conservatives have long avoided, ceding their votes to the Democrats.
But Johnson wasn’t shy. He carefully connected the burdens of government regulations and taxation to the graduates trying to get new jobs.
“Government is making it hard for employers to hire people like you,” he said. “We need to celebrate success because that leads to jobs and benefits for our economy.”
Pastor Smith and the Joseph Project are a lifeline in a community desperate for hope . In 2015, Wisconsin was ranked the worst state for African Americans in the entire country. Unemployment among African-Americans in Wisconsin has been around 20% – or one in five. The neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s north side have been plagued by violence, drugs, and failing schools.
And the graduating class at Greater Praise Church of Christ wasn’t immune to those harsh realities. One young man lost a cousin to gun violence the very week he was enrolled in The Joseph Project. Enrollees know that to stay in the program there are no excuses for absences or tardiness. But if anyone had an excuse, it was this man. He didn’t drop out. He graduated and persevered, understanding that The Joseph Project was offering him a way to change his life.
The next six months for Ron Johnson are going to be a grind. He is in the fight for his political life as he faces re-election. But a morning with the men and women of The Joseph Project puts all of that in perspective. Here, men and women are fighting for their real lives, seizing opportunity and enjoying the dignity of work.