A little over a mile from the site of Saturday night’s riots in Milwaukee, a small church that once was a tavern now is home to one of the more improbable efforts to lift the economic fortunes of some of the city’s poorest black residents.
That effort, called the Joseph Project, has humble roots. Across the street stand five boarded-up storefronts and an abandoned gas station surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.
But the project, launched last fall on a shoestring budget dependent on donations, has 78 people currently placed in jobs that its director says pay $12.80 to $18.50 an hour.
On Monday, a handful of new job seekers sat in the windowless sanctuary of the church — the Greater Praise Church of God in Christ at 5422 W. Center St. — and listened to the testimony of three of the program’s veterans.
“When I started out, I was like a lot of people in our community — kind of hopeless,” said one of them, Willie McShan, a former temp worker now holding a permanent job with a base pay of $16 an hour and plenty of overtime. “…I don’t feel hopeless no more, because I know all I’ve got to do is get up, go to work, stay committed, and things are going to work out.”
McShan’s attitude stands in stark contrast to the pockets of despair and anger, often born of high unemployment, that erupted into frightening rioting Saturday night after a police officer shot and killed a young man who police said refused to drop the stolen gun he was carrying.
Then there’s the Joseph Project, the program that helped McShan, 54, find work on an assembly line at auto parts manufacturer Nemak. Sometimes the work is hard. For a few months, McShan worked seven days a week.
Like almost all those connected with the Joseph Project, however, the job itself is in Sheboygan County. To get people there, Greater Praise runs four shuttle vans a day. With multiple drop-off and pickup points, the trips take more than an hour each way.
About 15 people who started jobs have either quit or been fired, Greater Praise pastor Jerome Smith said.
McShan, along with the great majority of those who have landed work, have stuck with it so far. Eight months into his job, McShan now is doing something he never dreamed possible: He’s training new workers.
“When I came in the program, I was not a 100% believer that this would work,” he said. But the soft-skills training the project offers in the Greater Praise basement prepared him well, helping him learn to accept constructive criticism.
“It may look overwhelming to you,” he told the group preparing to enter the project’s 12th class, “but each and every one of us can do this.”
Also on hand at Greater Praise Monday was U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, whose staff helped Smith get the Joseph Project started and has continued to support it.
Johnson called the project “the best thing that’s happened to me” during six years in the Senate.
“This is a joy,” he said.
“And by the way,” Johnson added, referring to the weekend’s rioting, “this is the solution to what’s happening. …They are giving people hope, and that’s what it’s going to take.”
It takes one more thing, according to McShan and two other Joseph Project veterans who spoke to the incoming class Monday: a receptive attitude.
“If you don’t have the right attitude, you won’t last,” McShan said. “It won’t be Nemak’s fault. It won’t be pastor’s fault. It won’t be senator’s fault. It’ll be your fault.”