Ron’s work connecting folks with good jobs through the Joseph Project is expanding from Milwaukee to Madison. Ron said, “That’s kind of the bottom line … helping people turn their lives around person to person.”
An unassuming church on Madison’s east side is set to become the first location outside of Milwaukee to host a faith-based employment program championed by Wisconsin’s senior U.S. senator.
The first Madison class of The Joseph Project — and the 14th since the program began in Milwaukee — will meet in October at the Capital City Sanctuary Church of God on Jenifer Street, led by Superintendent Raymond Davis.
The program, named for the Robert L. Woodson Sr. book “The Triumphs of Joseph,” is a faith-based initiative that seeks to train men and women — often with criminal backgrounds — and find them jobs with Wisconsin businesses. Most of the jobs are in the manufacturing field — an area where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who comes from a manufacturing background, is well-positioned to make some introductions.
Much has been written about the Joseph Project lately, particularly in the wake of violence and unrest in Milwaukee spurred by a fatal police shooting last month. The conservative National Review Online and the Wall Street Journal editorial page recently published features on the program’s successes in a city marred by stark segregation and its long-term effects on racial equity.
The people involved with the program use words like “life-changing” and “transformational” when they talk about it. Johnson adds another one: “heartwarming.”
“It’s by far the best thing I’ve participated in as a U.S. senator,” Johnson said Tuesday, after leaving a meeting with program participants in Milwaukee.
Spearheaded by Johnson, his staffer Orlando Owens and Greater Praise Church of God in Christ pastor Jerome Smith, the program has operated in Milwaukee for about a year.
Participants go through an orientation and vetting process, then attend a class in which they learn spiritual fitness, conflict resolution, stress management, interview skills, team building and financial management.
For those who make it through the class and find employment, it can be their first time in a high-paying job that offers things like health insurance or a retirement fund, Smith said. Most of the jobs start at about $10-15 an hour with the potential to earn upwards of $20 an hour, Johnson said.
Employers working with the Milwaukee class have mostly been located in Sheboygan County. Transportation is provided to participants for the first 30 days, then is offered for $10 a day.
The Madison program will work with Perry Way Foods, a Johnsonville Sausage subsidiary located in Watertown. The plant was reopened in June after being shut down for a year after a fire.
Smith said the Joseph Project hopes to partner with businesses in the Waukesha area, a location he thinks could take participants from both the Madison and Milwaukee classes.
Run entirely on donations, funding and sustainability is always a concern, both Smith and Owens said.
“That’s always a concern. Somehow or another, God always makes a way for us,” Smith said.
The program doesn’t promise “pie in the sky” results, Owens said. But its supporters are proud of the results it delivers.
About 140 people have gone through the class, Smith said. Of those participants, about 120 have had interviews with employers, and about 85 have landed jobs. Those who have found employment have had about a 78 percent retention rate, he said.
Some women have gone through the class, Smith said, but the majority of its participants have been African-American men. Unemployment among African-Americans in Wisconsin was the highest in the nation last year.
So far, somewhere between eight and 10 participants are enrolled in the Madison class, Owens said.
What makes a good candidate for the program and a successful participant is “one and the same,” he said. “A great attitude is the biggest thing.”
Beyond the program participants, Owens said, the pastor leading the class plays a significant role in offering guidance.
Johnson’s biggest asset, both Owens and Smith said, is his ability to meet with manufacturers and identify companies that have open positions.
But beyond that, Owens added, having Johnson’s name attached to the project helps lend credibility. Smith describes Johnson’s role as “kicking open the door,” while he, Owens and another Johnson staffer — Scott Bolstad — try to hold it open.
The nature of the program requires employers to be more flexible than they may have been in the past when it comes to criminal background checks. Having the backing of the Joseph Project and the senator can help encourage employers to take that step, Owens said.
The project shows, Johnson said, “that you really do help people turn their lives around one person at a time.”
While the program is still relatively small, Johnson and Owens said they’ve heard interest from senators on both sides of the aisle — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Cory Booker of New Jersey, for example — in replicating it in other states.
Smith said he “turns a blind eye” to any partisan questions or criticism of the program’s political affiliation.
“Either you’re here to help or you’re not. If you’re not, we see past it and thank God for you, but we’re going to keep moving,” Smith said.
The Joseph Project has mean the difference between being able to buy a car, pay the utilities bill and put groceries on the table or not, Smith said, calling the results “life-changing.” Owens noted that he’s seen participants go from taking the bus and walking to the church for classes to being able to afford a car for the first time.
The difference between this program and other efforts, Owens said, is its tangible results. People are tired, he said, “of having people talk and meet, talk and meet and nothing really happens. That’s really something that’s unique about this.”
Alvin Savage, a program participant who works for Nemak in Sheboygan, said in a video promoting the project that his experience gave him “more clarity.” Willie McShane, who also works at Nemak, was thankful for something straightforward: money in the bank.
“Your compassion is best demonstrated and is most successful when you demonstrate it in your local community, person to person,” Johnson said. That’s kind of the bottom line … helping people turn their lives around person to person.”