Bretto Jackson hated many things about federal prison, but not everything. It gave him access to people he never would have encountered otherwise.
“The thing about prison is, you’re all wearing the same thing,” he says. “Everyone has the same $40 New Balances on.” Even, for example, the Wall Street criminals at Rikers Island. “These dudes were just sitting across from me, drinking their coffee, reading their Wall Street Journals.”
Jackson’s fellow inmates opened his eyes to the concepts of investing and the tools of finance, a universe away from the robbery related charge that landed him in prison for 61 months. He became a Wall Street Journal reader too.
After leaving prison, Jackson wanted to use his new financial acumen to empower others like himself to find legal paths to making money.
Today, he and a partner run a small startup in Portland, Ore., called Leaders Become Legends. They mentor people involved with gun violence and connect them with companies who are hiring for green jobs, like solar panel installation companies and recycling facilities.
Unlike minimum wage or fast food gigs, this work pays well. Starting wages can be close to $20 an hour. A living wage, says Jackson, is critical to finding a way out of gun violence.
Damien Rouse is in the program. He went to jail time for the first time at the age of 14 and spent much of his late adolescence and early adulthood incarcerated. Last year, Rouse’s brother was shot and killed. The two were close, just a year apart, the middle kids in a family of six.
“When he died a part of me died too,” Rouse says.
He’d like to leave Portland, he says. He never feels safe here.
Through Leaders Become Legends, Rouse has been working with a local energy company to assemble and install solar panels. He says the most important skill he’s gained in this program is not technical; it’s how to compartmentalize. The work can be scary at times, installing panels 45- or 60-feet in the air. He can’t be distracted.
“When I go to work,” he says, “it’s like, OK, I’m gonna just focus on work and get this done.” This wisdom is something he passes on to other participants in the program.
As a kid, Rouse watched his uncles, cousins and father go to jail. He’s determined to give his own 6-year-old son a different life.
In the last year, Portland, Ore., — like much of the country — has seen a devastating rise in gun violence. Homicide rates here are higher than they’ve been in two decades.
City leaders are scrambling to address the problem with law enforcement strategies including increased police presence and working with the FBI. The Leaders Become Legends program, by contrast, is funded through the city’s economic development arm, far upstream from law enforcement.
This kind of mentoring, Jackson says, takes time and patience. Six months ago, he and his partner received their first $10,000 grant from the city as part of a small pilot project. Before that, they were doing this work on their own and through other non-profits they’ve worked for.
Over the last year, Jackson estimates they’ve found work for 10 people. They’re angling to scale up with some much bigger money next year through a city program subsidizing clean energy jobs.
Tax incentives and legal requirements for green energy are driving a healthy demand for this trade. For the most part, says Jackson, bosses in this industry are supportive and colleagues friendly. But not always. Part of the training, says Jackson, is managing expectations.
“You might see a swastika tattoo on one of these guys, you might see a Trump sign, a Make America Great Again sticker on one of these bumpers of these trucks,” Jackson says. He cautions participants against letting it distract them. “Think about your children,” he tells them.
“Our total mission is to not let them go back to prison, or be dead,” Jackson says. “As well as dealing with our trauma from just being so called Black in America.”
This trauma is sometimes less dramatic than arrests or shooting. On a recent day at the solar panel site, another program participant, Tay’Andre Churn, arrives late to the work site after being pulled over on his way into this affluent suburb.
“I think he saw a black dude, and it went down from there,” Churn says. Getting pulled over, he says, is “an almost every day type thing.”
Despite their frequency, the police stops never get easier. Between these encounters and the violence in his community, Churn acknowledges that he lives with a lot of fear and deep sense of injustice.
But with two kids to feed, he says, he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. Instead he straps on his safety harness and gets to work.