The American Prospect
Travis Jones got out of prison in 2007, but he talks about his time there like it ended yesterday. It surprised him, he says, the stuff he missed. He knew he’d long for his family, and his girlfriend, but it was the absence of everyday things that kept him from feeling human. “When you open your refrigerator and that cool air hits you? I missed it like crazy,” he says. “They cut the lights on you, and they flip the switch. Little things like that.”
But when he was released, returning to a compact corner of the unfinished basement of his girl’s mom’s house in West Baltimore, he turned it into a cell: bed, TV, weight bench, stacks and rows of books, DVDs, and video games, accumulating dust and teenage-boy-bedroom smell. He rarely left. When he did, he was jumpy. He was no fun at parties. “It seemed like when he came home, he was still locked up,” says his childhood friend Kendall Wilson. “It seemed like he was still in jail for a long time, just in the basement.”
Travis is 32. He’s short, at five feet six, but broad and muscular. He keeps his hair shaved close to his head and maintains a slim goatee. He has a way of sitting with his legs splayed and his head hanging slightly forward but his eyes looking up and his mouth unsmiling—half-relaxed and half-tensed. Around new people, he’s shy and suspicious that they’re talking about him behind his back, but he can be funny, too, and draw a crowd around him. In the basement, Travis spent a lot of time reading, as he had in prison (Black Boy, Native Son, books about Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela). He binge-watched premium cable. The Wire. (“It was sad how Dukie ended up being a fiend.”) The new show that the guy who played Omar, Michael K. Williams, is in. (“I like him better on Boardwalk Empire.”) Game of Thrones. (“Khaleesi, she shaped herself up toward the end. She turned out to be a real force. When she freeing slaves you know I always get behind that. I ain’t like her at first; I fucks with her now.”) He played a lot of video games with his girl, Joyce Fisher, and a few other friends who’d stop by. Travis especially liked Call of Duty. He’d always wanted to be a Marine, but when he’d finally caught the charge that sent him to prison in Hagerstown, Maryland—police found vials of cocaine in his house—he’d given up on that. Just like he had on everything else.
When his stepdad left after two years of marriage to his mom, Travis was 14. They’d done father-and-son things like go fishing together on weekends and been close in a way he never was with his own dad, who was in the Navy and had never lived with him. His stepdad’s absence fed Travis’s teenage rebelliousness. He dropped out of school his junior year. His mom blames his attention deficit disorder, which was diagnosed when Travis was 12. (“Did she talk about the ADD?” he asked me one day and shook his head. “She always brings up that ADD.”) But Travis says he just acted out. He’d been a Boy Scout and his mom was a teacher, and he wanted to fit in. “Nobody likes a church boy,” he says.
Travis grew up in the same West Baltimore neighborhood where he now lives with Joyce, who is ten years his senior. It’s the kind of place where a walk to the 7-Eleven could get him robbed and where everyone is hustling all the time. People talk about the 1980s as the good days, when guys in the neighborhood could do well for themselves, when crack and heroin pumped money through the streets and gave neighborhoods an economy of their own; now, there is just violence, little money, and a lot of prison.
As a teenager, Travis came into frequent contact with police, but his first arrest didn’t happen until he’d just turned 19 and was charged with firearm possession and resisting arrest. The judge gave him probation and said she would dismiss the charges if he made it through without a violation. (“I violated that shit like 6 times,” he says.) A year later, he was picked up because he and a friend had beaten a man so badly the victim required stomach staples and had a contusion on his kidney. (“I didn’t think he was beaten that bad at the time, but it caught up with us.”) Travis says the guy had hit on a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood, asking if she’d gotten her menstrual cycle yet. The charges were dropped when the victim failed to show up and testify. (“I guess somebody told him what’s what.”)
When Travis was 21, about a year before he landed in prison, his best friend was killed right in front of his face. “His homeboy died—he did go a little bit harder after that,” Kendall Wilson says. “We all hustled. We all did everything. But a couple people were wilder. Travis was one of the wild, wild ones.” I asked Travis once how many deaths he’d witnessed. He said, “It’s like saying how many red cars did you see this week.”
The year after he came out of prison, Travis worked a few jobs. The last one, cleaning cooking equipment in restaurants at night, paid $40 a store, which was better than anything else he could find. He was caught stealing brisket from Boston Market and was fired. He put in a few more applications but never got a call back. That’s typical. Nationwide, black men with prison records only get callbacks 5 percent of the time; for black men without prison records, the rate is 17 percent (the same as for white men with criminal backgrounds).
Travis didn’t want to deal anymore. Guys he knew were working jobs, had become husbands and fathers. “I wanted to be one of the people who get up and go to work every day without breaking the law and have a quality of life,” he says. “I wanted to be one of those people, and I felt like I couldn’t.” He remained unemployed after 2009, and it bothered him, not chipping in. “Your family will be supportive, saying, ‘Oh, yeah, take your time,’” he says. “But after a couple months with no money coming in, you just a bum.” So he started dealing again. Only pot, no hard drugs, out of his house to trusted clients—straight-up people, he says, working people, older people. He limited himself to selling $100 worth a day and figured he was making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year just by being there to pick up his cell phone. Travis was an almost-daily pot smoker himself and didn’t see the harm, but he still wasn’t happy about it.
In the spring of 2013, Travis met a guy who’d gone to college in Canada, come back to the old neighborhood, and landed a construction job through his aunt, Catherine Pitchford, who worked at the Center for Urban Families. The center was just a mile down the road, and it provided job training and fatherhood classes for men in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods. Travis needed certification for a construction gig, so he went to the center. Normally, every client must go through the center’s four-week job-training course, called Strive, before being placed in a job. But Pitchford, who’s completing a degree in social work, had a soft spot for Travis from the start. He wanted a job so badly, plus he seemed sharp and ready. She decided to let him take the certification test without the Strive class. He failed to qualify by two points.
He was leaving the center, upset, when he passed Wayne Cooper, an amiable 67-year-old counselor who works with ex-offenders. “I said to him, ‘You look like you’re angry,’” Cooper recalls. “It was a simple statement.” But not to Travis. “I kind of lost it,” he says. “After being in that depressed state like I was, being down like that, and realizing that your dream could come true, making that kind of wage, a respectable living, and then missing it by two points.” He took off his coat and lunged at Cooper. Another center employee came between them. Cooper, though, laughed and turned to Travis, saying, “I hope I’m not going to have to get your ass locked up in here today!” Travis got even more upset. “I was going to strike that man,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about it.” Cooper had seen a lot of guys blow up, but not like this. “I don’t know if Travis is on medication or not,” Cooper says, “but he acted like he was.” When Travis finally stalked out of the center, he figured he’d never go back.
The Center for Urban Families, finished in sparkling pink cinder block in 2009, is one of the newest buildings in its neighborhood. It’s surrounded by a church, a vacant former child-care center, a thrift store, and a freshly repaved, block-long parking lot with no business attached. Just down the road is the Mondawmin shopping center, which locals call the “hood mall.” Amid the boarded-up row houses, the occasional neatly kept home often bears a simple plaint on the front door—“No loitering, please!”—in an attempt to prohibit the stooping practiced by the neighborhood’s hoodie-wearing men. Corners have no garbage bins, and crosswalks dissect few intersections, so trash and pedestrians make their own way across streets. Every few blocks there’s a blue flashing dome above the stoplight just to remind people that the cops are never far off, but it does nothing to deter the knife-wielding bar fighters from spilling out into the street, or to reduce the lines for the neighborhood library bathroom, where people shoot up, or to slow the quick-step vibrancy of a streetscape where everyone has to watch his back.
What sets the center apart from the rest of the block isn’t just its still-new gleam but the dozens of men (and a handful of women) filing in every day around 8:30 A.M., or out after 5 P.M., wearing suits and pressed dress shirts, hair pulled back or cropped close. Clients must adhere to a strict dress code; for most, the clothes are provided by donors like Men’s Wearhouse. The center, which started operating in 1999, provides a range of services in addition to workforce training: It collaborates with employers to place people in jobs; it provides fatherhood classes; it helps men navigate family-court problems; it counsels ex-prisoners as they transition back into life; and it offers a class for couples that operates a bit like a group therapy session.
The nonprofit center was among the first in the country designed to help low-income men with such a wide range of issues. Its founder and CEO, Joe Jones, calls himself a “recovering knucklehead,” who dealt and abused drugs when he was young. He grew up in Baltimore and had gone through an intense two-year recovery program in which Wayne Cooper was one of his counselors. Jones wanted to help men like himself, and West Baltimore has no shortage of them. More than half the prison population released in Maryland returns every year to the neighborhoods around the center. They come out burdened not only by their records but by family estrangement and debt. Child-support arrearages are allowed to accumulate in prison, and about 3,000 men who live near the center owe more than $50 million in back child support.
The center has a tough-love ethos that’s based on the kinds of therapeutic programs that were instrumental in changing Jones’s life. Women are also welcome in the job-training courses, but in a city where “family” is code for “mothers and children,” the focus on men is unusual. In the years since the Great Recession, more people with high-school diplomas and college degrees have come looking for help finding jobs, but the core population the center serves is the least educated, those with a high-school diploma or less.
One of the center’s most important functions is also its simplest: It gives men a safe spot to hang out in West Baltimore. Most of the workforce-training graduates who still visit the center—watching the classes, meeting with counselors, using the computers—told me they come because being there keeps them out of trouble. “There aren’t too many places in Baltimore where men can be positive together,” says one Strive graduate.
The men are what policymakers euphemistically call a challenging population: Lacking high-school education or formal work experience, they’re the most likely of any group in America to die young and to die from violence. Most of their life experience, the skills that have helped them survive the streets or prison, works against them in the legal world. The biggest problem the center has spent 15 years trying to solve isn’t how to get these guys jobs, or how to encourage them to be more involved in their children’s lives, or how make the streets safer, though those are tough enough. The problem is more profound: How do you give these survivors of the drug wars, men who are criminalized and discarded by society, who are at the bottom of every statistic, hope?
After his confrontation with Cooper, Travis stayed in touch with Pitchford, his friend’s aunt. He still wanted a construction job, and it seemed like she could help. They’d have long conversations about his temper, and his goals. “Travis,” she’d say, “I see your potential—you just got to work on your anger.” Finally, she convinced him to try Strive, an intensive four-week program that was developed by two ex-offenders in Harlem in the 1980s.
Every new class is assigned a number. Travis showed up for Cycle 179, which began last August. Wearing the new suit he’d been given, he filed into the biggest room at the center, full of white folding tables and green rolling chairs, for orientation. The instructors were Baltimore natives Sean Robinson and Tiffany Davis. Robinson, who’s 40, spent seven years in the military before studying sociology. Davis, who’s 31, is earning a degree in community service. Strive instructors in West Baltimore are always a male-female pair, in part so that the men can get used to taking orders from women. They instruct the class from 9 A.M. until 3 P.M.; the last two hours shift to remedial math instruction, which gets some ready for their GEDs and helps others prepare for construction jobs like plumbing and pipe-fitting, where they’ll need to add and subtract and understand fractions.
Strive is boot camp—one that turns soldiers back into civilians rather than the other way around. Robinson calls it “attitudinal training.” Students learn how to give a job interview, how to write a résumé, how to communicate in the workplace, how to save money, how to follow a budget, how to deal with depression and low self-esteem. A major goal is to help them develop a professional attitude toward a job—being on time, wearing business attire, speaking appropriately for an office environment—the kinds of skills that middle-class people pick up throughout their lives like oxygen from air.
When Robinson and Davis take over at orientation, they bark at the new recruits to stand up, then issue their first command: “Smile.” Students will learn a lot of things in Strive, but the first lesson is how to smile. The first few days are devoted to it. The new class members are always confused, and then they start to smile—except for about 20 percent of the room, who stand stone-faced. Robinson calls out those who don’t smile, pulls them up to the front of the room, and says, “This is my smile crew.” He tells the rest of the room to cheer until they can get these men and women, mostly men, to finally crack a smile.
The claps and hoots and whistles rise in a crescendo heard throughout the building. Meanwhile, Davis and Robinson walk up and down the line, yelling, “Smile,” and pantomiming it, using their fingers to pull the corners of their own mouths back. The reluctant recruits roll their eyes. Some get tense, their faces get stuck in passive displays of aggression, as Robinson goes up and down the line and mocks: “Is it painful? Is there a medical condition? Smile!” He and Davis continue their full-on assault of well-wishing and joking and silliness until one by one, the students fold. A smile is the Strive game face, they explain. “I’m not asking you to smile on North Monroe Street at two in the morning,” Davis says. “I’m asking you to smile in here.”
It’s usually the youngest men who bow out at this stage—the 19- and 20-year-olds who are too cool to tolerate the corniness, the guys who’ve been strongly encouraged to try Strive by some parole officer or social worker attempting to keep them from spending their twenties in prison. It’s the older guys who are eager to cooperate. They’re hungry.
Travis wasn’t called out as part of the smile crew, but he could feel himself winding up. He didn’t like these mind games. After the first break, he went out to smoke a cigarette and returned chewing gum. Davis came toward him, yelling at him to spit the gum out. Instead, he cursed at her and demanded to know why he had to do something she didn’t have to, since she was chewing gum, too. “If you don’t like it, you can get out!” Davis hollered. Travis turned to Robinson, the other trainer: “Why I gotta leave? She’s chewing gum, too!” Robinson said, “You’re not submitting to the process.” So Travis said, “Fuck you and this process,” and stomped out of the center for a second time.
“He fussed about that for weeks,” Joyce says. “He couldn’t get over it, and he couldn’t let it go.” A week or so later, Travis applied for a stockroom job. He wore the suit he’d gotten from the center, and on the way to the interview he could hear Davis’s voice in his head, telling him to smile. “This woman I couldn’t stand at the time was the first person I thought of,” he says. “I took the advice she gave.” He landed the job, and it paid $9.50 an hour, but he quit at the end of the first day for reasons even he didn’t entirely understand. The tape gun he was supposed to use to put boxes together didn’t work properly, and it annoyed him. Mostly, though, he worried he wasn’t ready. But he did feel ready for Strive. “In an hour and a half, with the information I got here, got me further than I got since 2007 when I came out,” he says. “That’s what it took for me to realize that I can get where I want to be. I can. This is the avenue that I’ve been hoping and praying for, the opportunity and chance for something to go right.” He called his old friend Kendall Wilson, who, after six years of working at KFC, had become a manager. She hired Travis as a part-time cook at the suburban restaurant she managed. That allowed him to quit dealing weed. He worked nights so he could keep the job while he went back to the center.
On the first Friday morning of October, Travis wore his suit—plain black and a little too long, so that it hung past his wrists, waist, and ankles—and took a seat in the back for the beginning of Cycle 181. (Outside the center, he still wore jeans and T-shirts and a canvas jacket with a brass-knuckle knife in the pocket, because you could never be too careful.) Eighty-seven people came to orientation. Only 68 returned on Monday for the first class. Robinson and Davis passed out workbooks and assigned homework, introducing them to the course’s strict rules and etiquette. Students had to stand and say their full names before they spoke in class. No slang words were allowed—“yeah” and “nah” counted as slang. Every morning, the students would be inspected to see that they were following the dress code. Homework would be checked first thing, every day.
Whenever they broke a rule, the students had to pay fines. The price schedule was listed in the workbook: A hand in a pocket cost $1, while a ringing cell phone cost $5. “In what part of life do mistakes not cost you?” Robinson said by way of explanation. Payment was due immediately; loose change and dollar bills began to fill a giant empty water-cooler bottle that became almost too heavy to lift by the end of the four weeks. If students didn’t have money, they couldn’t wait until the lunch break or dart out of class. They had to turn to the room and ask for a loan. “Does anybody in the community have a dollar I can borrow?” they would regularly ask, before picking quarters and dimes out of outstretched hands. There was a lesson in this, too: “Stop looking for someone outside of your community to come rescue you,” Robinson said. “Your help is here in this community.” Some students paid as much as $10 in the first few days. At the end of the first week, one woman was charged $1 and broke down crying before leaving the class for good. Travis got caught with his hands in his pockets a few times, and had to pay $3. But he was smiling on cue, working hard at cooperating.
Travis watched as the instructors called out others for refusing to crack even a grin, or for sighing, or sucking their teeth, or not wearing the right clothes, down to the socks. He watched as Robinson and Davis focused in on a group of three men—two were brothers—barely out of their teens, who still hadn’t smiled in the first three days and wouldn’t say their names loud enough for the class to hear. One by one they were called up, heads held back. “You have permission here to be square,” Robinson said. None of those guys would make it through the first week. Only 50 students did.
The class was purposefully antagonistic. Sometimes, Wayne Cooper, the ex-offender counselor, would come in to poke fun at people, make them a little more uncomfortable. “They petty,” students would grumble outside the classroom. There was a good reason for that: The students’ jobs, after the training, would be petty, too. “It always seems like more is expected of you for the least amount of money,” Cooper says.
During the second week, it dawned on Travis that this was the most time he’d spent around other people since prison. He was starting to make friends, becoming part of a group of guys who were all slowly, gingerly, beginning to thrive in the class. They’d hang out during lunch and after class. The social leader of the group was a 27-year-old father of two named Donte Harrison. Donte wrote poetry and performed hip-hop, and he liked to party. His path to the center had been different from Travis’s. Donte had graduated high school and spent half a semester in community college before dropping out. He occasionally dealt drugs and had gotten into a bit of trouble but had a stable home life with his mom and sisters that kept him from falling all the way down.
At 19, Donte was working at a Shoe City in the mall in Towson, a suburb, when Malikah Robertson, who went by the nickname Shawna, came in to buy shoes for her two kids. At the time, she was pregnant with her third. (Donte had just gotten out of a relationship with a woman who was a few weeks pregnant with his first son.) Donte struck up a conversation and invited her to come back the next day, when he could give her a friends and family discount. “I went back up there, that was pretty much what it is,” Shawna says. “We were together for six years. He was nice, polite. He was a very—well actually, I kind of taught him, I kind of groomed him into being a man.” Donte moved in, became the kids’ stepdad, and he and Shawna had a son together named Ja’len. They worked as security guards at an office building in Towson. Three years in, they were engaged. Donte’s life seemed set.
In the summer of 2011, Donte’s 12-year-old cousin was playing on his front porch when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang hit and killed. Another cousin died a week later. Donte had seen a lot of violence, but there was something different about his cousin’s death, an innocent kid shot for no reason. “Life never hit me too hard until that,” he says. Donte took time off to be with his family and grieve. “He shut down,” Shawna says. “Our boss was like, ‘I can’t hold your spot, because I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get yourself back together.’” Donte was fired.
“I think he hit rock bottom then,” Shawna says. “He just felt like it was the end of the world. I was scared to ask him to do anything, I felt I would be ignorant if I asked. But it’s like there’s nothing you can do about it, you still have to live afterwards.” Donte and Shawna were barely talking anymore—they hadn’t been communicating well for a while, but the family problems forced them to see it—and they broke up last summer. Donte moved in with his grandfather, back in his old neighborhood, and started popping pills. Shawna applied for child-care vouchers to help with the $300 a week it would cost to put her kids in day care after school. To get the vouchers, she had to provide the state with Donte’s information, and the state came after him for child support. He already owed child support on his first son.
When Donte emerged from his depression, he tried to find a new job but couldn’t. His child-support arrearages for Shawna reached $4,000. “I don’t really know what’s hindering me,” he told me. “I ain’t got no violent crimes.” One day, he was pulled over while driving, and the cop said he smelled marijuana. Donte found out that his license was suspended because of the child-support debt. When he went to court, he asked the judge, “How am I supposed to get a job if I can’t drive?” The judge said, “You’ll figure something out.” Whenever he needed money, Donte would sell drugs like pot, Xanax, and Percocet, which could go for $300 a bottle. But he had never wanted to just deal—it was one of the things Shawna had liked about him—and he also needed a legal way to pay the child support, because the judge would ask. He had heard about the center because someone told him its fatherhood classes could help him settle his arrearages. He told the judge he was going to Strive.
For people with criminal backgrounds, a job interview is the best chance to overcome everything working against them: the stereotypes, the lack of education, the prison record, the spotty work history. For the final three weeks of Cycle 181, almost every morning was devoted to mastering the interview.
Robinson and Davis began by tossing out questions to the class. They focused on five common ones. The first: “Tell me about yourself.” This became an exercise in what not to say. The first responses were the kind Robinson and Davis expected: “I’m a survivor!” “I’m a mother!” Davis asked the room, “Is anyone else in here a mother?” When most of the women raised their hands, she turned to the offender: “Does that make you unique? No? Then sit down.” When students yelled out lame answers, Robinson would moan, “Clichés are terrible!” Sometimes he’d be softer and say, “I appreciate your heart, jumping up to volunteer, but no.”
Travis emerged early as someone who could answer the questions well. He was smart and genuine, casual and earnest. When asked who he was, he’d say he was a go-getter and give an example of a time he took extra initiative at KFC to help out a co-worker even though it wasn’t his job. Where did he see himself in five years? He would be a college graduate and an asset to any company he worked for. How did he handle workplace conflict? He told the story of the time he disagreed with a supervisor and asked if they could talk it over during his next break.
Travis had begun to vary his outfit, sporting a black-and-white silk paisley tie and a matching pocket square to complement the black suit. He wore it on his 45-minute walks to the center every morning, when he’d plan his day, visualizing how he wanted it to go. “It’s changed my life,” he said about Strive. “I wish I did this when I was 16, 15. I love this place.”
The class had been divided into teams of roughly seven students, with each team electing a manager to lead their interview preparation. Travis wasn’t a manager, but when the class had a contest to see who had the best interview skills, his team nominated him. The competitors went up front, Robinson and Davis fired questions at them, and those who stumbled or made a mistake were sent back to their seats. When someone aced all five questions, Robinson would say, “Give him a black card!” The black-card holders were deputized to help others perfect their interviews. Travis was one of five. Robinson pointed at him and told the class, “Y’all don’t know who Travis was—he was the meltdown king. Now he’s a black-card holder.”
Travis talked about the black card as if it were real. “Now that I have that black card,” he’d say, “I feel like I can do anything.” He spent class time helping others improve. He’d pose the questions, and when they’d answer, he’d pace back and forth, head low, listening closely, furrowing his brow, shaking his head, giving tips. “When I started looking at him as a leader, he showed me a little bit,” Robinson says. “I started saying publicly, ‘Travis is one of the brightest guys here,’ and he started feeding off of that.”
Travis, though, was darting out some days at 3 P.M., after Robinson and Davis turned the class over to the math instructor, so that he could get to the KFC in time. Robinson found out, and the Friday of the second week he called out Travis in front of the class. Travis was upset, but he didn’t explode the way he might have in the past. “I think he started to doubt whether he could give the level of commitment we were looking for,” Robinson says. Travis remembers it differently. “They said something about, ‘What’s more important: the little petty job or what you get in here?’ That made me kind of mad, because I left a lucrative hustle behind to get that petty job to try to do this. The money is crap. But it’s my job. I went and got that. I do good there. What I want to be is a working man, a normal American taxpaying citizen. So that kind of cut me the wrong way.” He felt disrespected. But when he weighed working at KFC against the promise of something better, he decided to stick with Strive. He asked his bosses to schedule him on weekend nights so he could concentrate on the class, even though working just two shifts a week at minimum wage left him broke. At the class’s midpoint, he was one of about 40 students still hanging in.
The students left in Cycle 181 began to find that the center was full of affirmation. Everyone in the building would ask, “How are you?” and refuse to let you go until the answer was “Good!” Donte wrote a poem about Strive that Robinson asked him to share in the beginning of the third week. “Walking pass this mirror, is it really who I see? Is it that same haunted past that held me back from so many dreams? Is it that same fuckup who learned from nothing?” he wrote. “Used to be so dark and cold with intentions to harm, but now, now I see light, a crack of hope and change has split this mirror.”
Every day at lunch, Donte walked to Mondawmin to Burger King, and other students would come along. (He’d often pay for them because he was the only one with cash.) Travis would sometimes go, too, though he preferred the cheaper corner store on the other side of the empty parking lot. The Strive students made the four-block trip looking sharp, the women in their heels and the men in their suits, and along the way people on the street would clap and yell, “Get them jobs!” Travis was also receiving those kinds of cheers on his morning and afternoon walks—“That is just a perk,” he says. The guys had decided they enjoyed wearing a suit. These men had always wanted to work construction—the best-paying jobs they knew about—but now they saw the benefits of a job that required office attire. They liked looking good.
Students were still being kicked out or giving up every day. Increasingly, Robinson and Davis required Cycle 181 to act as a unit, making decisions together and holding slackers accountable. The instructors would pull someone up to the front of the class for an infraction and ask the students to vote on whether he or she should be allowed to stay. One man was kicked out because his cell phone rang and he lied about it to avoid paying the $5 fine. One quiet guy with a bit of an attitude who kept falling asleep on the table was asked to come up front; the class had no trouble voting him out. Others were booted for being late after every break, or for not doing their homework, or for not writing the essays that were doled out as punishment.
Those were the easy cases. As the class moved on, and the students grew closer, these decisions got tougher. Everyone held their breath when, on the Thursday of the third week, Robinson brought up Melvina Banks’s absences. Melvina had been one of the students to jump up and answer questions in the first few days. She’d been voted a team manager and was one of the people in the class others came to for advice. Melvina, who is 33, was awaiting drug charges. (“I was involved with a friend,” she told me. “I wasn’t aware of the other things he was involved in.”) Her pretrial officer, who was monitoring her house arrest before her case went to a judge, had told Melvina about Strive. She had known about the center but assumed, because of its focus on fatherhood, that it was only for men. Now she was just a week from graduating, but she had missed three days—one to go on a job interview arranged by the center and two to take her GED exam.
Once Melvina stood up front, faced the classroom, and smiled, Robinson referred the students to the rulebook and told them to discuss her fate. At first, everyone was supportive of Melvina. She had missed class for good reasons, they chimed in. Then Robinson asked, “So, it’s OK for Melvina to break the rules because you like her?” Travis stood up to say something, but Robinson asked him to read the rule about absences first. “Three absences will require you to repeat the workshop, no matter what the reason,” Travis read from the workbook, which had the words in bold. Robinson repeated: “No matter the reason.” Travis said, “But she was bettering herself. Isn’t that why we came here?” Robinson pointed out that she could have taken the GED another time. In a business, he said, Melvina’s absences would have hurt the bottom line, no matter how noble her reason for missing.
Melvina kept standing in front of the room smiling, but the tide was starting to turn. Robinson reminded them of another rule: People who stick their necks out for rule-breakers become responsible for them. “If you save her, it’s going to be on you,” he said. The people who spoke up after that, always with a qualifying “I like Melvina,” started to make the case to vote her out. Rules were rules. The vote was close. Melvina left the room, quietly, with her books and bag. A classmate grew furious and stomped out of the room; he was voted out, too, after he returned.
Melvina stayed in the building and cried to anyone who would listen: “They said there would be consequences, and so everyone changed their minds!” One of the center’s newest employees, who had graduated from Strive in May, grabbed Melvina and took her back into the classroom. It was lunchtime, and Davis and Robinson were gone. He called the class back and gave them a lecture about solidarity. “Y’all supposed to stick together!” he said. Another employee called Robinson and Davis and convinced them to let Melvina try again. But when she showed up late the following day, no one stood up for her, and she was voted out again.
After the Melvina episode, Robinson told the students it was OK if Melvina and others needed to come back for a second try. Failure is part of the process of growing, he said, and most Strive cycles had a repeater. After all, here was Travis, a black-card holder who hadn’t made it through the first hour of Cycle 179.
Of the 87 who came to orientation, 33 made it to graduation on November 1. The day before, a Thursday, was devoted to fun. A few students stumbled in late, but rather than kick them out, Robinson and Davis asked them to devise and perform a lesson for the rest of the class on the importance of punctuality. The students came up with a skit in which they pretended to work in a business, missed an important assignment because they were late, and were fired. At the end of the skit, Davis asked them to repeat a call-and-response chant they’d heard throughout the class: “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is to be fired.” But they stumbled over it, and when Davis prompted, “To be late …,” they said, in unison, “... is to be on time!” Davis stopped: “What! No!” Everyone started laughing, and Davis started singing, “To be late is to be on time! To be laaaaate is to be on time! Be on time, be on time, be on time!” They all joined in, clapping and pounding the tables to the rhythm.
That afternoon, the students had a chance to win back the money that had piled up in the giant water-cooler bottle. It totaled more than $400 and was split among the winners of four contests. For one, Robinson and Davis threw out questions in a round-robin to see who could give the best interview of the cycle. Only the black-card winners were asked to come up. Two were eliminated quickly, and it came down to Travis and his team manager, a woman named Erika White, who had a degree in business from the University of Baltimore but had been unemployed since March. They were tied when Robinson asked, “How do you handle conflict in the workplace?” Erika stayed back on purpose and let Travis go forward. He answered, as he often had, with the story about asking his supervisor at KFC to sit down with him over break and talk through their problems. He won an envelope containing $100.
While everyone tried on their blue graduation robes for the ceremony the next day, the class revived its new anthem “To be late is to be on time!” Some students grabbed Bic pens to use as microphones. A few who were already wearing their robes started deacon stomping, taking it to church. The giddiness continued as they filed out. Travis, though, hung his head low and walked slowly out of the building in his too-long suit. When he looked up for a brief moment, his eyes were red and his face was wet. “It’s kind of a big deal,” he said.
Travis’s mother and the friend who’d recommended the center came to his graduation. He sat near the front, nodding intently as the others gave thanks and shared what they’d learned from the class. Davis called him up last, and when he got his certificate, he turned to Robinson and Davis and said, “Thanks for never giving an inch.” The center employees had come to love Travis, but they couldn’t help being a little scared for him. He was still holding on too tightly to his emotions, even if they were good ones. His self-esteem might be too fragile to withstand the setbacks that would inevitably come. While the center says that 85 percent of Strive graduates have a job after a year, for instance, some spend weeks trying to get that first job. There were many stories about guys who just stopped coming by, ceased to answer their phones, changed numbers, fell away. It was crucial, Robinson and Davis said, for Strive graduates to stay around, both to get a jump on new job opportunities and to get a regular dose of positivity. “You see when their confidence plays tricks on them,” Catherine Pitchford, the person who had convinced Travis to try Strive, told me after graduation. “You see when the streets take them back.”
Donte kept showing up. He took a fatherhood class. He applied for jobs and trained for extra certifications: forklift-driving, learning how to wax and buff floors. He brought the mothers of both his children to the graduation for the fatherhood course and everyone was impressed to see the three of them together, getting along. But while Donte had interviews, he had no offers by December 17, the deadline by which he had to pay $400 toward his child support or risk a year in jail. He came up with the money, and when I asked him how, he laughed and said, “I had to make some moves.” When the judge asked, Donte said it had come from his family. Shawna kicked $200 back to Donte so that they could each give Ja’len and the other kids a Christmas.
Because Donte was always around the center, he was chosen for a temporary construction cleanup job in January. The company went contract by contract and couldn’t promise Donte work for long, but it paid a minimum of $11 an hour. It was exhausting, satisfying work, and Donte was proud of it. He posted pictures of himself wearing hard hats and vests, Shop-Vac in hand, on Instagram, the social network of choice for most of Cycle 181. He had also interviewed for a job as a floor technician at Towson University, and he posted, a little prematurely, a happy emoticon with a caption proclaiming that he now had two jobs. (He didn’t get the job but was later offered another one at Towson, buffing the floors on weekends.) He spent the first part of the new year thinking about how he would juggle daytime construction with nighttime floor-cleaning. “I’m fixing to be really tired,” he told me. He bragged on Instagram: “I ain’t going to lie, I’m proud of myself!”
Travis would have liked those jobs, but he had stopped hanging around the center. He’d shown up for a week or so after graduation, wearing his suit, hoping to take a forklift-driving course, but it kept being delayed. Career counselors meet with graduates on weekday mornings, and Travis applied for jobs with their help, but no interviews resulted. Honestly, Travis was a little scared about what would happen if he was offered an interview; Donte had arranged a party after graduation, and Travis knew his urine was tainted from smoking weed as he celebrated. He didn’t want to embarrass the center if a job came up and he couldn’t pass a piss test.
As the holidays came and went, Travis took on more hours at KFC, five or six days a week. “I got a phony raise at my phony job,” he said. He now made $7.50 an hour. Kendall Wilson, his manager and childhood friend, had noticed a new work ethic. “He really started doing his thing,” she said. “I’ve seen times when somebody here will say something and the old Travis would probably put them in the hot grease, but he has matured. He’s still a mean individual, though.” I asked Kendall if she thought Travis would stick with KFC. “Until he finds something better,” she said, “I know he’s going to stick with this, and I’m going to make sure he stick with this, because I don’t want to fire him. Coming from where we came from, something better than nothing right now. Everybody we know either dead or in jail, and that’s all I’m saying.”
Travis started to hang out in his basement again. Some mornings he would call Donte to see if he was going to the center, but those calls came more rarely as time passed. Travis applied for jobs on his own, online, rather than walk to the center. He knew that Kendall had worked for six years before she started making a decent salary at KFC, and he didn’t think he could take that wait. He was thinking about hustling again. “You take all your crappy $30, $40, $50, $60 days: It’s still more than what you make at your best week working at KFC,” he said. But even the weed business was changing, he feared; Travis had heard about legalization in other states, and he figured weed would soon be legal everywhere—meaning guys like him wouldn’t even have that to fall back on. “It pisses me off. I want to run, but I’m forced to crawl,” he told me. “Everybody says, ‘Just be patient. It will all turn around for you.’”
In early February, Travis found a new job, on his own, with a company that cleans restaurants at night, paying $80 a day. It was the same type of job he’d had in 2008, the one he’d gotten fired from. It was a good job, and he told the center about it, but he was still dissatisfied. He had wanted to start GED classes, hoping that might be the first step to a real career. He registered, but his new job interfered with the class schedule. He never showed.