I am known as the Frank Zappa of workforce development. Since I first listened to the song, Theme from Burnt Weany Sandwich I have been mesmerized by Frank’s music. I welcome this moniker because my work – indeed my life – has been about breaking out of the expected and developing new paradigms. My current venture, Workforce, Inc., is a social enterprise – a business with a social mission. That mission is two-fold: 1) keep as much electronic waste as possible out of landfills and recover this waste in a way it can be re-used in industry and 2) help those returning from prison to have immediate earnings combined with a broad array of social supports.
Workforce is in the business of recycling with a focus on electronic scrap, so-called “e-waste.” In just over four years, we have grown from two employees and the ethos that work helps organize lives to a $1.5 million dollar operation that has kept more than 6 million pounds of electronic waste out of Central Indiana landfills.
Workforce recently dedicated the Chancellor A. Keesling Community Recycling Center, named after my son who died while serving his country in Iraq last year, which takes in residential recyclables such as newspaper, glass, plastics and cardboard. Workforce is one of the most comprehensive recyclers in the State of Indiana, recycling everything from laptops to cardboard, from televisions to plastics.
Workforce’s other recycling focus is lives. Workforce has provided employability skills training, job training, transitional jobs and related supportive services, and job placement assistance to more than 230 ex-offenders. Our participants/workers have a recidivism rate of less than 15%, a dramatic improvement over the national norm of 70%.
I have no formal training in recycling, workforce development for low income workers or prison reentry. After I graduated from high school, I lived most of my adult life in Jamaica where I developed a small resort and helped grow the tourist town of Negril. In 1996 my wife and I came to Indiana and developed the Alternative Staffing Company, Keys to Work. I learned how to serve low income workers, many of whom are returning from prison, through library research, looking carefully at the current practices that were not working, and using my common sense – much like Frank learned music and the music business. Between Keys and Workforce, we have successfully expended over $7M in federal funds designed to help ex-offenders and other low-income workers successfully enter civil society.
I described my work as “Zappaesque” because Frank said his job was to connect the dots and I see my job as connecting dots too. Workforce serves a population that does not connect the dots well, so we help to connect the dots for the individuals we serve. We help them connect to work – well over half of our participants have never held a job in their lives – through our transitional jobs program. We help them connect to their families. Although connection with family is correlated to lower recidivism rates, many offenders lose contact with family during incarceration. We help them connect to the community. Our participants spend hours each month at community recycling events and various volunteer activities.
Workforce serves and resides in a community that does not connect the dots well. Neighborhoods we serve have some of the highest concentration of TANF families in the county, some of the highest crime rates and the highest percentage of abandoned homes in the State, and some of the highest numbers of persons returning from incarceration. Workforce is bringing viable business back into the community, employing community residents, collaborating with community development organizations and others to develop community leaders and instill all with a newfound sense of pride in their community.
Workforce helps connect the dots for public officials. Both Marion County and the City of Indianapolis are investing in transitional jobs programs to reduce recidivism. County prosecutors are less likely to insist on returning a Workforce participant to prison for a technical rule violation, even through in 2008 Marion County returned to prison 70% of all probationer and parolees because of such violations.
Little by little our community, and now the country, is seeing the beautiful music that can be created by connecting these disparate dots.
Much like Frank connected music dots to give us different time signatures and different chord changes, and a whole different approach to music, often to the chagrin of his record producers, I try and find different ways to deliver business services and workforce development services that are outside of the norm of our current systems. Frank said “without deviation, progress is not possible” and it is our deviation from the norm that is helping develop new ways to expand recycling activities and tie those with new workforce development paradigms. Frank Zappa would like my conceptual continuity!
Gregg Keesling is a winner of the 2009 SVN Innovation Award which recognizes the work of cutting-edge social entrepreneurs. Are you an innovative social entrepreneur? SVN is now accepting applications for the 2010 SVN Innovation Awards. Click here to apply.
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