This is Vanessa La Blanc, 34. This photo was taken on Aug. 24, 2012, and it’s on a construction site in South Los Angeles where a remarkable construction project is underway. It represents a win for the developer, the community, and former convicts like La Blanc who want a new start.
On June 18 – two months earlier – she’d been released from prison in Chowchilla after serving 13 years on a robbery conviction. It stemmed from a crime in South Los Angeles she committed. She grew up there, leaving high school in 10th grade and joining a gang, which she said became like family. But Vanessa grimaced when asked about the “Jungles” tattoo on her arm, which is a daily reminder of her former life.
She was 20 when she entered prison, and at first she was just bitter. But at 27, Vanessa had epiphany. “Do I want to remain caged up all my life, around all these miserable people?” she asked herself.
The answer became obvious when she began devoting herself to getting out as soon as possible and learning all she could while in prison. She particularly credits an instructor in one class, “Mr. Ed Hamilton,” she said, with teaching her skills that landed her current job.
After Vanessa got out of prison, her parole officer referred her to the UAW WorkSource Center’s Prison Reentry Incentive program. After she completed it, the program paid for 120 hours of job training and also asked an organization called PVJOBS to assist in her job search. PVJOBS contacted GJM Engineering, a plumbing contractor, who gave Vanessa a chance, hiring her to inspect pipes on a major construction project in South LA. Vanessa was hired on a short-term basis, and she so wowed her supervisors with her work quality and professionalism that they’re keeping her on for the 12 months remaining on the project. Workers on that project receive a minimum of $11.95 per hour.
And it was the work of South LA community advocates that helped ensure she had a chance for such a job.
Here’s how that unfolded: Several nonprofits funded advocacy training for residents in South Los Angeles who objected to the conversion of a former health care facility into high-end condominiums most residents could not afford. The project was dubbed “the Lorenzo Project.”
After organizers and locals spoke at city meetings and ran campaigns, the developer agreed to create a community clinic, support small-business development in the complex, set aside one-third of the construction jobs for locals and another 10 percent for “at risk” residents such as Vanessa, and 5 percent of the 900 apartments will be priced for low-income tenants. City planners in early 2011 approved the revised proposal.
Here’s a link to an LA Times article on the successful outcome, posted on the website of SAJE, or Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, which led the effort in partnership with other nonprofits and foundations.
After a full-day’s work on the construction site, Vanessa heads to an evening job as a janitor at a Farmer’s John meat packing plant.
“Definitely my future is brighter,” she said.
TAKEAWAY: Community organizing yields remarkable results, including securing good jobs for ex-offenders looking for a new start in life.