Manhattan Institute and City Journal have long sought to support and encourage civil-society organizations and leaders who, with the help of volunteers and private philanthropy, do so much to help communities address serious social problems. In this edition of the 10 Blocks podcast, Husock speaks with:
- Luma Mufleh (2:00) is the founder and CEO of Fugees Family, an award-winning, national nonprofit organization and independent school network with a customized academic approach for refugee children. Mufleh is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow.
- Reid Porter (18:25) is the founder and president of Act, Advocates for Community Transformation, a group which takes an innovative approach to creating safer neighborhoods in Dallas. Porter is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow.
- Megan Rose (35:00) is the CEO of Better Together, an organization that strengthens communities by promoting work, protecting children, and supporting families in crisis. Rose is a 2019 Civil Society Award recipient.
- Steve Shelton (51:30) is the founder and executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, an organization committed to working with those reentering society following incarceration as well as those who need a “hand up” to get their lives on track. Shelton is a 2019 Civil Society Award recipient.
If you know individuals or organizations that deserve a Civil Society Award, please visit our nomination page and tell us about them.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, we have a special extended episode for our listeners, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Howard Husock, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal and friend of the podcast, will interview four remarkable individuals selected as part of the Institute's Civil Society Program, whether it's a charter school network dedicated to teaching young refugees, or a trade school for ex-convicts. Our guests offer proof that America strength as a country doesn't lie simply in our republican form of government, but also with the volunteers and nonprofit organizations that bind and repair our communities, outside the government in the realm of civil society.
Howard will introduce the guests as they come on the show, but if you're interested in learning more about their work, check out the episode description where you'll find names and links to their websites. Each of the interviews are roughly 15 minutes long, so the episode is a little longer than usual. Lastly, if you know someone making a significant impact, by addressing and preventing some of our pressing public problems, submit a nomination today for next year's award, by visiting the website at www.civilsocietyawards.com. The winners of the award receive a $25,000 prize which can help their organization. That's it for the introduction. After the music, Howard Husock will introduce our first guest Luma Mufleh of Fugees Academy and a Civil Society Fellow here at the Institute, we hope you enjoy.
Howard Husock: Hello. I'm Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute, and I'm here with the first of a series of podcasts with our Civil Society Fellows here at the Institute. These are individuals who have started important new organizations outside of the government, to deal with some of our most pressing social challenges in the United States. And my guest in our first podcast is Luma Mufleh, the founder of the Fugees Academy. It's a school that deals especially with the teaching of children of refugees. Luma, thanks for being with us.
Luma Mufleh: Thank you for having me.
Howard Husock: First of all, could you tell our listeners, who are the refugees who are coming to this country? We see a lot on TV and elsewhere about migrants on the Mexican border. Is that who we're talking about? Who are we talking about?
Luma Mufleh: I think it's important to distinguish or to define what a refugee is. Yeah, so a refugee is anyone who has fled war, usually to a secondary country and then has applied for protection for refugee status. All our kids have fled war. So any country that has had a war in the last 20 years, we have students from there. So Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea. And the government approves their status, and then they go through an application process that typically takes two to three years, which includes interviewing, verifying their information, and then they're resettled here. We have over 70 million refugees worldwide. The United States this year has taking in 18,000 refugees.
Howard Husock: So refugees are not the same as immigrants, are they?
Luma Mufleh: No. Refugees have been forced to leave their country. The country is destabilized, it's unsafe for them to be there. And it's a UN definition. The United Nations will define which countries and which people have refugee status, not the people.
Howard Husock: Right. And so, have many of these children been in refugee camps before they come to your school?
Luma Mufleh: All of our students have been in refugee camps before they come to our school. Some of our students, for example, students from Burma because that war has been going on for so long were born in refugee camps in Thailand, and then were resettled here at age 12 or 13.
Howard Husock: Why do they need their own school? We have public schools, presumably in every community in which they're resettled. You started the Fugees, which is a pon on refugees and a rap group named the Fugees, I get it. In Atlanta, you've got schools now in Columbus, Ohio. I know you're planning one in Cleveland. Why do we need special schools for the children of refugees anyway?
Luma Mufleh: I think, public schools are one size fits all. And when you come in as a refugee, you're placed in an age appropriate class. So let's say you're 13 or 14, you're placed in the ninth grade. You might have been given three to six months of English instruction, but then your mainstreamed back in and you're expected succeeds. You're expected to read Shakespeare when you don't know letters of the alphabet, you're expected to do algebra when you can't add or multiply. And I think refugees highlight everything that's wrong within our public school system. Our students are set up for failure from that approach. When someone comes in, like if I was to go to China, I would have started the beginning, even though I have a college degree. Logic says you should start at the beginning. And then you have to take in the factors, the trauma that they're coming with, the multiple languages, the poverty, all the newness of America to them. And I believe it has to be a very intentional, supportive environment that does this for them.
Howard Husock: So they're taught not necessarily at their age level, but their knowledge level?
Luma Mufleh: They're taught at their academic level, and I'd say all our students come in with interrupted education. So if they've been to refugee camp, they haven't been in schools. So you have kids coming here at age 12 or 13, who have had maybe two or three years of schooling before the war erupted in their country, and then have had nothing. And so, we have kids who have never held a pencil in their life, kids who have never held a book. That can't be the same approach as kids who have been in our schools since kindergarten. It's a different approach. You should start at the level the student is at, not at the age they are at.
Howard Husock: And so, the kids who now go to your school, I'm guessing, floundering in public school.
Luma Mufleh: Yes. I would say all our students were floundering. They were getting bullied, their teachers couldn't understand why they weren't accelerating at the pace their age says they should. And so, they were struggling. A lot of our students would come to us and say they didn't feel safe at school. They felt they were stupid because they couldn't read. And then within three years, we have the majority of our students over 80% of them at grade level.
Howard Husock: So we have engaged you to be a Civil Society Fellow here at the Manhattan Institute, and by that, we mean your organization started outside of the government. It's in the American tradition of everything from the Red Cross to the YMCA. Everything that you can't do in China, just for instance.
Luma Mufleh: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Howard Husock: How important was private philanthropy, supportive volunteers, all that we associate with civil society, to starting your school?
Luma Mufleh: I mean, we wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for those. If we didn't have volunteers, if we didn't have dedicated individuals, if we didn't have philanthropists that believed in what we're doing, we wouldn't exist. And yes, this couldn't happen in China. It also couldn't happen in my birth country of Jordan. These kinds of solutions, I think are uniquely American. But if there's a problem, the community can solve it. You don't have to rely on the government to solve it, and I think that's something that should be embraced and encouraged more.
Howard Husock: And you refer to your birth country of Jordan. You were raised, as I understand, in a well off family. You came to school for college education at a, what some would call, an elite university here in the northeast, and yet you are drawn to this refugee problem. Maybe you could explain how that came to be, and why you feel so strongly about this.
Luma Mufleh: I think I have to trace it way back. My grandmother fled Syria during the first Civil War ends in 1968. So when the first Assad regime took over, the government took over my grandfather's factories, they tortured his brothers. My grandmother ended up leaving with her five children and she was pregnant with her sixth, and they ended up moving to Jordan and starting their life there. So, that identity has always been a part of who we were. When I moved to the United States after college, I applied for asylum. I'm gay. In Jordan, you get the death penalty for being gay. And so, that like being forced to leave home or not allowed to come back home, that's also something that I feel very strongly about.
When I met the refugee kids playing soccer at the start off as a soccer team, I felt two degrees removed from their experience. I felt if I didn't have an education and a college education, I wouldn't be where I was. And I also believed that every school in the United States, was like the American school I went to in Jordan, and that's the standard I thought America had. I was shocked that it didn't have it for everyone. And so, for me is I believe the kids I work with, should have the same access to the education I had growing up. And here I could do it. I could start a zero tuition private school for refugee kids, from 22 different countries, every faith represented, and it's embraced.
Howard Husock: From zero.
Luma Mufleh: From zero.
Howard Husock: From playing with kids on a field.
Luma Mufleh: Yep. I mean, I think like our organization is the American dream, start with nothing, you work hard, you get other people involved, you do something that is really good, then you're successful at it. And it's been a long, hard journey. Like there were days where I didn't think this would succeed or people wouldn't believe in us, and now we're in Columbus, Ohio. We're opening Cleveland next year. We were approached a few weeks ago to open a school in New Haven. So I think people are starting to embrace the model that we've created.
Howard Husock: Do you feel pressured to report good results or some results, or simply report to your board of directors, who I assume provides support? Is that an accountability mechanism for you?
Luma Mufleh: I think I have lots of accountability measures. So my board of directors is definitely one of them. Our institutional funders, so our bigger foundations are also another accountability measure there. The state of Ohio, because we receive vouchers, we have to report back our results to them. But I think the biggest accountability I have is to the kids and their parents. It's like we promised them a great education. We promised them that they would all get accepted to college once they finish our school, we have to deliver on that and we have to make sure they're prepared for that. So there is a lot of accountability, and that's a good thing.
Howard Husock: When you're asked to bring to mind the picture of one or a couple of your students, and tell their stories, who do you like to talk about?
Luma Mufleh: So right now, this week, I'm talking about these three young men from Burma. They're from three different ethnic groups. So one is Korean, one is Chin and one is ethnically Burmese, and they graduated from high school. They were accepted into different colleges, and they decided to pursue an apprenticeship. Two of them are under pressure to provide for their family. They're the oldest in their families. One of them has a mom who's really sick. And so, they were saying they didn't want to go to college, that they wanted to just start working. I said, "Listen, you can't just start working. Let's think of a path where you can earn some income, and have some upward mobility and learn some skills."
Luma Mufleh: So the three of them moved to Ohio this summer, studying electricians apprenticeship program there, are taking a class one night a week and getting dual enrollment to community college, started off earning $15 an hour, and are on their way to become journeymen. It's just been incredible to see the transformation in their sense of self. And to think like, two of them I met seven years ago, they couldn't read a word of English when I met them. Now they're living independently, navigating a new city, working in an industry that they didn't have a lot of knowledge about. So those are the three I highlight right now.
Howard Husock: It's not just, "Boy, they're going to go to Harvard." It's a lot more nuanced than that, in other words.
Luma Mufleh: It is. For us, we say we want to prevent the cycle of poverty from beginning in the United States. I think a lot of people want the refugee camp to Harvard. Honestly, that's probably not going to happen. There will be outliers, but if you have had the refugee experience of no education for first 12 years of your life, getting to Harvard is going to take a miracle. But there are so many other options, and so many other great options in between. And so, why are we not reaching for those things? Why are we not encouraging apprenticeships? Why are we not encouraging trade schools and community colleges?
Howard Husock: Or maybe not just for refugee kids.
Luma Mufleh: No, I think it should be for all kids. I think there's this immense pressure to send kids to four year colleges, but we don't know what that ... I have a liberal arts degree and I tell my students, "Please don't get a liberal arts degree." I think we need to look at what the future, where work is going and encourage students to do that. And if a student doesn't want to go to college, there is nothing wrong with that. There are lots of good options out there.
Howard Husock: So you've started with philanthropic support, really entirely philanthropic support, now you have qualified for vouchers and a school voucher of state in Ohio. You must think that's a good program, I'm guessing.
Luma Mufleh: I think it's a great program. I know for some people it's politically divisive. I know at our dinner table during Passover, I can't talk about school choice. My in-laws are diehard public school supporters. But when I explain the program, I explain what's done to us. I say, "Well, this works for your kids, and so if it works for our kids, it would work for a lot more kids. If people had choices and options, if school leaders and educators had ways to innovate and think outside the box, I think it's good for everyone."
Howard Husock: And finally, what do your students think about, not only this country, but I guess what some people would call, the idea of America? Are they becoming Americanized? Is that a good thing?
Luma Mufleh: They love America. We had two of our students became citizens last week. And so, when you don't have a home or you don't have a country that you're a citizen of, when a country takes you in like the United States has taken us in, has given us a home, has given us citizenship, has given us an identity. I think the majority of people don't know what it's like to be citizenless and homeless. They're fiercely loyal, and they see the best things about America. The lens a refugee sees America in, is a lens we should all be seeing America in.
Howard Husock: What is that?
Luma Mufleh: It's that everything is possible. That a kid who grew up in a refugee camp, or was a goat herder's son can come to the United States, graduate and go to college, and then serve in the military. No other country would allow anyone to do that. No other country would have opportunities and systems in place for that person to succeed. They get excited to vote, because we weren't allowed to vote in our home countries, because we didn't live in democracies. And so, regularly our faculty and staff are reminded of how great of a democracy this country is, because they see it through the lens of our kids. Everything from Halloween and Thanksgiving, and Fourth of July celebrations, they just get excited about it. And the freedom to walk down the street without being shot, and the freedom to go to school without being worried that a bomb is going to drop on your village.
Howard Husock: It's a lot.
Luma Mufleh: Yeah.
Howard Husock: Just one more thing Luma. I'm wondering if you would tell listeners where they can find more information about Fugees Academy. In fact, if they want to support you, how could they find out how to do that?
Luma Mufleh: So they can go to our website, fugeesfamily.org, and they can find more information there, how to get involved, how to support us.
Howard Husock: Luma Mufleh, she's the founder of Fugees Academy of Atlanta, Columbus, soon to be Cleveland, maybe New Haven.
Luma Mufleh: Maybe.
Howard Husock: Civil Society Fellow here at the Manhattan Institute, thanks so much Luma.
Luma Mufleh: Thank you Howard.
Howard Husock: We're here today with Reid Porter, the Founder and Leader of Advocates for Community Transformation of Dallas, Texas. And it's an organization that is doing some unusual things, to improve the public safety of some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in that city. Thanks for joining us today Reid.
Reid Porter: It's a pleasure to be here.
Howard Husock: Reid, at Advocates for Community Transformation, you have a team of volunteer lawyers, as I understand it, and you're trying to deal with a phenomenon, that a lot of our listeners might not be familiar with called drug houses. Drug house I assume is not like a Walgreens or something like that. What is a drug house anyway?
Reid Porter: Sure. We use the term drug house to really define a property that's harboring some kind of criminal activity, typically in an economically disadvantaged area. So this could be drugs, could be prostitution. Oftentimes, that spills out into the streets into violence. It makes the men and women that live, and the families that live nearby feel very isolated and afraid. And we believe that if we are able to find a solution, to eradicate those drug houses across our economically disadvantaged neighborhoods across America, then we could do something really amazing.
Howard Husock: Well, how common is this phenomenon, just in the neighborhoods in West Dallas and South Dallas, that you work in?
Reid Porter: Sure. It's pretty common. Crime has been around for a long time and a number of these areas, for a number of different reasons. You really have to get into a lot of the reasons why high crime areas have become that way. But once you start really analyzing how they are today, you realize that there are several that line the streets. In a typical one square mile area based on our inexperience, we believe that there's about 100 per one square mile area.
Howard Husock: 100?
Reid Porter: 100. Now they can be all of different kinds and types. Some may be very active properties where you would, maybe in your mind's eye think about driving down the street, and seeing men and women actually doing deals out in the front yard, some of them may be very quiet. They also could be used as sort of a flop house, or a place where people just go to hide in terms of their criminal activity. They could be properties that look normal. They could be properties that are in such a bad shape, that they are falling over. So we use that term in a very broad way to define properties, again, that harbor the crime that really has become an oppressive force on the community, over the last several decades.
Howard Husock: These sound like places that ought to be shut down by the government. That seems like a core public safety function of government. We think about civil society here at the Institute is that which operates independent of the government, but this seems like something that government ought to be doing. What forced your hand in a way, first as a volunteer lawyer, and then somebody leading a significant nonprofit organization to work outside of the government?
Reid Porter: Really, as a young lawyer practicing law in Dallas, Texas, as I began serving in this very historic economically disadvantaged area called West Dallas, that's really where I started learning that there was this need. I found out that there had been these drug houses, these sort of institutional type locations, these properties that had harbored crime and violence for decades. And so, after doing a lot of research, and really trying to understand why, really came up with the idea that while the police department, the city attorney's office, others are really doing the best they can, oftentimes they find themselves understaffed, under resourced. They may not have the right kinds of relationships in the community, to really move the needle as well as they'd like.
Howard Husock: Well, wait a minute. That sounds like a big deal, the right kind of relationships. We hear a lot today about tensions between police and minority communities especially. Is that something that you're working to turn around and somehow use in your work?
Reid Porter: Sure. One of the things that we really get excited about is this idea of diminishing the distance, and we think about the distance in your specific scenario between, say, the Police Department in Dallas, and the residents who actually live in one of these areas. And we do know based on a number of events and what's going on currently in our country, that there are tensions that are hard and high. And so, what we're able to do, because we have a wonderful partnership with the police department, and our first customers are the residents that we serve, that want to see their neighborhood change, that want to see safety, we are able to bring them to the table together in a unique way that everybody, I think, at the heart of hearts wants.
Reid Porter: But we've been able to do that, through just spending day in day out in the neighborhoods, sitting on people's couches, on their front porches, really getting to know them and building trust, and then bringing in the police into those conversations. I would say one of the really amazing benefits that occurs, when you begin to educate men and women about their rights, and mobilized, and equip them to tackle these drug houses one by one on their street, is that they do get an amazing appreciation for perhaps city officials, or city departments like the police, they otherwise hadn't really knew were doing really great work. But they're actually getting to know them and understand their processes.
Reid Porter: And I think vice versa. I think the police now have a chance to, in more of a unique way that perhaps they didn't have otherwise, to sit down with men and women and really get to know them, and understand their story, and why they're upset by the current state of their environment.
Howard Husock: What makes it important to have neighborhood residents, willing to participate in what you're doing, in terms of what you might call your business model for shutting down these centers of criminal activity?
Reid Porter: It's a great question, and I think it is the core question that needs to be asked, because the families that live in economically disadvantaged areas, they're the ones that have the right to hold the owners of these drug houses accountable. They're the ones that have legal standing to file a lawsuit. They're the ones that we actually represent alongside volunteer attorneys, and we'll take their cases all the way to the courthouse. They're the ones who are able to utilize their own rights to right or wrong. And we also believe even more importantly, that it's the men and women that live in the community, that will make this sort of work sustainable.
Reid Porter: So if you have the police, you think about their important work of coming in, and really disrupting the criminal activity in the short term, and then going to the next drug house and doing a drug bust, policing, putting people behind bars. It's all extremely important. But if we're to look at the long term trajectory of a neighborhood, we want to see that crime stay down. We want to see it eradicated. And it's really men and women have decided to take back their neighborhood, and who understand their rights, who can actually tackle these cases, perhaps in a large part without a volunteer attorney supporting them, up until the point where they actually need to move into a courthouse scenario. That's what we really believe, is going to make this work sustainable over time.
Howard Husock: What I'm puzzled by though is, what exactly do they do? Why do you really need them in terms of the legal process?
Reid Porter: So what we need them to do is to testify what they've seen, what they've experienced, how the crime and the violence that's associated with that nearby crime ridden property, drug house, whatever you want to call it, is impacting them on a day to day basis. We need them to build coalitions with other neighbors in their community, who also are experiencing the same thing, feel the same way, feel very isolated, feel very afraid. And then yes, we do need them ultimately to begin taking legal action, which can look like writing a letter to the owner. It can look like signing up as a client with one of our volunteer law firms. We have some of the top ranked firms in the nation doing work for affected families that we serve. And then it can mean, going all the way to the courthouse and sitting up near the judge, and testifying as to what they've seen, what they've heard, how this impacts their family, their life, and how it keeps them from ultimately flourishing.
Howard Husock: They're taking a big risk, aren't they?
Reid Porter: They are taking a big risk. And it's something that not every community member that we educate, about this opportunity wants to participate in. There are definitely men and women who would rather just keep the status quo. But there are many who have said, "We have moved into this community for a better way of life, and we're not going to allow this to take place on our street."
Howard Husock: Just to be specific Reid, has crime gone down in the neighborhoods in which you're working?
Reid Porter: It's been really humbling and amazing to watch, again, the brave actions of a few men and women can truly change the trajectory of a community. If you look back on the last decade of our work, we have now been able to represent approximately 215 men and women families, to shut down 161 drug houses. And I think that the real question is, what does that mean? We think about that many properties being closed down, or the criminal activity being forced to stop, you definitely find that where there was violence there's now peace. You find people no longer feeling like prisoners in their own homes.
Howard Husock: But how much has crime ... People are going to want to know, are there fewer murders? Are there fewer robberies? Are there fewer drug sales?
Reid Porter: Sure. So at the end of the day, one of the things that we do look at quite particularly, is the actual crime rates. And so, we will take a look at historically what had been considered part one in next crime. So these are rapes, murders, burglaries, aggravated assaults, those sorts of crimes, and we will go in at the beginning of our work in a coverage area, and we will measure that and get a baseline number. And then over the next several years, we'll watch those go down. In our legacy neighborhoods where we started about a decade ago in West Dallas, we've seen now sustained crime reduction of about 50%, which has been really amazing to see.
Howard Husock: What does success look like from your organization's point of view?
Reid Porter: It's a great question. So on a very practical level, these drug houses, whether we get a court order to stop the activity, or whether it's something the owner decides to do before we get to the courtroom, these homes, the owners are forced to either kick out their tenants, they're forced to demolish these properties once and for all, so that the traffic that comes from all over the city, no longer can find the drugs and criminal activity there. The street isn't necessarily going to all of a sudden look like a different part of the city, that perhaps has not had this sort of oppressive weight of crime and violence on it for so long, some of the safer areas of your city, but what you are going to feel is a friendliness.
Reid Porter: You're going to see neighbors interacting, you're going to see little boys and girls riding their bicycles up and down the street, you're going to see men and women sitting on their porches. You're going to see neighbors who otherwise wouldn't have worked together, or even been able to communicate because they don't speak the same language, having barbecues together because they have sort of been in the foxhole together, and they have fought this huge injustice and they have prevailed. That's really what success looks like. We do measure it in crime reduction. But we also measure it sort of in a live transform. Someone who's moved from feeling very isolated and afraid, to very empowered and united, and would say that we've seen a lot of the members of the community that we've represented, ready to tackle the next issue in their community.
Howard Husock: Tell us a little bit about what drew you to doing work, which not only was nobody doing before, but nobody had thought to do it.
Reid Porter: So I grew up as a preacher's kid in Texas, in the Dallas Fort Worth area, and saw my dad as a pastor, really minister to both the physical and the spiritual needs of his congregation, as well as the areas where we lived, and did live near a number of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods as I was growing up. I never felt called to go into the pulpit, so to speak, and preach. I had an uncle that was an attorney and as I learned about what he did, and what his occupation was, I started seeing that as a natural sort of progression of what I could perhaps do, to serve in the way even my dad did. Graduated from law school, moved to Dallas, and in my first couple of years practicing law I started serving in the West Dallas area. We talked about that a minute ago.
Reid Porter: But that was really the first time that I began to see, that there was something more significant that the Lord was calling me to do, with my law degree in and of itself. And so, began investigating what could an attorney do in an area like West Dallas, and there are obviously lots of needs, but the issue of crime and the issue of violence just kind of continued to come up. And I realized quickly that God was calling me to take my law degree into that area of town, and then to build a model around the community itself, in terms of taking back their neighborhoods.
Howard Husock: So the ministry and the law merged for you.
Reid Porter: They did very much. There's some amazing, from a Christian standpoint, my worldview definitely gives me an understanding of why the world is so broken. But it also gives me a real understanding of how we, as men and women, can be a part of making that change. And would share with you, there's a great wisdom in the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, there's a great proverb that says, "Do not withhold good from those to whom it's due, when it's in your power to do it." And I knew that as a lawyer, I had been given a certain amount of education and skill set, and opportunity to sort of thrust out, if you will, or reweave a beautiful tapestry that had become tattered over time, and to really build into the community in a way that would bring lasting, sustainable change.
Howard Husock: Reid Porter, Advocates for Community Transformation Dallas, Texas. Reid, where can people find out more about ACT, if they want to learn more or even contribute?
Reid Porter: They're welcome to go to our website, actforjustice.org. We'd love to entertain them down in Dallas, Texas, and really appreciate you inviting me on the program today.
Howard Husock: Thanks for being with us, Reid Porter.
Howard Husock: I'm here today with Megan Rose of the Naples, Florida base group, Better Together, which arranges for volunteer foster care families to assist households which are in crisis, and need somebody to take care of their children. Thanks for joining us, Megan.
Megan Rose: Thank you so much for having me.
Howard Husock: I think a lot of listeners will be puzzled as to why an organization would need to arrange for volunteer foster care families, most states, certainly many big cities, have very elaborate and well funded foster care systems. Why do we need something like Better Together outside the government?
Megan Rose: So historically, the government has always been really good at ripping families apart, but they struggle at putting them back together. So right now, 46% of children that enter foster care will be reunified with their family. And then, at least in Florida, 35% will end up back in the system of that 46% that are unified. So Uncle Sam was never really supposed to take care of children. Government, if you think of the role that they should play, they really struggle with putting kids and families back together. And 60% of kids that enter foster care, it's student neglect and neglect is preventable. It's homelessness. It's a medical emergency. It's situations where you have families that are isolated, and they're just lacking a social support system. And if they had that, like most families have friends, family, and a safe place for their children during crisis, they wouldn't have to turn to the state.
Megan Rose: So this is a voluntary option that's empowering for parents. Because when you do lose your child to foster care, it's incredibly hard for families, to be away from your child, to have a case plan. They struggle, they hit rock bottom, and then it's like if you lose your child, it's like there's a trap door underneath. And now they're really at rock bottom. So it's really difficult for them to climb out of that hole. And then it also produces a lot of trauma. Most kids are removed in the middle of the night. They're separated from their siblings. If you can imagine what that would be like for a child and for a family, all the trauma that would come with that, attachment issues.
Howard Husock: But Megan, historically, people talk about child saving and getting the government involved, because neglect can be dangerous to children. And so, the government is intervening to protect them. We often hear about organizations, bureaucracies called the Child Protective Services, those kinds of names. Should we really want these children to be reunified with families, that were neglecting them in the first place, even hurting them?
Megan Rose: Well, of that 60% that's due to neglect, most of them are good parents. They care about their children, they love their children, their children want to be with their parents. Government has to react. It's liability. They make a reaction because if a child does get hurt, they're in trouble. But most of the time, these parents just need support. They need people in their lives that are safe, that can help care for their children, or come alongside them and support them during that crisis. But most of the time, they're good parents. They just don't ... It's generational. We see really young moms, who they just don't know what they don't know. They grew up mimicking what they learned from their parents. It doesn't mean they're necessarily a bad parent. It's just they lack the basic skill sets to care for their children, and they're acting based on what they learned from their parents.
Howard Husock: You mean, like hitting their children or something like that?
Megan Rose: Well see Howard, I'm focusing on the 60% that's neglect. So there is like, if there's sexual abuse or physical abuse, absolutely. That is when the station intervene and take action, and remove those children, and put them in a safe home. But these neglect situations, most of the time, it's not intentional. It's unintentional. So let me give you an example. You have a single mom who has a sick child, but she needs to go to work. If she doesn't go to work, then she could lose her job, and then she wouldn't be able to provide shelter, or put food on the table for her children. But she doesn't have anybody to care for her child. So what does she do? She's stressed, she doesn't know what to do. So she lets the neighbor or the boyfriend care for the child. And she goes to work, and the child ends up getting sexually abused, they end up getting hurt, and she loses her child.
Megan Rose: But ultimately, she's a good mom, and she was trying to provide for her child, but she lacked a support system. It was unintentional neglect. And those are the situations where the state will come in, and they'll remove the children based on liability and risk. You can't put those pieces back together very easily. I mean, even if you were a parent and you had a medical emergency, you had to be hospitalized, and you had nobody to care for your child, you could lose your child to foster care. And then you would have to fight just all the red tape, all the bureaucratic nightmare to get your child back, when it was unintentional. You just had a medical emergency that was out of your control.
Howard Husock: So tell me how Better Together tries to correct for what you've been describing.
Megan Rose: So what we try to do is connect with those families that are isolated, they're high risk, but they're willing, they're motivated, they need support. So if you have a family that is homeless, they lost their job, which if you lose your job, that can spiral things very quickly. A small problem turns into a very large problem. So we can come alongside those families, we can care for their children short term, give them peace of mind. Knowing that their children are safe, they're cared for. Since its volunteers caring for the children, there's no secret agenda. There's no fear. They're not afraid that these families are going to try to adopt their children. It's very empowering because you have volunteers who are not being paid. They're saying, "Hey, I believe in you, I want to support you. You need to take some time and get back on your feet. And when you land on your feet, your children are here, and we're going to continue to support you."
Howard Husock: Who are those families? I think many listeners would be amazed to know that such people exist, that would take a stranger's child into their home for weeks, months.
Megan Rose: So when we first started this, we actually had the director of a foster care agency say, "There's no way you're going to recruit families without paying them." But you would be amazed to know we have over 500 host families. They are people just like me or you, most of them are very young with small children under the age of five, and they care for them. And they don't have a lot of resources. They're supported by the community who also care, that maybe they can't take a child into their home, but they can support those families that are caring for those children. They're just amazing people who have a heart to help, and we're just connecting them to the families that truly could use that help. I think of us almost as an Uber, connecting the helpers to those who are hurting within the community.
Megan Rose: But we also do our due diligence, make sure they are background checked, make sure they're in a safe place, make sure the home is safe. But then we are just doing that connection, and there are people who want to help, they might not have the time, the resources, the money. But they see this also as an opportunity to expose their children, and teach them the importance of empathy, compassion, understanding. It's something that they can do as an entire family. And we also have snowbirds, we have retired folks, we have young, single college students who will actually open up their home and care for young children.
Megan Rose: It's short term. It's only 41 days compared to foster care. So it's not a huge commitment. And it's a really great way to just tangibly make a difference in your community. And it's just really rewarding, and I'm just truly just blown away by the people who step into these roles, and fill that gap for families.
Howard Husock: Going back to the comment by the the agency director, that you wouldn't get volunteers, is it possible that you get a higher quality of caregiver family because you're not paying them?
Megan Rose: Yes, absolutely. I used to direct a foster care agency, and we would screen out families because they were there for the wrong reasons. There's compensation, they're trying to adopt, they're not going to be supportive of the goal of reunification. So the families that are actually volunteering their time, are committed to our mission. They are in it for the right reasons. Because if you're going to donate your time, especially take a child into your home and you're not getting paid for it, you have a calling. There's a mission. It's so much more than just babysitting a child. It's caring for them and caring for the family.
Megan Rose: So our volunteers, I mean, they're amazing people who are giving second chances to families in the community, and just the sacrifices that they're willing to make, the inconveniences they're willing to make, to give somebody an opportunity to keep families together. It's just really beautiful. And that, historically, is what happened before government got so big, before government was caring for hundreds of children. It was the local church. It was families helping other families within their community. We're really just putting those pictures, just putting that back together, and creating a structure where it's professionally supported, and allowing the church to do community, allowing the community to care for their own.
Howard Husock: So a religious motivation is important to your volunteers.
Megan Rose: Most of our volunteers are recruited through our faith partners, and we share the same mission. Churches-
Howard Husock: And a faith partner is a church.
Megan Rose: Yes. So they are churches, they want to help care for their community. They have people within their own congregation that are in crisis, they have people within the radius of their church, that are coming to them for support. So instead of doing a handout, they're going to hand a hand up. So you can take a mom who is homeless with her children, and connect them to a family within the church, who wants to help care for them walk alongside them. That is going to be a bigger blessing than just paying her rent for the month. She's going to walk away with a support system. She's going to be able to do what she needs to do, to better herself and better her situation for her children. And ultimately, she's going to be with her children, and not have to lose them to foster care, and then fight her way back to get them.
Howard Husock: You talked about household mothers, they may have a health crisis or a job crisis. Tell us a story about a family specifically, what prompted them to get involved with Better Together, and how it turned out?
Megan Rose: So let me tell you about Chiquita. We helped her when we first started, over three and a half years ago. She was on her way to work, riding her bicycle. She was a single mom with two children and she got hit by a car. So she was hospitalized. She lost her job because she had to recover from this accident, and then she started using painkillers. Well, we were connected with her, and originally she was like, "This sounds too good to be true." And most of our parents are very hesitant. Like, "What's the catch? What's the catch?" We get that all the time. And it's like, "We want to help you." So we were consistent, and it got to the point one day she was in her kitchen, and she already started connecting with a volunteer and building a relationship. But it wasn't to the point where she needed her children hosted. While she was on painkillers, she fell in the kitchen, her kids looked at her and was like, "Mommy, you need help."
Megan Rose: And so, she called that volunteer and said, "Will you please come and get my children? I need to get just a handle of the situation." Because she was motivated by her children. She loved them. So the volunteer went and got the children, and then mom, she got healthy. She was able to get a job. She was able to get a new apartment. And to this day, three and a half years later, she has her children. They're involved in a church, she locally mentors other moms that are going through the same situations. She's giving back to the program, that helped come alongside her in her time of need.
Megan Rose: I think that's just a beautiful picture, and we see that with most of the families we help, is they're helped, and then in return, they want to pay it for themselves, and they want to help in whatever capacity they can. Again, it's just this beautiful picture of what the community can do, if you give them a structure and then professionally support it. I just think that's such a beautiful illustration of this mom who has helped, and now she's helping other moms.
Howard Husock: So that state official who was a skeptic, what does he think now?
Megan Rose: Still skeptical but kind of coming around, because I mean, the antidotes and what you're seeing, and the kids that are not going in the system, it's very compelling. I mean, you can't argue against it. We're keeping kids out of the system. We're keeping families together, and we're watching generational cycles of abuse and neglect, just being broken. I just think about ... I was a caseworker at one point, before I directed a foster care agency. I saw what that does to a child that's torn apart from their parents. I remember the struggle of these parents who love their children, had to go through to try to get reunified with them. So I think of our parents, and I think of the gift. I mean, that's what they're doing, is these volunteers are giving these parents the ultimate gift, to be able to do what they need to do, to avoid the system and better their situation. And it's just really beautiful that gift, and that sacrifice, and that inconvenience that they're giving these families.
Howard Husock: Is it possible that because of Better Together, the public government foster care system could start to shrink?
Megan Rose: So my vision is to radically reduce the need of foster care, to really tackle that 60% of kids that are entering foster care due to neglect, to be so preventative where we can help intervene, and change the trajectory of these families and keep them together. And I want to disrupt it, and I believe the only way you can truly disrupt the foster care system, is to keep families from needing it. And that is when you're going to see a shrink, and be hopefully, eventually irrelevant, where they're really only helping the children that truly need it, the ones who have been sexually abused, and physically abused. And then if you can shrink the system, you're going to have better outcomes for children, because right now, case loads are enormous. They're overwhelmed, and they can't care for the children that they have in the system. And this kids get stuck in the system. And again, like I said, 46% is the reunification rate, 46%. And then 35% of those families will re-enter the system. So it's just not working. It's broken.
Howard Husock: And you're trying to fix it.
Megan Rose: Yep. We are going to fix it and we are fixing it.
Howard Husock: Megan Rose of Better Together, volunteer based foster care in and around Naples, Florida. Thank you so much for joining us, Megan rose.
Megan Rose: Thank you.
Howard Husock: Our guest today is Steve Shelton of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh. Steve is a 2019 winner of our Civil Society Award. Thank you for joining us, Steve Shelton.
Steve Shelton: Thank you so much for having me here today Howard.
Howard Husock: Steve has been in the trades, as he likes to put it, since he was 12 when he was taken by a neighbor. He recalls his name as "Cappy," to help on a construction site. You went on to have your own successful masonry business, and you were doing high end stuff for people in Pittsburgh who could afford that work. Today you're the head of something called the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, and you're teaching masonry to ex-offenders. How did you go from the first thing to what you're doing now?
Steve Shelton: Howard, in 2009 when I was running a construction company, there was one day we were working on a particular project, it was very detailed. And I got to thinking about where the next generation of apprentices were coming from, to be able to do this type of work. You have new construction work, which is pretty straightforward. And then you have restoration work, and then you have work working on all the old buildings that are around the older cities in the United States. And I got to thinking about, just where were these next journeymen coming from? I had that thought one day and I ran into a good friend of mine, his name is Leon Haynes, he runs Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg.
Steve Shelton: I just went to Leon and I said, "Leon, where's ..." I just had that conversation with him. I said, "I don't see any of the young guys getting into the trades anymore." And we had a conversation. I had a few more conversations with other people, and found that they took the trades out of the city high schools, and they closed this one trade center down. It was in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Howard Husock: And so you started to say, "I should do something about this?" That's a big leap Steve.
Steve Shelton: Well, one of the things I started thinking about was, I've been in the trades for 45 years, and I mastered five different trades. And-
Howard Husock: What are your five trades that you mastered?
Steve Shelton: So there was masonry, so there was aviation electrician, so there was union electrician, maintenance electrician, and there was welder, and then I had some HVAC. Along with that up in Nashua, New Hampshire, I was working in a micro electronics center for maybe about a year.
Howard Husock: So you had a lot of skills that you could impart plausibly. But still, it's a big leap to going from saying, "See I don't know where the next generation is going to come from," to saying, "I'm going to do something about making sure there is a next generation," and that's what you did.
Steve Shelton: Well, one of the things when I talked to Leon that day, he told, "Just come on, let's take a walk down into the basement of the building," and he runs a community center there at Wilkinsburg, Hosanna House. He took me down into the basement and there was an old boiler room down there, and it's a 1000 square foot boiler room. He said, "If you want to use this, you can use it." So I find eight young guys off the street-
Howard Husock: Wait a minute, you found eight young guys off the street?
Steve Shelton: Yeah.
Howard Husock: Like, how do you get eight guys off the street?
Steve Shelton: Well, I'll tell you. I've been, since 1996, involved in church life a good bit, and I saw a bunch of young guys that were around, and knew that they were getting out of high school, and didn't quite know what they were going to do. And so, I just talked to different people about, "You have friends who have nephews and sons and everything." So it really wasn't that difficult to find eight young guys who were looking for an opportunity, to see if they wanted to get into the trade.
Howard Husock: And what was your sales pitch to them?
Steve Shelton: Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?
Howard Husock: And there's good money in the trade, right?
Steve Shelton: There's good money in the trades, and there's doggone good money in the trades. Well, so what we've done at the Trade Institute over the last 10 years, is we've been able to take an individual. So 85% of our students are coming out of incarceration, the other 15% are either coming just out of high, or just coming in off the street. They are just individuals that are just looking for a break, and we bring them in, put tools in their hands, assess their talent levels. And then we have different employer partners across the city, that we plug them into once they've completed the 10 week program.
Howard Husock: And how do you know that this is working?
Steve Shelton: Well, in 2017 and 2018, we've had a 94% placement rate at $15 an hour or better.
Howard Husock: That's an impressive figure. Are they staying with the jobs?
Steve Shelton: That's one of the pieces that we're working hard on now. Because that's one of the pieces that we've been working on for the last two years is the alumni piece, because I get that question a lot hard Howard. So everybody says, "Well, you got them through a 10 week program. You got them a $15 an hour job, where are they a year from now?" So what we've done is, is we started diligently working towards having that alumni piece, and having them come back in for different alumni events, and we're tracking. So for the first year, they get two phone calls a month, from office manager at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh. The only problem with that is, is you have a lot of these characters out there, that they change phones on a regular basis.
Steve Shelton: That strategy hasn't worked so well to date, just because of the phone changes. So we're working on some other ways to keep them engaged. But yes, I mean, I guess the best thing that happens to me on any given day, when I have a guy that's out there, been out there for eight years, six years, four years, two years, whatever it's been, that's working on one of the construction sites, and if they get a rain day or get rained out, they come walking in and sit down in the morning circle, or just to come in and say, "Hey, how you doing?" "Just, everything's going good. I just got a new car. I just got a new truck or I just moved into my apartment." Those are the Grand Slams for us in the Trade Institute.
Howard Husock: You kind of referred to some of these characters that even changed their phones. I'm guessing a lot of job training programs, government job training programs we spent a lot of money on, they don't have great results. So it can't be just a slam dunk. "Come in and we'll train you, then you get a good job." What are the challenges that you face, with the people that you're trying to serve?
Steve Shelton: So the young men and women that come to the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, we say it like this, we meet everybody right where they are, and everybody has different life circumstances. Some individuals come into us, they have a great place to live, food, everything's great. There's other individuals that are just coming out of halfway houses, or coming out of the jail, that have a bag of clothes over their shoulders, and a couple of bucks in their pocket and nowhere to go. So what we've done over these past 10 years is put together, we have ... The city of Pittsburgh, we're so blessed with the social services and the philanthropic community, to be able to have recognized each barrier. So every day I walk into the Trade Institute, Howard, and somebody will have a barrier that I've never seen before.
Howard Husock: What kind of barrier?
Steve Shelton: Housing is a huge one. So there's a young guy came in not too long ago, who came in to write an article and he said, "Can I take 10 guys of off your floor, and talk to them about housing?" And eight out of 10 of them were Couchsurfing, and that's something that ... See, there's a whole lot of things Howard, that me and you take for granted that these individuals coming out of jail, housing, steadY food, transportation, 90% of the students that come to the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, don't have a driver's license. And so, the driver's license piece and the housing are two of the biggest challenges, that have the most impact in their life to keep them from not succeeding.
Steve Shelton: So the mission of the Trade Institute is, put tools in people's hands and get them jobs. But if we're going to get them jobs and want them to stay in those jobs. So on the policy side of things, to be able to get the driver's license legislation, which in Pennsylvania last year, they just passed HB 163, which-
Howard Husock: So if you had outstanding warrants or something like that, you were prevented from getting a driver's license? Was that it?
Steve Shelton: Well, a lot of it's done from nonviolent drug offenses and DUI, and there's just certain pieces of those laws that would keep them from getting their driver's license, even when they got out of incarceration.
Howard Husock: Right. So there were these practical barriers. Are there emotional and psychological barriers? I know you said for some of these guys, they never had a legal job before.
Steve Shelton: Well, everybody comes into the trade Institute and I say, "Listen man, I'm not going back to that nine by seven show, and I need something to do. And I'm counting on you to get me there." And I tell him, I say, "Okay, this is going to cost Trade Institute of Pittsburgh $7800. I don't want the money from you. But what I do want is, I want the changes that you need to make, to go from what you used to be doing to what you're going to be doing, if you want to do this." And so, it's a complete and utter total change of anything that they've ever seen. They've never had tools in their hands in their lives. But here's the deal. And this is the coolest thing, and this is what started down in that basement in Wilkinsburg.
Steve Shelton: And I say it like this all the time, "I believe God created everybody to do something, but if you were never given the opportunity to do what it is God created you to do, you're going to find something to do." And a lot of these young guys, they go to the street and they're selling dope, and they're carrying guns, and they're doing all kinds of crazy stuff. And then they end up getting caught, go to jail, now they are coming out of jail worse off than when they went in. Maybe they did 5, 10, 15. I had a couple guys did 20 years. So imagine that, that you did 20 years in jail. Your mother died, your father died, grandparents are gone, everybody's gone.
Steve Shelton: Okay. You didn't have a great relationship going in. Now when you come out of jail, one of the most valuable pieces, and one of the things that I love about the Trade Institute is the life coaching, is the counseling. And I learned that just kind of by mistake Howard, because over in Wilkinsburg we had 1000 square feet. We had a portage on in the alley, and there was a concrete wall. And inevitably, each day as I would pass through there, I was still running a company, is I would pass through there, one of the guys would say, "Hey Mr. Steve, you got a couple minutes to talk? And I'd say, "Sure." And I'd sit down on a concrete wall, and that's where I learned the art of listening.
Steve Shelton: I would just start talking and say, "I got this going on, or I have that going on. Or I lost my parents when I was in jail, and I can't believe that," just different things. That was the starting point of knowing, that I needed to make this more than just a trade school, that this had to be a way to where we could help people deal with the stuff. Could you imagine spending 10 years sitting in a jail cell, and not being able to talk to people, or communicate and everything in a way, and now you want to get it together? You really want to give it a good shot. And so, at the Trade Institute, that's where we come from.
Steve Shelton: We want to give people the best shot that they can possibly have, to be able to communicate whatever it is that's hurting, so that they can deal with it, so they can start thinking positively about life. And like I always say, "The glass is half full, it's not half empty." Let's look at what you got positive going on in life, and let's build on that. But first thing you're going to do, so you don't have to go back to the street, let's start putting paychecks in the back. That's where it comes in, 94% placement rate at $15 an hour are better. We're real proud of those statistics.
Howard Husock: Is it hard for you as, what some people would call a white ethnic, apparently that's a term these days, to reach across what some people would see as a color line, to a predominantly African-American, Hispanic population? Some people say, "Well, you got nothing to tell these guys. They have disadvantages you can't even imagine. Who are you talk to them?" Is that a problem?
Steve Shelton: No, it's not a problem at all. I've had my own challenges in life, and I came out of my challenges. I don't believe that there's anything ... I believe that there is ... Back in 96, when I made a decision to turn my life around, that's when this all started. I have this quote that I like to use all the time is, "A person with an experience isn't at the mercy of a person with an argument." See, when you've experienced something and you've gone through life, and you've come out of certain challenges, nobody can tell you that you didn't come out of them. So you're able to then reach back, and grab others that are coming out of challenges, and say, "Hey, listen, come on. You can make it." Like I said, it's a hand up. It's not a handout, because they've got to earn it all the way, and they've got to prove that they want it. They've got to make solid changes, and-
Howard Husock: Would you kick them out?
Steve Shelton: That's happened several times, Howard. Yeah. Because it's like. There's another saying we use all the time around the Trade Institute, "Talk is cheap." Because here's the deal, if you're going to lay brick and block, and you're going to go out on a construction site, everything in the construction industry, it's all about production. So you can't talk things onto the wall. You can't talk brick onto the wall. You can't talk a wall standing up or anything. So it's like, if you want to do this and you want to go from where you are, we'll teach you, get you through the 10 week program. We will start as an apprenticeship. We have about 10 years left Howard, to be able to get the young guys next to the old guys. It's not a grand revelation.
Steve Shelton: It's something that's been going on for years. Germany's been doing it, they have the German dual apprenticeship program, and it just makes perfect sense. We spent about ... I don't know how many years we've spent sending all these kids to college, and we took all the trades out of the city high schools. So you got create everybody to do something. But if you weren't given the opportunity to do it, then you're going to be running around trying to figure out, what it is you're supposed to be doing. And all we do is give people the opportunity, we put the tools in our hands.
Steve Shelton: That was one of the primary reasons why I kept doing what I'm doing Howard, is down in that little basement, I would put a brick drill on somebody's hand, young man or a young woman's hand, and in two or three days, they'd be laying brick. And it was just amazing to me to see the talent that we have locked up in our prison cells. But then in the same token on the other side, you have all these contractors, they're screaming for talent. They're screaming for individuals who will show up on time, work hard, and help make that company money.
Howard Husock: So you're running an organization now though, you're spending that $7800 per person, per year. There's a big change in your life to be running a big organization like this, and you're doing it in what we here at the institute, like to emphasize as civil society. You're not a government job training contractor. Talk about that choice.
Steve Shelton: I'll tell you what Howard, I look at it as, it works. And if it works, why mess with it? It took me 10 years with some awesome staff, and I'm going to give a shout out to my staff right now. Because I tell you, I have the greatest staff and we have worked every day, and there's nothing better than any boss can hear that they say, "It's not like coming to work. It's like they get to do it, they don't got to do it." And they come in there, and I hear it all the time from different students, they say, "This place has a cool vibe." And that's what we do. We work really hard to preserve that place, so that atmosphere that you have when you walk into Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, is you have a positive atmosphere, you have people that are going to speak life to you, and you have people that are there to do nothing but help you get from where you are, to where you want to get to.
Howard Husock: Before we finish, why don't you remind us what the website is for the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, and how people can get in touch.
Steve Shelton: I'd be more than happy to Howard. So anybody who would like to see what it is we're doing, you could go to www.tipgh.org. Or if you're ever in Pittsburgh and you want to look us up, you can give us a call at (412) 243-2970. I'll be more than happy to have you stop in, put you on wall, and let you lay some brick.
Howard Husock: Sounds like a great offer. Thank you very much, Steve Shelton.