Barbara Lee, Kemba Smith and Donald Frazier
On Oct. 26, over 150 community members gathered at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland to celebrate men and women who have come out of one of the most traumatizing and challenging experiences a person can have—imprisonment—and emerged with new jobs and new hope for their futures.
Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) operates the Career Training and Employment Center (CTEC) in partnership with Alameda County Probation, City of Oakland/Oakland Unite, La Familia, Peralta Community College District, Five Keys School and Programs. The program provides ex offenders with tools, skills and knowledge needed to find jobs and successfully integrate following incarceration.
At this year’s Graduation, special guest speakers included US Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Arnold Perkins (formerly Director of Alameda County Health Care Services, currently on the Board of The California Wellness Foundation), State Senator Nancy Skinner, and keynote speaker, author of “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story,” Kemba Smith, among others. 84 graduates were honored for securing jobs.
Following a performance by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, BOSS presented twelve special Gratitude Awards at the Graduation ceremony, to partners who were and continue to be key in the success of CTEC: the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, five County Departments (Probation, Human Resources, Social Services, Health Care Services, Housing and Community Development), and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, for supporting innovative reentry initiatives; three business partners (Whole Foods, Mechanics Bank, SAS Automotive) for hiring CTEC graduates; lead event sponsor Pacific Office Automation and Master of Ceremonies Arnold Perkins, for serving in that role since the Graduation began.
State Senator Nancy Skinner introduced her friend and event keynote speaker Kemba Smith, observing that Kemba is, literally, the ‘poster child’ for all that has been wrong, and racist, about the ‘War on Drugs’, assuring the audience that state legislators are trying hard to change our unequitable criminal justice system. Kemba Smith then stole the show with her grace, strength, and optimism, which shined brightly despite the harrowing personal life story she shared of getting mixed up in drug activity through a college boyfriend and winding up with a 24 year federal prison sentence.
Her story has all the elements CTEC deals with on a daily basis – one bad mistake, paid for with the harshest of punishments…warnings – and then life-saving support – from family members…hitting rock bottom and ultimately deciding to take a different path. Unlike many people’s stories, Kemba’s had a happy ending because her case was taken up by advocates who successfully fought for the commutation of her sentence, and she was released after just 6 ½ years, with a new life goal – sharing her story to help and inspire others, and change the system that leads to horrific experiences like hers.
Two Graduate Valedictorians shared their personal stories (Josh Morris from BOSS, and Nelson Edriano from La Familia) before the 2018 CTEC Graduating Class was called up for recognition. All graduates received Certificates of Achievement from BOSS, State Senator Nancy Skinner, State Assembly Members Rob Bonta, Tony Thurmond, and Bill Quirk, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and Oakland City Council Member Lynette McElhaney, plus gift bags. Dinner followed the ceremony. The BOSS CTEC Graduation is an annual event honoring hard working men and women who are carving a new path for themselves and their families. BOSS is an Alameda County nonprofit that is dedicated to strengthening communities by fighting to end mass homelessness, mass incarceration, and community violence.
If you are an employer willing to hire someone with a record who is working hard to change their life, contact BOSS Director of Workforce Development Clyde Lewis at email@example.com or 510.419.0669. | If you want to support or sponsor the 2019 CTEC Graduation, contact BOSS Director of Development & Marketing Sonja Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510.649.1930 x 1008.
This article originally appeared in The Oakland Post.