Tackling Economic Justice through Job Creation: Green Opportunities

Open Road — Week 2 by Team MACK

Image from greenopportunities.org

Growing up, I did not understand the concept of economic justice, but I saw the impacts of injustice everywhere. I observed that genius is equally distributed, while the opportunity to work is not. Communities with low access to educational and workforce development opportunities often have high crime rates, creating further barriers to employment. On top of all this, employers often times are unaware of or unwilling to work through their biases. As a result, diverse young men and women impacted by the judicial system are often excluded from employment opportunities.

Green Opportunities (GO) is a nonprofit based in Asheville, NC whose mission is to train, support, and connect people from marginalized communities to sustainable pathways towards employment. Our work this week focused on UpStaff Personnel, the for-profit arm of GO. UpStaff Personnel is a staffing agency that leverages Green Opportunities as a nonprofit to provide wraparound supportive services for those who are seeking employment opportunities.

Asheville enjoys an unemployment rate below 4%, however, the unemployment rate for black youth and young men and women ages 16–24 is 80%, highlighting the severe racial disparity in the city.

A local political meeting that I had an opportunity to attend illuminated several of the challenges that GO is facing in Asheville:

  1. GO and UpStaff Personnel (GO’s newest social enterprise) have to battle employer’s misconceptions that marginalized talent is unskilled.
  2. Asheville as a city has “removed the box” to make it easier to hire employees with a criminal record, however, many Ashville employers are not bought-in to the mission.
  3. Asheville is constantly improving its capacity to remain compliant and push the status quo forward when it comes to providing marginalized communities with access to job opportunities.

Considering the huge undertaking that GO had begun, Team MACK was motivated to provide as much value as possible, not only to support them in creating more job opportunities but also to empower them to continue serving as a pillar within the community.

The journey started on a Sunday evening at the Nine Mile Restaurant in West Asheville, NC. Upon our arrival on Sunday evening, we sat with J. Hackett, the executive director of Green Opportunities, and Anthony Thomas, the leader of UpStaff Personnel.

J. has always been a community leader in Asheville, NC committed to creating economic opportunities and safe spaces. He accepted the privilege and challenge of leading Green Opportunities in 2015 at a time when the workforce development nonprofit was facing public scrutiny and a number of political challenges. J. has also spent time in prison, and he knows first-hand how challenging it is for returning citizens to pursue higher education goals. J. earned his MBA from the Lenoir-Rhyne University, and has partnered with other nonprofit leaders to design the curriculum for a social entrepreneurship MBA (which he is currently pursuing at UNC Asheville). J. has committed his life, purpose, and career to removing barriers for those impacted by the judicial system.

Anthony wears many hats within the community, including as an entrepreneur in Asheville. He is also a natural connector of people. Anthony is truly gifted at meeting people where they are in order to provide them the best job and career opportunities for them.

We dove deep with J. and Anthony that first night and truly connected with their purpose and vision to create sustainable enterprises that connect extremely talented but marginalized youth to jobs.

Images inside of Green Opportunities
Anthony Walks us through Green Opportunities

Anthony walked us through the Green Opportunities space and shared with us the incredible history of Asheville, a once thriving Black neighborhood. He walked us through the halls of what was once a predominantly Black elementary school and a former pillar of the Black community. He connected us with his amazing staff, and we got to meet students and potential employees that were getting trained for jobs in construction, hospitality, gardening and landscaping, and the culinary arts. We walked the halls, absorbed the history, and connected with the family spirit that makes Green Opportunities go (pun intended).

Inside Green Opportunities, with DeWayne Barton
Asheville, NC City Meeting
Mark & Chris playing hoops with Anthony

We set off to work on HR materials that will be pivotal for UpStaff as it completes its transition to a successful for-profit staffing agency. Along the way, GO alum, Lisa Lemons, provided invaluable HR guidance, and Anthony’s staff weighed in to ensure that our research-based deliverables would not only add value but that they would be immediately useful to an organization that has a lot of job creation to fuel and economic opportunities to create.

Most importantly, we made time during the week to have fun and learn about the community. We hooped it up with Anthony, attended key political meetings, toured the African American history of Asheville via DeWayne’s Hood Huggers International Tours, and even had the opportunity to volunteer with GO as they prepared food at the semi-annual Leaf Festival.

At the end of the week, we were able to share our HR and training deliverables to Anthony, J., and the UpStaff and GO teams. We parted truly changed by the mission, genius, and vision of the entire GO and UpStaff organizations.

Thanks to GO and UpStaff, J., and Anthony — we all left fulfilled and ready to support these geniuses however we could. I left with an anger, excitement, and a fire that burns brighter toward economic justice.

From left to right: Christopher Owen, Kashay Sanders, Allison Bernstein, Mark Green, Anthony Thomas, J. Hackett