Panel discussion moderated by Nekima Levy-Pounds featuring TakeAction Minnesota leaders Renee Zschokke, James Cannon, and Larcel Mack (Credit: TakeAction Minnesota)

Special to the NNPA from The Insight News

Panel discussion moderated by Nekima Levy-Pounds featuring TakeAction Minnesota leaders Renee Zschokke, James Cannon, and Larcel Mack (Credit: TakeAction Minnesota)

In an overflow meeting at the Capri Theater, executives with Target Corporation engaged in a dialog about how corporate hiring policies prevent people with criminal arrest – disproportionately people of color – from securing a job.

The community meeting was organized by TakeAction Minnesota through its Justice 4 All, fair hiring campaign.

Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president of employee and labor relations, announced during the meeting that the company would institute a nationwide ban on the checkbox included on employment applications that screens for an applicant’s past criminal history. Officials with TakeAction said the move is a significant step in removing a key employment barrier for those with arrest records from one of the nation’s largest employers.

“Ending racism in employment demands the leadership of Minneapolis’ Northside community,” said TakeAction Minnesota’s executive director, Dan McGrath. “No matter their credentials and work ethic, the fact is that there are structural barriers in place that stop people from getting jobs. Our Justice 4 All campaign was launched by leaders from this community so that no one who has been locked up is locked out of a job and a positive future.”

McGrath said TakeAction Minnesota has worked for more than two years to build a base of leadership on the Northside to address inequities in employment.

An overflow crowd of four-hundred packs the Capri Theater for the public meeting (Credit: TakeAction Minnesota)

Nekima Levy-Pounds, an attorney, professor and activist, moderated a panel discussion between Rowader and three individuals leading TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All fair hiring campaign. The panel included Larcel Mack, a workforce coach at Emerge Community Development and small business owner, Ramsey County Workforce Solutions employment counselor Renee Zschokke and James Cannon who serves as a Ramsey County employment guidance counselor.

During the panel discussion, Rowader also announced Target would be contributing $100,000 to the Council on Crime and Justice to fund the “Second Chance Saturdays” program in Minneapolis that helps those with past records navigate barriers to employment.

Cannon, who is African-American, spoke of his own struggle to obtain employment after getting into a fight outside of University of Minnesota campus bar shortly before graduation. The fight resulted in a felony conviction and it took several years for Cannon to re-establish his employment credentials and obtain a good-paying job.

“Anyone with a record is basically shut out of society,” said Cannon. He said programs like Second Chance Saturday, which he himself participated in, are critical to establishing second chances for ex-offenders yet receive little to no funding. “People in the streets, people in this room, need help today. People need help navigating the system that makes it so hard to find a job and get your life back on track.”

Several at the Oct. 24 meeting, including Levy-Pounds, noted that while the $100,000 from Target is much needed and will be a boost to the Second Chance Saturday program, much more is needed to truly make the necessary impact in the poorer segments of the community.

“Some could argue this is really just a drop in the bucket,” said Levy-Pounds who commended Target for the contribution but also noted the millions and millions Target donates every year to other endeavors.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Minnesota has the widest racial jobs gap in the nation and the worst recidivism rate in the country, with 61 percent of those leaving the criminal justice system returning within three years. More than 92 percent of employers use background checks to screen applicants, with as many as two-thirds refusing to hire applicants with criminal or arrest records, regardless of the time lapse since conviction or the relevance of such a record to the job for which applied.

Zschokke, an employment counselor who specializes in finding jobs for those with records, told the audience she is a survivor of crime.

“I went to school to get my degree in criminal justice and police science because I thought life-long punishment was a solution to crime,” said Zschokke, but she changed her opinion as she worked to place ex-offenders in jobs and found one after the other not getting hired. “Crime is not as simple as people doing bad things. We cannot just release people into a world that systemically keeps them unemployed. It doesn’t work for people’s lives or our economy which is spiraling downward.”

Among the over three-hundred people in attendance Thursday night were numerous political and community leaders, including U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, State Senator Bobby Joe Champion, State Representative Rena Moran and several Minneapolis mayoral candidates including Don Samuels, Betsy Hodges and Jackie Cherryhomes.

Justin Terrell, TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All program manager believes Thursday night’s forum is the beginning of a long overdue dialog.

“The best way to stop a bullet is with a job,” Terrell said. “There are solutions to making sure those individuals with criminal histories in their past – the vast majority non-violent misdemeanors – are given a fair opportunity to be hired. That’s what tonight’s conversation is about. It’s about all of us working together to remove the barriers and narrow this employment gap.”