Would You Hire Them?

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By Jesse Duthrie

Bridgeport, CT–Stephanie Miller Urdang sits at a small table with a thick manila folder and smiles at each person who walks in the door. Ex-offenders of Bridgeport come to this office twice a week for three weeks to fulfill the Bridgeport Professional Association (BPA) course, which helps ex-offenders find work, and, in turn, reduce the rate of recidivism.

Today, three men and one woman sit quietly in the room. They’re young, African American and dressed in a range of styles, from Nike basketball shoes to polished heels. They introduce themselves to me, and then sit back in their chairs. I can feel them contemplating my presence.

One-by-one, each person stands up and addresses himself or herself to Stephanie, who has taken on the role of potential employer. They deliver what they feel is a good pitch about themselves to a potential employer. One man looks up to the ceiling, as he tries to string together sentences, and runs the edge of his sneaker against the floor.

Stephanie compliments each person emphatically, turns to me and asks, “Now, wouldn’t you hire that person?!” I’m not sure I would. Sure, the canned openers are appealing, but the idea of hiring a former convict feels…well…scary. Put into a position of hiring an ex-offender, many employers back away for numerous reasons: lack of trust, pre-conceived notions, lack of information. The list goes on. I, playing the fictitious employer, avoid the honest answer.

“Yes. I would hire them.”

I smile at Stephanie and she returns the gesture. As I relax back in my chair, scribbling notes into my pad, Stephanie prompts open-ended questions to the group. Questions like, “What is your best quality?” and “What is your worst quality?”

Suddenly, Stephanie turns her eyes, magnified by thick glasses, on me, the alleged observer. She wants me to answer the same questions.

I tell the group my best quality is my ability to write, and my worst quality is that I’m too lackadaisical. She asks me again what my worst quality is, and this time I should pretend that she’s an employer. I think for a moment, and tell her I’m an over-achiever: I take on too many tasks and, even though I always get them done, I tend to stress. The group laughs, knowing it’s a good answer for an employer. One man extends his hand for a high five and tells me he’s “gonna use that for my next interview!” Any remaining awkwardness in the room dissipates; I’ve been accepted by the group.

After we go over the questions, Stephanie asks the group to open up about what it’s like to be without a job and the struggles they face while finding employment. The man sitting next to me who gave me the high-five, shifts his tone from a serious job candidate to a street-smart kid. He speaks fast in sentences stuffed with slang. He reminds me of Omar from the HBO show The Wire. When I ask him what it would be like to find a job, he tells me, “You don’t even know man. For us, it’d be like hitting the lotto. You know?” The rest of the group smiles and nod their heads.

I couldn’t possibly know how it’d feel for one of these guys to get a job. I grew up in Niantic, a middle-class town in southeastern Connecticut. I can walk to the beach from my house. I can walk through downtown in my flip-flops, eating ice cream, not worrying about gunshots or police. Growing up with a single mother, I’ve had to work since I turned 15, but a friend or family member with a connection somewhere set me up with most of my jobs.

Once the Omar character gets going, he tells us that a friend of his had a gun held to his head just the other day. They all agree that they fear violence from their peers in the streets more than arrest by a cop for a crime.

Another man tells the group that he could leave the table, go back to his neighborhood, and make $1,000 a day selling drugs. I sit all the way back in my chair and cross my arms. I am speechless. Expecting the same reaction from the rest of the table, I look around the table to see I’m the only one shocked. The others look at me flatly. Even Stephanie handles this in stride; she hears stories like this every day. Without speaking, her body language tells me, “That’s just the way it is.”

The conversation shifts from life on the streets to what they gain from BPA. Everyone who enters the program receives a dress shirt, slacks, dress shoes, and tie (or dress and heels for women).

“In the uniform, I feel a positive energy that flows through me,” one man says proudly from the end of the table. Not only are these agencies helping people develop skills to enter the job market, they’re giving them the tools they need for the entire process from interviewing, to searching for job openings and how to follow-up after an interview.

I leave the meeting and get in my car to head home. Driving down the streets of Bridgeport, I see roads that need to be re-paved, loiterers sitting outside gas stations, beaten up cars with tinted windows and hear the bass from rap music that’s so loud it drowns out my own radio. I soak it in, conscious to the reality these men and women are born into. I become sympathetic to their desire to find a better life. Fortunately, there are people like Stephanie Miller Urdang, who are fighting to change that.

The people in the BPA meeting have lived hard lives but they are also trying to make a change, not just for themselves, but for all of those around them. After all these hardships, the only thing they want is a chance at a better life.

I think about my response to Stephanie’s question, “Would you hire them?”

My answer? Absolutely.

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