Special to Capitol Report
Many people who encounter first-term state Sen. John Harrington outside the Capitol still call him Chief, the title he held in the St. Paul Police Department from 2004 to 2010, capping his 33-year tenure on the force.
Not surprisingly, issues of criminal justice and public safety are a dominant focus for Harrington. Even so, one might have thought that campaigning would have consumed the five-month period between Harrington’s last day as St. Paul police chief in June 2010 and his November election to the Senate seat on the city’s east side previously held by Mee Moua.
Instead, the day after resigning from the force, Harrington accepted a job as president and chief executive officer of Ujamaa Place, a fledgling nonprofit dedicated to providing the skills and resources necessary for African-American males ages 17 to 28 who have, as the organization puts it, “experienced repeated cycles of failure,” to emerge as dignified contributors to their community.
Harrington was hired to be the public face of Ujamaa (the word means “extended family” in Swahili), promoting awareness of the organization in St. Paul and helping to raise the $1.4 million in philanthropic, business and charitable donations necessary to sustain its first three years of operation. The former chief and current legislator admits he has invested more hours than are called for in the quarter-time position.
Yet Ujamaa Place has already raised $850,000 toward its three-year goal; boasts an impressive cadre of business, religious and nonprofit heavyweights on its boards and steering committees (http://ujamaaplace.org/about); and, since opening its doors at the beginning of this year, has 25 active participants (out of an initial 55 applicants) who are being coached, educated and in some cases housed as part of their training. Nine have secured steady employment in a brutal economy while remaining part of the program.
“The chief has a strong reputation in Minnesota that can’t be compromised,” says Roy Barker, the 58-year-old executive director of Ujamaa Place, who turned his own life around after time in prison for committing crimes on the streets of Chicago.
“Even before he officially came on board, he opened up lots of doors just by us saying we had talked to Chief Harrington and he supports us. That has helped us with funders and other community organizations,” Barker says. “He’s a tireless worker and not just as CEO; he’s taking phone calls from our guys on nights and weekends. Somebody’s friend gets shot and they’ll call the chief — he is a grass-roots guy as well as an executive officer. I’m not sure where we’d be if it wasn’t for his passion to this.”
Harrington sees Ujamaa Place as a direct extension of a program known as SAGA — Stop Armed Gang Activity — that he put together as chief to foster a more community-oriented approach toward reducing gang involvement and violence among youth in St. Paul. “This has long been an issue close to my heart, working on education and empowerment for those with criminal histories. People getting out of prison need a job to avoid repeating the mistakes they have made,” he says.
He found a dedicated coterie of like-minded people who provided the genesis for Ujamaa Place. Barker gained a foothold in Minnesota working for Awali Place (awali is Swahili for “beginning”), a program meant to help struggling youth get into Twin Cities Rise!, another empowerment nonprofit for mostly African-American youth founded by Steve Rothschild, who left General Mills after achieving great success with its Yoplait yogurt brand.
Rothschild, Barker and another General Mills/Yoplait alumnus, Bill Svrluga, shared a commitment to helping extremely disadvantaged youths and young adults but acknowledged that Twin Cities Rise! lacked the unremitting focus and resources required to make Awali Place a successful organization for that population. For the past two or three years, Barker and Svrluga have been working on the model for Ujamaa Place, a process that inevitably led them to SAGA and Harrington.
As executive director, Barker is the process guy, the lead coach and developer of the curriculum. “There are certain life skills you need to hold a job that most of us think of as common knowledge, but it is not common to the people we are dealing with, so they have no knowledge of it,” he says. Asked if he invented the curriculum, he answers, “That’s hard to say. We start with hygiene. Now, did I invent hygiene? But I did put this together.”
Along with the basic skills of education and self-presentation, Barker and Ujamaa focus on changing attitudes. “We look at the parallels between the slavery of old and incarceration now. I tell them the slaves didn’t have a choice, but you do. Do you want to become a victim in the prison-industrial complex or join the American dream? You don’t have to give up your individuality and your unique culture.
“You can celebrate your blackness and still become a homeowner and a skilled craftsman. But that does not exclude the struggles you have to overcome and the dedication you need to get there.”
Barker adds that although there are enrollees who are already working or attending community college or trade school, nobody graduates from the program until he has had a full year of job skills training and education.
“Employers are looking for people who are dependable, who show up for work, accept corrective feedback and are self-starters, and we train our guys to do this,” he says. “People are interested in stories of change and redemption, and so there are employers who can look beyond a person’s criminal past — and thank God for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.”
Meanwhile, Harrington is pitching the Ujamaa Place program to funders throughout the community. “There are two pitches. One is the business model. Guys who are not working are an economic drag on our community. Not only does it cost $50,000 a year to incarcerate individuals, but that person isn’t paying child support or taxes. So changing that person from a drain on society to a contributor is a very high return on the investment we make, which is why businesses should be interested.
“Beyond that, these are men who are not going away,” Harrington says. “And if they are not feeding their families and they are not part of a transition from street life to regular life, it touches us all. We recently had a homicide in our community, and that shooting negatively affected everyone who lives and works and goes to school there.
“One of the best things we did in the Police Department is gave 30 jobs to reduce gang membership and crime in our community, and for 20 months after that there were no homicides or fatal shootings in that community. The best means of crime prevention is a job.”
Right now, Ujamaa Place has set an annual budget of $400,000 for its first three years of operation. Eventually, it hopes to enroll and graduate hundreds of people each year. Harrington is plotting a similar course to keep pace.
“I’ll go out and ask a business if they can give us $10,000 to help us get 10 people into the workplace, or house this or that guy while he gains the skills he needs,” Harrington says. “But after we’re established, I will be starting shortly to look at state and county grants to see where we can get additional funds.”
He has been around long enough not to sugarcoat the obstacles. “Most people want to fund programs for early childhood education or helping battered women, which of course are very worthy things. We don’t exactly land in the sweet spot of those funding cycles,” he says.
“Helping people with histories become good fathers or good workers is difficult, and some employers don’t want to hire people with a criminal past,” Harrington continues. “But this is a logical next step for me from community policing, taking a holistic approach that involves not just nutrition and education but a spiritual component that isn’t tied to just one religion or belief. So there is no quit in us. People can’t say yes or no until you ask the question.”
The Harrington File
Name: John Harrington
Titles: President/CEO, Ujamaa Place; community faculty member, Metropolitan State University; Minnesota state senator, District 67 in St. Paul
Grew up in: Chicago
Lives in: His legislative district on the east side of St. Paul.
Education: B.A., Dartmouth College; M.A. in education-public safety, College of St. Thomas, 1985
Family: Partner, Sarah Walker; seven children: Mark, Amanda, Stephanie, Mike, Jessica, Jennifer and John Benjamin
Hobbies: Martial arts, philosophy, ballroom dance