In 2014, PVF awarded grants to six young Bay Area residents for coming up with fresh ideas for building better communities. These awards were made possible through the Bay Area Inspire Awards, which provides $10,000 grants to 18-30 year olds living in San Francisco or Alameda Counties with an innovative, community-oriented idea. PVF interviewed each grantee to give you a sense of what these amazing individuals are doing to change their communities for the better. Below is our sixth and final interview with Kori Chen, who is using his award to conduct a 40-hour employment training program for formerly incarcerated Alameda County residents.
PVF: Tell us about your project and working with formerly incarcerated individuals. Why did you decide to work with this population?
KC: After graduating college I was very passionate about social justice issues and went to work for various organizations who worked in the community with people directly affected by the prison system. I learned how the United States has the largest prison population of any developed country in the world, and saw how it mostly imprisons low-income people of color. A few years ago I decided to change course and began working in the coffee industry, but with a goal of exploring how small businesses could create opportunities for people coming out of prison.
PVF: How did you select individuals to participate in your employment training program?
KC: For the past few years I’ve volunteered with an organization called the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) that works with the (unfortunately) growing population of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) prisoners in California. They run a re-entry program called Roots 2 Re-Entry that connects formerly incarcerated APIs in Alameda County with services like housing and employment. By partnering with APSC, I was able to build relationships with some folks in the program and recruit them to be a part of this project.
PVF: How is your employment training program structured?
KC: I manage a coffee roasting company, Red Bay Coffee, so I’ve tried to expose the participants to all aspects of the industry and the business, from customer service, to the bagging and assembly line production work of coffee, to the actual roasting and education about sourcing beans from farms around the world. Even though our business is specific to coffee, my hope is that participants gain an understanding of business and organizational skills that they can transfer to other work or life in general.
PVF: Why are you interested in creating change in your community?
KC: Being an Oakland native, I realize there is a rich history of social justice movements here. I think this is a special place full of challenges, but also full of people trying to solve and face those challenges, and I’m inspired by that culture and legacy.
PVF: Tell us about some of the challenges that you have faced so far in making this project a reality?
KC: Even in a progressive place like the Bay Area, it is still hard to convince employers to hire formerly incarcerated community members. I think small food businesses that I’ve seen and work with do a much better job than others in terms of giving opportunities to marginalized groups like the formerly incarcerated or undocumented, but we can and should do much better.
PVF: What is your hope with how this project will create change?
KC: I hope to provide participants with an opportunity to grow, and I hope that I can offer testimony to other employers about the importance and power of giving marginalized folks a chance to succeed.
PVF: What would you like people and businesses to know about working with formerly incarcerated individuals?
KC: We’re all in this community together, and if you’re in a position to offer someone an opportunity to succeed, do it! There’s a tremendous satisfaction that comes with it. I hope we can all find the courage and empathy to get over any fears or preconceived notions we have about people and just try to work with and learn from each other as human beings. I’ve learned so much from formerly incarcerated members of our community about life and living. I think so many of them are yearning for an opportunity and it’s no small thing to provide such opportunities to marginalized groups, especially in a high cost of living area like the Bay.
PVF: What would you like donors to know about funding community projects led by young people like yourself?
KC: That we are grateful, and please continue to give what you can, we have a lot of work to do!
PVF: What are the next steps for you and your project?
KC: I’d like to support the participants in their future dreams. They are very entrepreneurial! I’d also like to expand the program to create more full time, living wage employment for the formerly incarcerated in our company and the industry.
PVF: Anything else you would like our readers to know?
KC: We always hear about negative things happening in the community or the world, but I’ve witnessed so many people lending a helping hand to others. Never underestimate the power of simple acts of kindness, they inspire me every day.