The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Rhonda Price, founder and CEO of Man Up Inc., a Providence-based nonprofit that provides training and job opportunities for formerly incarcerated men of color. The organization won the $50,000 first prize in the Nonprofit Innovation Lab pitch contest (which I helped judge), hosted by the United Way of Rhode Island and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on Nov. 12.
Q: What is the mission of Man Up Inc. and how long has it been in Providence?
Price: I have worked in the criminal justice system for 29 years, in both the state and federal courts, and I have seen how opportunities have lagged behind for men of color in this country. At the University of Rhode Island, my college mentor was Leo DiMaio, who started the Talent Development Program in 1968 in response to Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. As I was contemplating what to do for men of color who have faced incarceration all their lives, he suggested I start up a nonprofit.
I founded the program in 2011. We put together a program to provide men of color with career-track opportunities, higher-education opportunities, wrap-around services, and support to help them reintegrate back into society. We do all of that while simultaneously addressing the financial and legal issues that create barriers to employment and education.
Q: What was the Man Up Inc. proposal that won the $50,000 first prize during the Nov. 12 Nonprofit Innovation Lab pitch contest?
Price: It is a hydroponic indoor greenhouse – a farm that will be in a freight container. I’m going to purchase it from Freight Farms in Boston and bring it to Providence. In addition to startup capital, we will need to find a location. My hope is to be able to put it on some land right next to a supermarket or food processing company.
We can grow more than 8,000 plants in the container, so we are looking at butterhead lettuce, collard greens, and specialty crops like sorrel. We can grow flowers, tomatoes, spinach. We can grow just about anything. So we will be experimenting a little bit.
Q: Why did you choose an indoor hydroponic vegetable farm and what benefits will it provide to the organization?
Price: I had experience in the horticultural industry as the former owner of a flower shop and greenhouse in East Providence. Unfortunately, during the recession of 2008, I had to close my doors. But I started thinking: What could I have done if I sold my product wholesale vs. retail? I put together a pro forma online presentation and was told Home Depot and Stop & Shop would buy the products. So I put together a strategic plan, and I thought it would support the Man Up organization with large amounts of revenue.
The food industry, the supermarkets, and the food processing companies have survived COVID-19. Actually, they have made a huge profit. My hope is the business will become the primary source of revenue for the organization, providing unrestricted funds. The funds we get in grants have so many restrictions.
Also, this will enable us to train our clients in the farming industry and employ them. They will become the managers of the crops. They will plant the seeds, harvest the crops, take them to market. And we will be able to pay them living wages. It is going to help us to create new training opportunities.
Q: What are some of the challenges that people face when leaving prison and how does Man Up Inc. help them over those barriers?
Price: It’s not easy. Their criminal convictions range from minor misdemeanors to assault with a dangerous weapon to manslaughter. So we are not dealing with choir boys here. They have had some serious contact with the criminal justice system.
The barriers they face include a reluctance to hire ex-felons. In addition, men come out with almost no education and no training. The majority have high school credentials. Some get college credentials while incarcerated. But they have absolutely no skill sets, no training in various industries.
The majority, about 98 percent, don’t have driver’s licenses. They come out owing hundreds or thousands of dollars to get their licenses reinstated. They have tickets, fines, court costs. So we help them with those barriers. Also, there’s just the institutionalization – how they feel emotionally and mentally. We have to work around those barriers and retrain them, reprogram them to think a whole new way.
Q: How many people have taken part in Man Up Inc. programs and what types of jobs are they trained for?
Price: We have had more than 250 men of color referred to our organization. Our clients are referred by probation and parole officers and members of the parole board. Some Rhode Island judges have referred guys to us from the state and federal courts, plus a number of community-based organizations.
We just completed a 26-week oil-heat technician training program at New England Tech. We train welders, CNC (Computer Numerical Code) machinists, CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) truck drivers, and construction workers. We have several guys working with trade unions, and some young men go into information technology training. Whatever their career objectives are, we try to place them. And a couple of guys have graduated from college.
Our recidivism rate is only 11 percent – much better than the statewide average. At the ACI (Adult Correctional Institutions), the cost at intake might be over $62,000 to house one prisoner. Well, it costs about $3,000 to provide our services to these men.
Q: Can you tell us about the W.E.B. Du Bois quote that guides your organization’s mission?
Price: Du Bois said, “Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.”
We apply everything that is in that quote. We give the education. We try to provide career-track employment with high wages that uplifts people. But it has to be guided by the ideals behind it. This is reprogramming minds, giving our participants a new way of thinking. All of it has to teach life – that is what we do at Man Up.