Catholic News Service: Ohio think tank gives people a much-needed voice in overcoming poverty


CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski

By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service


NEWARK, Ohio (CNS) -- For Cooper, family isn't just those who share their last name.

When it comes to helping people in need, the couple often sets an extra plate at the dinner table for someone without food, offers a night's rest to someone without a bed or readily provides a lift to the doctor's office for a neighbor whose car broke down.

"We share a community. We share a town," Chuck told Catholic News Service in late December.

Life became more of a struggle though for the Coopers as 2017 dawned.

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Truthout: Fighting for Seats at the Table: A Poor People's Movement in a Rustbelt Town

By Jack Shuler, Truthout | Report

After years in and out of jail, Chris Wills says his work as an organizer with the Newark Think Tank on Poverty gives me a reason not to go back. (Photo: Jack Shuler)

After years in and out of jail, Chris Wills says his work as an organizer with the Newark Think Tank on Poverty "gives me a reason not to go back." (Photo: Jack Shuler)

When Chris Wills got out of prison, he could not find a job. He applied, but no one would hire him because of his record.

And then he started using drugs again.

In a moment of desperation, he went to talk with a friend who ran programs in the local jail. His friend didn't tell him to just get clean. He didn't tell him to just get a job. He gave him some advice that, in the moment, Wills thought was just weird. His friend told him to go meet with some community organizers from a group called the Newark Think Tank on Poverty.

The Think Tank is an organization started in 2014 that is modelling a new approach for addressing poverty. Based in Newark, Ohio, the town where Wills lives, the group is made up of people currently struggling with poverty, or who have struggled in the past. The group's goal is to have their voices heard by people who make decisions.

Wills told me in a recent interview that he has three families now. His piercing blue eyes lit up as he named them: "My friends in recovery, my church, and the Think Tank."

After years in and out of jail, Chris Wills says his work as an organizer with the Newark Think Tank on Poverty "gives me a reason not to go back." (Photo: Jack Shuler)As the Republicans gathered in Cleveland to discuss supporting that guy who wants to build a wall, Wills woke up every morning at the men's shelter where he lives, two-and-a-half hours away in Newark. He went to work, focused on recovery and built his new life. He was also organizing for change in this Rust Belt town.

This is no small task.

Newark, population 48,000 plus, is a red city in a red county. It's about 45 minutes from Columbus and on the outskirts of Appalachian Ohio. One of its claims to fame is an enormous building in the shape of a basket, just off Highway 16. Since 1997, the basket has served as an office space for the Longaberger basket-making company. Layoffs have led the company to move staff out of the building to another site. About a week ago, the last remaining employees left.

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Denison Magazine: From the inside Out

Tina Cole at the Sparta Restaurant and Coffeeshop

By Jack Shuler, Associate Professor of English

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Newark Advocate: Think Tank Tackles Addiction Solutions


NEWARK - With the help of the Newark Police Department and the Newark Think Tank on Poverty, a new solution to drug addiction could be coming to town.

Newark Police Chief  Barry Connell spoke to the think tank Saturday, introducing addiction recovery initiatives law enforcement agencies have used with varying success.

He said he's been working with Patricia Perry and Colleen Richards, two representatives from Addicts' Parents United, a support group for families dealing with a relative's addiction, to bring some of those initiatives to Newark.

"Everybody knows someone who is an addict," Richards said. "I'm not giving up this fight until I'm done. Until I die, I will not give up."

Connell outlined a program that would allow people with addiction to seek help through the police department, similar to an initiative started in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


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NEWARK ADVOCATE: ''Orange' author visits county to talk about re-entry

(Photo: Sara C. Tobias/The Advocate)

NEWARK - Tina Cole was serving time at the Ohio Reformatory for Women when she picked up the book, "Orange is the New Black."

At first, Cole wasn't sure she had a lot in common with the author of the memoir, Piper Kerman, who spent 13 months in a women's prison in Connecticut in 2004.

Kerman was a Smith College graduate who was charged with felony money laundering. Cole was a Newark mom who served six years in Marysville for selling drugs.

But when she picked up the book again recently, Cole's life had changed dramatically. She's out of prison, recently celebrated the birth of a grandchild and is working as the general manager of the Sparta in downtown Newark.

One of her goals is to be an advocate for other former inmates as they try navigate life after incarceration.

"When I read it again, I found it very motivating to keep me going in what I do, not only in my day-to-day life, but also with what we are doing in Newark to help returning citizens," she said.

She was thrilled to welcome Kerman to the Sparta on Tuesday for lunch and a discussion about her book and criminal justice reform.


Photo: Sara C. Tobias/The Advocate)

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10 TV: Push For States To "Ban The Box" On Job Applications


Where do you go for work, when your resume includes "convicted felon"?

With record-breaking prison populations, it's a reality more cities and states are starting to face.

Monday President Obama is announcing a plan to help those who've served their time re-integrate into society.

It's called "Banning the Box"- eliminating the check box on employment applications that disqualifies an applicant from the very start.

And it's already happening here in Central Ohio.

In six months on the job at Sparta Restaurant and Coffee House in Newark, Tina Cole has quickly climbed the ladder.

"To where I actually have a key to the restaurant; that's, like, huge. For him to trust this restaurant into me I can come in and I can open it. I come in and I close it for him," she said.

To understand why “Restaurant Manager” is much more than a title for her, you need to know the job she held previously:

"For 14 years I sold drugs here in Newark,” Cole said. "I ruined this community by the things I did and by the drugs I put on the street."

Her crimes earned her 6 years in the Ohio Reformatory for Women. From behind those bars, any kind of future appeared beyond her reach.

"Are my kids going to accept me? Are my family going to accept me? Am I going to be able to take care of myself? Maybe I should just get out and start selling drugs again. That's the mindset you have before you get out,” she said.

Through a re-entry program, she found employment, and a chance to show she was more than her crimes.

"I just every day wake up and know I have something to prove- to my kids, to myself, to my community," Cole said.


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Newark Advocate: Local documentary 'Up River' focuses on area Think Tank

credit: newark advocate


NEWARK —  The kitchen roof of her former apartment had fallen in and piles of debris were everywhere, but Billie Bibow invited Doug Swift in with his camera.

Although she now lives in a safer house and has found a job, she wanted people to understand the struggles of people in poverty, especially those trying to find work after being incarcerated.

"I wanted to show people that you can come back from having nothing," she said.  "I want to change the world for the better so others don't have to go through what I went through."

Bibow was one of three returning citizens who shared their stories in a new locally produced documentary, "Up River."

Focused on the first year of the Newark Think Tank on Poverty, the film will be screened at 2:30 and 3:45 p.m. Sunday at the main branch of the Licking County Library.

"Sometimes organizations get started and their first year is lost," said Lesha Farias, a facilitator of the Think Tank. "We wanted to share our journey because we believe every community can do what we are doing."


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Columbus Dispatch: Newark takes criminal inquiry off job forms

By Eric LyttleThe Columbus Dispatch  •  Tuesday July 21, 2015 6:44 AM

NEWARK, Ohio — Not many ordinances have passed with as little resistance as the so-called ban-the-box proposal that the sometimes-divided Newark City Council passed unanimously on Monday night.

With a 9-0 vote, Newark became the most recent in a growing number of both public and private employers to remove any inquiry about a prior criminal conviction from its job applications.

The effort, sparked by a grass-roots group called the Newark Think Tank on Poverty and sponsored by Councilman Jeremy Blake, was designed to eliminate one more unnecessary barrier that citizens returning to society after a prison stint face in attempting to rebuild their lives, advocates say.

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Columbus Dispatch: Newark poised to join entities dropping ‘felon’ box

By Eric LyttleThe Columbus Dispatch  •  Tuesday July 21, 2015 6:44 AM

NEWARK, Ohio — The man identified himself only as No. 373882.

He said it was his former prison identification number and was, in reality, the only identification the city of Newark, and most of the rest of the world, really cared about when it came to finding a job.

A box, near the top of most employment applications, asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Checking the box, many feel, is a sure path to the employment-prospect discard pile.

Former Inmate 373882 called it “a second punishment by way of sanctions and restrictions.”

“Once released from jail, prison or probation, you’re faced with the stigma of being classified as a felon, a law-breaker,” he told a Newark City Council committee, “which promotes not being viewed as trustworthy in the eyes of the community and places a mark on a guy like me applying for a city job.”

The former inmate was one of 10 people who addressed the council’s personnel committee on June 29, imploring the city to remove that particular box from its job applications.

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Newark Advocate: Newark to vote Monday on giving inmates second chance

When Tina Cole talks about her past, she finds honesty is the best policy.

Cole recently moved into her own apartment with her two children — the first place she has paid rent for on her own since she left prison in October. She served six years for selling drugs, a fact she did not hide from her landlord.

“I was a horrible person, but I changed,” Cole said. “I came out a totally different person than when I went in.”

Like finding an apartment, Cole said, the biggest challenge to finding a job for former inmates is a criminal record. Because there is a box to check indicating whether a job applicant has a criminal history, too many former inmates never get a chance to tell their story.

Former inmates will still have to survive background checks, but Cole hopes removing the box would get them in the door to be able to explain what their crime was and how they’ve recovered from it.

On Monday night, the Newark City Council will vote on legislation to remove the checkbox indicating a criminal record from job applications within the city. This initiative has already been adopted by Ohio state governmental agencies.

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