Q & A: What Atlanta Asked Green Streets

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What can we do in Atlanta to start and support more social enterprise businesses like Green Streets?
Read what Atlanta’s experts have to say

Community

What are the appropriate rites of passage for black and brown brothers and sisters when leaving childhood and entering manhood/womanhood?

James: For me, I felt like I was forced to become a man at a very young age. I was on my own by the age of 14, so I had to learn how to deal with bills, rent, food, transportation—grown man things. The experiences I had to go through brought me into adulthood before I was ready, before I understood that being a man also meant being a leader in my community.

Tyrone: Many of our youth are forced to advance into adult situations prematurely, due to the everyday trauma we face. It affects decision-making and analytical thinking, and takes a toll emotionally, educationally, physically and, most importantly, spiritually. The correct rite of passage, I believe, is simply proper development over time.

How does Green Streets address the social and individual barriers of staff, mentees, etc.? Are you linked to any community organizations that collaborate with Green Streets?

Tyrone: The barriers our workers face come from trauma, poverty and incarceration. Therefore Green Streets has taken the next step to get involved in social service work through WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) groups and partnerships with Westside Community Services and the Department of Public Health.

Is it hard for the people in your neighborhood to understand recycling and composting?

Tyrone: Yes of course, but most really take to it well—especially when the information is coming from someone that speaks their language. The desire for change is certainly there in any underserviced neighborhood.

Joseph: I’ve spoken with most of the residents at Plaza East Apartments (where I’m site supervisor), and I believe about 40% of the residents are still on the fence with what Green Streets is trying to accomplish. The majority can see how we’ve cleaned up and the difference we’ve made, but it will take continuous education and outreach to get everyone to understand composting and recycling.

Some people believe that gang members are entrepreneurs. How can we redirect those talents in the face of lack of opportunity, fear and that cycle of revenge?

Tyrone: Gang members, and any people who are underserviced, find ways to survive in the street economy only because they haven’t been given enough support or opportunity to achieve legal success. It takes a whole village, and lots of help from the outside, to break that cycle.

Personal

What was the spark/catalyst that made you believe you could change and make a difference?

Tyrone: When I started Green Streets, it was a combination of things: desperation, will, and just wanting a chance. Those things allowed me to look at the situation and at least give it a shot. I returned to prison shortly after the start of Green Streets, when my son was three months old. His being there gave me something to live for.

Jammal: The thing that helped me to believe I could make a difference was the change I saw in my own neighborhood. I saw the way that the community embraced Green Streets. I saw Green Streets employing the so-called “unemployable.” I think Green Streets brought a sense of pride back to our community that had been missing, and I wanted to be a part of that.

During times of hardship, do you think of turning back; if so, what keeps you going?

Randolph: When I got out of prison and couldn’t find a job, I reached a point when I was just plain sick of how I was living. I started to pray to God talking to him for real. Just as I was really about to give up, I got a phone call from Green Streets asking if I could start work on Monday. What kept me going was God making a way for me. Even when I was wrong, he/she showed me love and made me realize that I could help people instead of hurting them. I found my calling, and working with Green Streets has made me stronger, more loving and caring, and a better father, friend and person all around.

James: When times get hard and I get frustrated, sometimes I do want to give up and go back all the way. I still make mistakes and fall back, but I remember that there are people out there who really depend on me, so what good will I be to them if I’m incarcerated?

Tyrone: In times of hardship I pray, and I rely on my ability to endure to get me through. Nobody ever said it would be easy, and I’ve been discouraged many times. I find strength through my family and knowing my community needs me living right—my son needs me living right.

Jammal: What keeps me going is the knowledge that the business we are building is making a difference. It goes much deeper than garbage—we also act as mentors to some of the youths in the neighborhood, we do outreach, we keep our door open to people in the community when they need help finding many different services and resources. There are so many different avenues to Green Streets, it makes me want to keep growing, learning and pushing every day.

How do you keep your life on a positive track when you have constant situations happening around you to get you off your positive track?

Tyrone: Through Green Streets, I’ve been able to develop a support system personally and professionally that I can rely upon. The business family keeps me focused. It is hard still living in my neighborhood, but knowing that I can make positive change there helps.

Randolph: I pray every chance I get. I take it one day at a time, and stay mindful of my responsibilities. I keep positive people around me, and I try to spread positivity to others, showing them the right path. Plus I know I got two strikes, can’t play around with that. I’m honored to see myself grow from a wild man to a humble man, and that’s how I stay on a positive track.

What is your dream, and has it changed since you first began?

Tyrone: My dreams are to raise my son with the proper upbringing, leading by example so that he doesn’t experience the situations I endured, and to continue to push as much hope into my community and communities like it as I can. So you can say I’m living my dream.

Natalie: My dream is to provide a better living environment for my kids, make sure I become successful, and be HAPPY!

Joseph: I’ve always had a dream to one day open my own security company. Right now I want to help Green Streets take off to the next level, so that I can learn how to run a successful business for the future.

What’s your biggest challenge today?

Tyrone: The biggest challenge today for me personally is still living in my community. It keeps me at risk at all times and it can weigh heavy on me mentally.

Natalie: My biggest challenge is staying on the right path and staying focused every day. If it weren’t for Green Streets, I really could be dead or in jail. It would be so easy to go back to the stuff I was doing before, but now I know that I don’t need to.

Randolph: My biggest challenge is just staying alive and not being locked back up! I know I can go back to prison at any time, or I can get killed just as quick. So before that happens, I would love to see our community cleaned up and beautiful, see families in homes together, see my brothers and sisters working together as one unit again, see people happy and enjoying life. I want to take the power, respect and love back and share it in a positive way with my community.

Business

How did you resolve the issue of taking less money for company profit?

Tyrone: There was no way we were going to pay our employees less. We have pursued more contracts, and we continuously seek out additional grant funding for things like outreach and screenings. We currently have 22 employees, all paid above minimum wage.

How important are soft skills for success?

Tyrone: Soft skills are crucial, and we work on developing those every day at Green Streets. Technical skills obviously help the business run and are important to have on your resume, but good communication, discipline, empathy, respect and teamwork are the life skills that will ultimately change the people like me.

Is Green Streets making a profit? If so, where/how is it invested?

Tyrone: Green Streets is making a profit. Our existing five contracts with two different property management companies fully cover operations and training, and various foundation grants pay for our outreach and educational efforts. Additionally, we’re pursuing contracts with the city through talks with the Port of San Francisco and SFMTA, and we’re looking for financial solutions to cover additional support that our employees need, such as mental health services.

Will you eventually move towards trying to clean up the employee criminal record?

Tyrone: Green Streets will always be about hiring people with barriers to employment, giving them a chance when no one else will. Our hope is that through job training, counseling and support, we can help our employees overcome the stigma of their criminal records in time.

Does Green Streets have any plans for a youth leadership program offering hands-on business strategies?

Tyrone: That’s a great question and something I would love to create. We are still in the process of growing the business, but we always look at ways to help the youth. In the future it is very doable.

Joseph: I would like to get Green Streets connected with The Beacon Center of SF and the YMCA and start new, long-lasting partnerships to get the youth involved in recycling and composting and become positive leaders in their community.

How helpful with resources or contacts were your elected officials like the mayor, state officials?

Tyrone: Though the original idea for Green Streets came from a public policy—San Francisco’s zero waste initiative—we had to get the business up and running on our own before elected officials started to take notice. Since then, we’ve had lots of support from local officials, especially District Supervisor David Campos, who has participated at a few of our screening events, spread the word to his colleagues and constituents, and written letters of support for our grant applications. Through our outreach efforts, we’ve forged a partnership with SF Department of the Environment, and have begun to meet with officials at the Department of Labor and Department of Justice.

What other business ventures have come from Green Streets? Is there other income or avenues for entrepreneurship?

Tyrone: My colleagues and I have spent the past five years getting Green Streets to where it is today, but our work isn’t over. Right now we’re committed to growing Green Streets into all that it can be, rather than starting other companies.

Photo credit (L to R): [House of June Collaborative; Holly Elmore, Elemental Impact; Sophie Constantinou, Citizen Film]