“We want to change how society views formerly-incarcerated individuals,” says Dr. Rolanda West. Speaking of a training program for the brothers reentering the Chicago Lawn community through IMAN’s Green Reentry Project, she adds that “it aims to teach the social, emotional, spiritual, leadership and, eventually, economic skills necessary to make a successful reentry into the community.” The formation of a functional and empowering social identity is the key, according to her, to making such individuals pillars and leaders of the communities they are returning to.
The first house constructed under the Green Reentry Project is a beautiful and environmentally sound space made possible by training provided by the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment, major funding from the Islamic Society of North America and Zakat Foundation, equipment and materials from Home Depot, and resources from key donor families. It has been up and running and is becoming a critical resource for the surrounding community. It has hosted a series of meetings attended by residents, representatives from the City of Chicago and Green Reentry leaders, in which actions plans are being developed for how to tackle local issues such as public safety and foreclosed homes. IMAN has provided leadership for such meetings and is in the process of becoming fully certified with the Illinois Department of Corrections so that reentering individuals can come to the Green Reentry houses upon their release.
As the house turns into a home by welcoming its first group of four formerly incarcerated brothers during the next month, current Green Reentry leaders will conduct a ten-week “Leadership and Empowerment” program designed by Dr. Rolanda West and the Alternative Education Research Institute. Afterwards, they will undergo training to acquire the technical skills and certification required for “green” construction projects. Then, these brothers will become responsible for the construction of the second Green Reentry house. In this manner, Green Reentry will become a self-sustaining and self-replicating model.
IMAN has always envisioned Green Reentry as a model that can be successfully scaled up, over time, in accordance with the enormity and complexity of challenges that inner-city communities are faced with, challenges such as lack of decent housing, job skills, public safety, and effective reentry programs that are fundamentally connected and deeply entrenched. Now this innovative and practical solution is getting the kind of attention from community leaders and public officials that can turn it into a regional and national success story. Representatives from the offices of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Congressman Danny Davis have all toured the house recently and shown interest in both the commitment and possibilities that such work by IMAN represents.
As the residents of the Green Reentry home become invested in and responsible for the community that surrounds their home–with program such as mentoring at-risk youth of color, help for residents and weekly neighborhood cleanups–and as more leaders and lawmakers see the alternate possibilities that this project represents, it can begin to change how the community views formerly-incarcerated individuals. Out of such change in perception toward them– they are assets not liabilities–can come the social, cultural and, finally, legal change that is required to solve some of the crises that are tearing our inner-city communities apart. That is the change that Dr. Rolanda West talks about and is working with IMAN’s Green Reentry Project to create.