Ex-Cons Find Support at College, Struggling Coal Country Aims to Diversify Its Economy and More

Building a Prison-to-School Pipeline, The New Yorker
Former prisoners studying at the University of California-Berkeley have a complicated relationship with their classmates: In many ways, the previously incarcerated are more worldly, yet less scholarly, than younger students who enroll straight out of high school. That’s why ex-cons formed the Underground Scholars Initiative, a group of former inmates who help each other navigate Cal and recruit those still in the penitentiary to apply to college.

In Life After Coal, Appalachia Attempts to Reinvent Itself, Governing
In all of Eastern Kentucky, there are barely 4,000 coal mining jobs left, down from 30,000 positions just 15 years ago. Undercut by natural gas prices and tough environmental regulations, those in Appalachia are echoing one solution: diversification. This fall, Harlan County hired its first full-time economic development manager to drum up business — a major step on the way to rebuilding a functioning economy.

The Urban Playground That Builds Kids’ Brains, CityLab
On average, a wealthy child hears 30 million more words than a low-income peer. To reduce the gap, why not put words wherever kids are? Even at playgrounds. That’s the theory behind the illustrated sentences adorning the jungle gym at Officer Willie Wilkins Park in Oakland, Calif. “Let’s talk about sunshine,” “Let’s talk about food,” one can read on the playground, a helpful reminder nudging parents to talk with their children more.

How New Americans are Shoring Up America’s Economy

Walk down Main Street in your community and it’s likely that you’ll pass by a lot of immigrant-owned businesses.

In the new report “Bringing Vitality to Main Street,” the Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute find that between 2000 and 2013, immigrant-owned businesses were responsible for all the net growth in Main Street businesses — from restaurants to hairdressers to auto body shops — throughout the U.S. and in 31 of the largest 50 cities in the country.

Immigrants own 53 percent of America’s grocery stores, 45 percent of its nail salons and 38 percent of its restaurants. Overall, immigrants own 28 percent of the Main Street businesses in America, even though they only comprise 16 percent of country’s population.
The authors of the report included businesses owned by both documented and undocumented immigrants in the study, zeroing in on three areas where vibrant immigrant communities have revitalized neighborhoods and cities: Philadelphia, Nashville and the Twin Cities.
Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Cultural Affairs, tells NBC News that the report, “really tells a story of how hard-working they are and how they are contributors to our city, how they helped bring back neighborhoods that have been in decline.”
In addition to contributing to business growth, immigrants seem to be shoring up the housing market as well. Gillian B. White writes for National Journal that while millennials have so far proven to be less likely than previous generations to purchase real estate, buying a house is still a key goal for many immigrants. In fact, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, immigrants are responsible for 27.5 percent of the growth in homeownership over the past 20 years. Unlike their millennial counterparts from non-immigrant families, the children of immigrants account for the largest increase in the growth of households headed by people under age 30.
As Rodriguez says, “I often say that what is good for immigrants is good for everyone.”
MORE: To Fix A Neighborhood, Invite A Newcomer

From the Boardroom to the Farm: Meet the Woman Helping African Refugees Make a Living Off the Earth

With its downtown high rises housing global oil companies, and its vast, sprawling suburbs that can only be reached by navigating packed freeways and dizzying highway overpasses, Houston does not seem to be a place where a farmer could find a quiet corner to coax a harvest from the soil. But thanks to the unlikely partnership between a co-founder of a software company with nary a notion about gardening and a small group of African refugees with deep roots in the Congo’s fertile soil, several small urban farms are flourishing — bringing hope and joy to the immigrants and fresh produce to their neighbors.
Plant It Forward was established by Teresa OʼDonnell, co-founder of Bridgeway Software, who says, following the success of her company, she was “looking for a means to give back to the community.” The group’s genesis was sparked by a story in the Houston Chronicle about the problem some Iraqi refugees (many of them doctors and engineers) were having finding jobs. “I thought it would be a good fit,” O’Donnell says. So she contacted Catholic Charities, a major worldwide force in refugee resettlement efforts. They implied that helping these Iraqi professionals settle was not much of a challenge compared to the giant problems facing immigrants with few skills.
Houston is the number one refugee destination in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 70,000 immigrants from 78 countries have settled in the Texas metropolitan area since 1978 — many drawn to its healthy economy and low housing prices.
To help make her aware of their needs, Catholic Charities suggested she accompany a volunteer that was meeting refugees at Houstonʼs international airport. “It was a seminal moment,” she says. OʼDonnell watched as nine people disembarked, “all wearing the same shoes, carrying the same bags, all wearing a name tag and all unable to speak English…I thought, ʻOh my god! They don’t have a chance.ʼ” From that moment she was committed to find a way to help.
MORE: It Wasn’t Easy to Welcome 25,000 Refugees, But Boy, Is This Town Glad It Did
Many of Houston’s African refugees arrive from the war-torn African Republic of Congo-Brazzaville where the earth yields so-called “blood diamonds” and rare metals used to manufacture smartphones and tablets. That same land is blanketed with some of the world’s most fertile soil — a happy circumstance for its multitude of poor citizens. O’Donnell learned that many of the refugees farmed small plots in their home countries, giving her the notion that perhaps they could make a living or get some economic benefit from urban farming.
After meeting with local pioneers in the urban farming movement, O’Donnell set up Plant It Forward, a training program that helps refugees farm crops suitable to the Houston climate (including taking advantage of the region’s two-harvest-a-year cycle) and develop sales skills.
In May 2012, the program leased three acres on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, and later that year, the first class graduated. Now, the organization has increased in size from one to three urban farms (the other two are located at a local church and at a large community garden site) and in scope — including additional classes in urban gardening and business skills. And for the first time ever, this year’s group includes several women, which is particularly important given that female African refugees have a hard time finding jobs due to their lack of English language skills and little educational history, O’Donnell says.
Initially, Plant It Forward aimed to help supplement the income refugees earned by working menial jobs like janitorial services. But it became apparent that, due to the program’s success, some could develop an urban farming business that would provide their entire income. By farming small plots — around two or three acres — and setting up weekly vegetable and fruit stands, several graduates of the program have been able to live off the land and develop a solid, profitable relationships with customers who look forward to the weekly harvests.
One of Plant it Forward’s stars is Sarment (his last name withheld because many refugees harbor understandable fears given their traumatic history). The 51-year-old is a native of Congo-Brazzaville where he had worked as a taxi driver before fleeing and becoming a refugee in neighboring Gabon for 10 years.
“I left the Congo because of the war,” Sarment says through an interpreter. “I left and went to Gabon,” he says. “They told me that I couldn’t drive a taxi because I was a stranger…I made a garden there. In Gabon, I had three people who worked with me in my garden. I was the boss. My garden there was 150 square meters. I mostly grew tomatoes. I also grew eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, sorelle, roselle [hibiscus]. We would sell the vegetables at the market,” he explains.
His garden was a success, but one day, “the military came and said you can’t stay here — if you stay, I will kill you. If I kept farming, they would put me in jail or kill me. I was the boss, so I was in danger, not my workers. After that, the United Nations said it was not safe for me, so they sent me to America.” On Feb. 22, 2010, Sarment, his wife and family arrived in Houston.
In May 2013, Sarment graduated from Plant It Forward’s agricultural program and now operates his one-acre farm in Westbury, a suburb of southwest Houston. He is what the program dubs an “independent farmer,” earning his full income from the produce that he grows. (According to OʼDonnell, independent farmers can gross $30,ooo to 40,000 a year or more in the program.)
Life is good for Sarment now. He and his wife recently welcomed their sixth child — a baby boy — and also his first grandchild. He is taking English language classes and practices with customers at the weekly farm stand sales. “I can work with my family to build my farm and go home and all is good,” he says. “Language is hard — [but farm] work, for me, no problem. I can say itʼs all okay for me in the garden.”
As for his future? “Iʼd like to stay in America. I’d like for my project with farming to grow. I want to stay here, not return to my country. For me — I need my family and my farm. Today this work is small like this. And tomorrow,” he says opening his arms up wide and grinning, “it will be big!”
OʼDonnell, who works full time as the director of Plant It Forward, has big dreams, too. She is working to lease more land and has met with city leaders not just in Houston, but also other cities to explain the concept.
Houston’s neighborhoods have proved enthusiastic about having access to fresh produce, which Plant it Forward sells at stands located at its three farms and at the city’s Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers’ Market on the weekends. The organization also offers a farm share program that delivers its goods to homes on a subscription basis, and O’Donnell is also working to deliver produce from the farms to local chefs.
More so than anything, O’Donnell is excited about the success of this community-building program, which connects her “pioneer farmers” to empty land “that was just being mowed every week”  — satisfying “the huge demand for local food.”
DON’T MISS: How a Pair of College Students Persuaded Their Town to Legalize Urban Farming

Meet the Millennials That Are Looking for Ways to Leave Coal in the Dust

When most of us think of the Appalachian region, we probably conjure up images of mountains and coal, which has been mined in the region for over a century.
However, coal has been battling fierce competitors lately due to declining reserves of the substance, cheap natural gas alternatives and fewer available jobs because of machines, making it no longer the mega industry it once was. Take Boone County, West Virginia, for instance. Since the end of 2011, 40 percent of its coal jobs have been lost. And this is not an isolated occurrence as other Appalachian counties are experiencing the same phenomenon.
With all of these changes, the region needs to look forward to a life not dependent on coal. Enter the Appalachian Transition Fellowship — a group of young adults working to create a new future for the region.
Started by the Highlander Center, which operates as a social movement training center, the Fellowship’s purpose is to act as mentors for 14 young fellows who will be working on economic development projects for a full year in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
The ultimate goal of the program is to ease and hasten the transition from dependency on the coal industry to a more diverse economy consisting of other industries that can be supported by the region’s assets.
This year is the inaugural year of the program, which runs from June 2, 2014 until May 2015. While fellows don’t have to be from the Appalachian region, they must be familiar with the region. (Click here to meet a few of them.)
Armed with creativity and innovation, these young fellows are looking to dig the tunnel to a better future for the Appalachian region. It’s all in a day’s work, so hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work they go.
MORE: These Towns Show What Even Temporary Urban Renewal Can Bring

The Washington PAC Fighting to Save Detroit

We all have a bit of pride when it comes to our hometown. But a group of Detroit natives are proving their allegiance runs beyond local sports teams and are using the power of politics to show their loyalty.
Two Washington, D.C. residents have launched Detroit XPAC, a political action committee funded by donations from the Motor City’s expatriates across the country. The goal is to tap the influence of Michigan’s professional youth that have left the state but still have a vested interest in rebuilding its fledging city.

“We are just a bunch of people from Michigan, from Detroit, who really love this city and want to see it doing well,” Farber said. “It can be amazing. And it’s getting there again.”

Registered at both state and federal levels, the PAC uses contributions to support candidates who have progressive ideas about rebuilding Detroit through economic and sustainable environmental policies, according to the National Journal.
Though the group is still small, it operates a national advisory board as well as a Capitol advisory board to assist with reaching lawmakers on the hill. Most of its members are volunteers who work in urban design or on environmental issues.
The PAC is currently focusing on four or five state, local and federal races, but hasn’t made any endorsements just yet. This year’s pilot run is a precursor to 2016, when the PAC hopes to use its influence for the larger election.
Farber is hoping to reshape the city that shaped her by helping decide who will lead Detroit out of decline. While some current residents may find outside influence on elections a bit disconcerting, Farber argues the PAC’s interest is genuine.

“Part of the reason we thought we should tap into the expats is because it’s a community that isn’t being focused on, and yet we’re all over the country,” she said. “We wanted to prove that the borders of Michigan don’t stop people’s love for the state or where they grew up.”

The group bills itself as nonpartisan but Farber confesses the group leans toward Democratic candidates, who tend to have more progressive ideas. For now, the PAC is readying questionnaires to send out to candidates to hear more about their ideas in the races it plans to endorse.

The PAC is also aiming to create similar advisor boards for New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles.

“There are people on the wrong side of the aisle who think you can defund Detroit, you can cut off its resources, you can ignore it, you can pretend it doesn’t exist,” Dorsey said. “We believe that we must have people who are thinking through how to deliver for the economy in the best interests of citizens of Detroit and to protect the environment.”

Clearly, just because those citizens don’t live within Michigan state limits doesn’t mean they care any less about its long-term success.

MORE: Detroit’s Newest Parking Garage Becomes An Unlikely Canvas

Bigger is Selling Better

In this post-recession world we’re now living in, one might assume that when it comes to purchasing a vehicle, most Americans would go for the smaller choice. After all, an economy-size car gets better gas mileage — meaning less money spent on costly fill-ups.
But recent statistics show that American families are trading in their cars for trucks. Even more interesting? This surprising move is helping the economy.
According to The Atlantic, the U.S. economy is moving forward at a snail’s pace, but if it wasn’t for the sale of new and used trucks, the economy would hardly be growing at all.
While the average household spent $51,400 last year, that was about $800 more than the previous year. Of that increase, 60 percent went towards transportation costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fueling this jump in spending? Large vehicles.
Domestic and imported truck sales increased by eight percent in the past year, while domestic car sales decreased by six percent. According to Motor Intelligence, in the past year, cross-overs, small SUVs, minivans, pickup trucks and large cars sold better than their inferior smaller competitors.
So what does this mean for the U.S. economy?
It is a step back for environmentalists who argue for a green and carless lifestyle. But if it weren’t for the increase in spending on new and used trucks, transportation sales would have decreased, leaving many other businesses (gas, insurance and repair) with less revenue.
Fortunately, for the economy, a decline in driving seems unlikely. In this country, most Americans would rather get behind the wheel than take public transportation, walk, or bike to work. Making it likely that the demand for new and used trucks is going to continue to speed up.
MORE: The Cars of the Future Might Be Powered by…Algae

Why Millennials Are Taking Big Pay Cuts to Work at Small Companies

Before founding Venture for America, Andrew Yang ran two companies — one went bust, the other was acquired by the education company Kaplan in 2009. In between starting the two organizations, Yang spent five years shadowing other entrepreneurs, an experience he says was essential in creating his successful business. Yang’s new organization, Venture for America, places college graduates in fellowships with start-up companies across the country. The mission is twofold: to give these recent grads a chance to learn from other entrepreneurs, making them better equipped to start their own businesses, and to provide companies in struggling cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh with talented employees who traditionally gravitate toward larger cities.
Yang sat down with NationSwell to explain how VFA can play a big part in boosting the American economy.