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BOSS Tackles Root Causes of Poverty and Homelessness

Since early 2020, BOSS has been working with Californians for Safety and Justice (pictured here via the "Time Done" campaign). BOSS develops solutions to mass incarceration, community violence and poverty using a social justice lens. Photo credit: BOSS

We spoke with Donald Frazier, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, to learn how this organization is transforming individuals and communities in Alameda County, California. Their mission is to help justice-involved, those experiencing homelessness and those impacted by crime and violence to achieve improved health, economic security and self-sufficiency.

Frazier tell us that BOSS's ultimate goal is to “put ourselves out of business.” When asked how they will do that, he answers, “By helping people to become whole.”

As much as BOSS is a well-oiled machine that equips systems-impacted, justice-involved, unsheltered people and people with disabilities with hard and soft skills they need to achieve self-sufficiency, their higher mission is to empower and heal people. Everything rests on that, says Frazier. They focus on showing people that they are loved, respected, cared for, important and that they belong. Our conversation with Donald Frazier has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There's a term, 'For us by us.' And, 'Nothing about us without us.' And, 'The people closest to the problem are the ones who can solve the problem.' We live by all three.

Donald Frazier

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) is a truly visionary organization. What is your mission and what makes you unique?

Donald Frazier: Our mission is to help homeless, poor and disabled people achieve health and self-sufficiency and to fight against the root causes of poverty and homelessness. We develop solutions to mass homelessness, mass incarceration, and community violence and we're dedicated to the inclusion of people marginalized by addiction, trauma, criminality, incarceration, poverty, racism, sexism, homelessness and violence. We focus on four areas of service: housing security, criminal justice reentry, neighborhood safety, and social justice programs and services.

What makes BOSS unique is that we provide direct services from a strong healing and social justice framework to assist the people we serve to manage their lives and advocate for themselves.

For our unsheltered neighbors, it's Housing First along with the direct services we provide – housing navigation, case management, critical time intervention, rapid rehousing, representative payee, individual placement and supported employment, peer support, along with an array of other supportive services. The social justice component consists of our Social Justice Fellowship, where we train our folks who have been impacted by incarceration, homelessness, and violence to advocate for systemic change for themselves, their families and their communities.

What also makes us unique is our non-traditional hiring processes with an intentional pipeline to hire the people we serve who were formerly homeless, incarcerated, or were former gang members in entry-level positions. We train them in the work and encourage them to complete a formal education track. Lived experience paired with an academic background, coupled with experience on the job is extremely valuable to us, especially at the executive level. I'm a testament to that.

There's a term, “For Us By Us.” And, “Nothing about us without us.” And, “The people closest to the problem are the ones who can solve the problem.” We live by all three.

Donald Frazier discusses the history of poverty and health inequity in Oakland, California. [Read the audio clip transcripts here.]

Can you tell us about your person-centered approach to supporting returning citizens? You mentioned love, belonging, respect and safety.

Donald Frazier: At BOSS, our belief is: We need to put ourselves out of business. And how do we put ourselves out of business? By helping people to become whole.

Let's look at the issue with some broad strokes. They are accused of a crime, they get arrested and most likely remanded in county jail, they agree to a plea deal (94%), they are placed on probation or sent to prison, they’re discharged back into the community. The expectation is to get a job, abide by probation stipulations or conditions of parole and get your life together.

At BOSS, we have contractual deliverables to fulfill. Mainly, to provide training, get them placed in a job, make sure that they're housed, stabilized and connected to prosocial assets in the community. We always fulfill our contract obligations, but we also understand that there is something else going on. We must begin the healing by learning how to manage all that stuff that’s beneath the surface. What kind of adverse childhood experiences are they dealing with? What kind of familial issues are happening or have happened? No one is born destined to be in prison, or to be on drugs, or to be an alcoholic. Something happened.

The first thing that we do is build a trusting relationship with the person. We aim to meet them where they are, on their time. And that may take a while. We want to create an oasis so that when they come through our doors they feel safe, they feel that they belong, they feel respected, and they feel loved. The hope is that, as we're training these values to them, they will learn to extend this to themselves and other people, to their children, to their family, to their neighbors.

We ask questions like: Have you ever experienced love? Let's talk about what that is. Have you ever been respected? Let's unpack that. What does respect mean to you? How do you know when you're being respected? How do you know that you're respecting someone else?

We deconstruct love, we deconstruct respect, we deconstruct the sense of belonging. Have you ever felt that you belonged anywhere? Like even in your own family growing up, did you ever feel that? Let's deconstruct and try to understand what belonging really means.

Safety is a big issue because the neighborhoods that the majority of our folks come from are not safe. They were not safe in their homes. They were not safe when they left their homes. They were not safe in general society. Let's deconstruct that. What does that feel like?

After we deconstruct these issues, we engage in a critical thought process to create and/or recreate social and emotional baseline to establish the necessary building blocks toward understanding and managing those thoughts and feelings.

But, at its core, our program is all about love, respect, and having a sense of safety and belonging. If you have those four things, you have a good foundation.

Your Neighborhood Impact Hubs help formerly incarcerated people navigate a job search, find housing and stabilize. How does this program work?

Donald Frazier: We have a wide array of services available in our installations in three high-need areas in the city. These are historically disinvested neighborhoods of Deep East, West and Downtown Oakland. People are referred to the programs or are identified through outreach and engagement teams. We offer neighborhood safety services, street outreach, violence interruption, mediation, intensive outreach and case management, mentorship and peer support services, job readiness training and employment placement, computer training, transportation assistance, rental assistance, warm hand off services, college enrollment assistance and much more, with a focus on healthy behavior outcomes.

We started offering comprehensive reentry and violence prevention services in 2014, with a grant from the Alameda County Probation Department. We have now leveraged other funding to expand to program and built relationships with more than 100 second-chance employers in Alameda County. We pay up to six months of part time wages for each person assigned to transitional work, which will provide them with immediate income and work experience. For example, we have the Oakland Clean City Community Restoration program for transitional work. We work with a lot of restaurants. Sometimes it's washing dishes, sometimes it's bussing tables, sometimes it's janitorial. Then, we have Amazon, Safeway, Good Eggs and a lot of other employers that hire our folks full-time.

The program is set up to accommodate our folks coming in and advancing at different levels. For example, we had a plumber who made a choice and went to prison. When he got out, he was referred to BOSS and was ready for work immediately, he was in a union. He is what we call job ready. Then, there are folks who have some social, emotional and employment readiness challenges that need to be addressed. They may have never had a job before, have been in and out of jail or prison the majority of their life and are homeless. We metaphorically hug these folks tightly and give them all of these little kernels and nuggets from job readiness and cognitive skills trainings to prepare them for the next level, which is transitional work.

Some of the evidence-based practices we use are, East Baltimore Pipeline Job Readiness Training Curriculum; Thinking for a Change, Motivational Interviewing/Stages of Change; BOSS UP Entrepreneur Readiness; Motivational Interviewing/Stages of Change; Lifespan Development, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Emotional Needs.

But, at its core, our program is all about love, respect, and having a sense of safety and belonging. If you have those four things, you have a good foundation.

Can you tell us about your Social Justice Collective Fellowship? What are your goals for this program?

Donald Frazier: Social Justice Collective Fellowship is a 20-week series of trainings designed to educate, inspire, and train new leaders. Ten fellows are immersed in the history of social justice movements, and specific political education, cultural awareness, restorative justice principles and organizing tactics. The overarching goal is to help them understand why they're in the situation that they're in and to train them to use their voice to create change.

As part of the fellowship, we talk about slavery, black codesJim Crow, the lynchings, the war on drugs, police brutality, and other forms of policy violence and systemic racism that impact their lives, past and present. We’re giving them information so that a light can go off in their mind and they can realize: "Okay, it's not just my fault. I'm born into this situation, and I'm responding to the environment around me, whether it's violence or drugs, or whatever the case may be. And I can choose to do something different.”

Then we teach them to use their voice to speak on behalf of who they are and the conditions they're living in—how they're being forced to live—and to demand for relief in the form of equitable reinvestments to rebuild their lives, their families' lives, and the neighborhood. We need to create communities of opportunity, instead of a liquor store on every other corner, there needs to be a job training program on every corner. We need childcare, grocery stores and clean parks, and corporate responsible financial institutions instead of predatory lenders. And access to health care, mental health, and substance use treatment.

After completing their classes, the fellows go to different city, county and state policy meetings to see how the system works—to see how the sausage is made—and how the policies impact their lives. Our fellows go to the state senate and assembly, board of supervisor’s meetings, and city council meetings. They also attend the community corrections partnership meetings, fiscal and procurement meetings, program and services meetings and the community advisory board.

One of our goals with the fellowship is to create a commission where people with lived experience can have a seat and a voice at the table with decision-making authority, or at the very least a vote. The governmental politics side of it is represented, but we need the people politic at the table, especially those who've been impacted.

The ultimate goal for our fellows and BOSS is to encourage reinvestment in the communities that they live in. They've been stuck in a cycle of generational poverty and the question from them is: “Do my children have to experience the same creation of this structural condition as well? My children's children?”

The goal of BOSS’s advocacy is reinvestment in communities of color, economic mobility and self-sufficiency for future generations.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the criminal justice system, what would that be?

Donald Frazier: One out of a million! Okay, if I could change one thing with the snap of my finger, I would stop sending people to prison for non-serious offenses and put more rehabilitation in the community.

Let me put it this way. When the California Department of Corrections put the “R" in their title, and they went from being the California Department of Corrections to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation we should have stopped sending people to prison. Rehabilitation should start in the community.


What is one of your proudest achievements in the last couple of years?

Donald Frazier: My staff. They are amazing, dedicated and committed 100%. I want to give all of them the respect and accolades, because this is not easy work. The way that we do it—relationship building, a social justice core, intense and relentless case management, peer support, being present—is challenging. We don't have a sterile process where you come in, you take a number, get managed care units of service, and you leave. We're immersed in this work with the understanding that behavioral change is incremental and crisis isn’t a scheduled event.

I salute my staff who are innovators. They are active participants in this innovative and transformative process that create the many, many successes. I see it on a daily basis. It's happening and it's real. And that makes me proud every day.

Learn more about the Economic Security and Dignity portfolio.

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