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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Starting All Over At Age 46

Andrew Khouri |
June 2, 2010 | 7:25 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

David Stokes says the Emerging Leaders Academy has changed his mindset
and allowed him to take control of his life. (Andrew Khouri)
David Stokes wants to introduce his love of pastrami to the South, or change people's lives through teaching. Or maybe he'll work on an oil rig. Whatever he ends up doing, he's intent on turning his life around.  
The 46-year-old Stokes is open about having served time in prison, and smoking primo - a mixture of crack and weed - off and on since 1990. According to Louisiana court documents, he pleaded guilty to rape in May 2004 and was sentenced to a year in prison with credit for time served. He maintains the incident was consensual, and that he pleaded guilty to receive a lighter sentence for himself and to allow his then-girlfriend, who was also charged with rape, to serve no time. Stokes said at the time he and his girlfriend, whom he later married then divorced, took part in swinging.
The woman was found not guilty of rape in 2004, and released, according to court documents.
The die-hard New Orleans Saints fan came to Los Angeles in 2005, where he has held several jobs, including work at a refinery. Employment became increasingly scattered as the decade progressed, and he went on unemployment - dealt a dose of reality that ex-cons throughout the country face as they seek to re-enter the workforce. "Sometimes it's not even an interview," Stokes said. "It's a conversation until we get to that one question: 'Have you ever been convicted?'"
Today, the New Orleans native says he is sober and ready to begin anew. Last summer, Stokes walked into a building across the street from where he picked up his unemployment check.
"I looked over here, and saw the Urban League and wondered, 'I wonder if they are still helping people find jobs.'"
Workers at the Los Angeles Urban League's Milken Family Literacy and Youth Training Center persuaded Stokes to enroll in a class he says changed his life.
"Thanks to these guys for taking me under their wing, seeing something in me enough to say: 'I'll help you, I'll encourage you,'" said Stokes. "Without that, man, I don't know where I'd be."
Taught by individuals from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, both active and retired, the Emerging Leaders Academy aims to change ex-cons' and paroles' outlook on life.
"There is a self-fulfilling prophecy: 'I say my life sucks or I'm going to end up going back to jail' and you get exactly what you asked for," said L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Clyde Terry, who teaches in the roughly 9-week course.
Los Angeles County had just over 27,000 active paroles as of May 12, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's website. 
The class is a partnership between the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Urban League's [email protected] Initiative. The Urban League provides a classroom and helps recruit students. Sheriff's deputies teach on their own time - free of charge. Units taught in Terry's segment include "The self-fulfilling prophecy and its effect on success," "increase your worth for greater rewards," and "taking accountability for a better you."
"The whole thing is really to get these guys to be committed to something because they've never really been committed to anything in their lives," said Terry, "Once they do that we try to get them employment."
A portion of the course is dedicated to just that and is taught by Valerie D.W. Rowe, founder of the Professional Leadership Academy. Rowe is contracted by the Urban League. Students are trained in how to conduct an interview and compile a resume. Business executives are also brought in to lead mock interviews. 
Throughout the state, many ex-convicts do not enter the labor force, but end up back behind bars.
Of all paroled felons who were released from prison for the first time in 2006 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 52 percent were back in prison within two years, according to data compiled by the department's adult research branch. In Los Angeles County that number drops to 46 percent for those released for the first time in 2005.
Charles Boyd, safety and housing director for [email protected], said the goal of the class is to reduce that trend.

David Stokes holds up his TWIC card, which will allow him to once again work on
offshore oil rigs. (Andrew Khouri)
Workers at the employment center helped him fill out the application when he first came in, and Stokes says he is currently looking for work.
Stokes recently took a step toward entering the workforce. In April, he received clearance to once again work on oil rigs, where he says he is "comfortable."Stokes' conviction had barred him from obtaining what the government labels a TWIC card, or Transportation Worker Identification Credential, within five years of his release from prison.
In the meantime, Stokes is taking classes at L.A. Trade Tech to obtain his GED and attends Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church in Compton, headed by the Rev.Rafer Owens, who is also an L.A. County sheriff's deputy.
"He was a man who was ready for change," Owens said. "Everything we provide, he jumped in feet first."
When asked about his future goals, a bright smile appears on Stokes' slightly aged face and his speech quickens. 
"I just want to conquer the South with my pastrami," Stokes said as he leaned back with a look of contentment.
After getting a job on an oil rig or boat, he hopes to put enough money away to start his own pastrami business.  
The South, where he grew up, doesn't know about the meat, Stokes said. He hopes to change that.
"I want to start my own flock of pastrami stands," he said. "I don't just want to do Louisiana, I want to do Georgia, I want to do Florida."
Despite plans for the future, Stokes' past is still there.
Recently an argument with his ex-wife, with whom he was attempting to reconcile, escalated.
In March, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor spousal abuse, and spent 17 days in jail, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court and Sheriff's Department records.
"I lost it, I pushed her and I shoved her and you know that was wrong," Stokes said. "But she did the right thing and called the police." 
Stokes' ex-wife declined to comment on any matter related to her ex-husband.
Stokes said the setback "embarrassed" him, and made him feel he let down those who helped bring him up.
Deputy Terry gave Stokes some advice. "I told him there was cleaning up he had to do," Terry said. "Stop putting it out there like it's somebody else's responsibility. It's your responsibility." 
Emerging Leaders was started last year at the request of Sheriff Lee Baca, who attends the graduation ceremonies and presents students with diplomas.
"You are just getting started " Baca told the most recent graduating class in April. "You've been in this class, but now it's time to go out and get as much knowledge as you can."
"He just simply looked at me and said, 'Willie I want you to start me a school for gang members and I want to teach them some skills, and you know what to do,'" said Willie Miller, retired chief of the L.A. County Sheriff's detective division.
To start the program, Miller entered into a partnership with the Urban League and tapped Terry and retired Lt. Gilbert Aguilar from the Sheriff's Department to teach the course. The program is open to ex-cons, paroles and those at risk. The program usually serves about eight students and the third group graduated April 1, with the fourth class currently underway. 
"[Emerging Leaders] doesn't necessarily mean a job. It doesn't necessarily mean great success," said Miller. "It means that when they leave, they have a different viewpoint of who they are and their potential."
As he continues forward, Stokes says he wants to bring what he has learned to others. He plans to take classes that will allow him to one day teach the course that Terry and others taught him. The classes at A Better LA, a non-profit started by former USC football coach Pete Carroll, begin in August, and Terry currently is mentoring him on how to teach the course.
"Going to the Urban League was the best thing that happened to me," Stokes said. "My whole world has changed."
He plans to bring the program first to his church before branching outward.
Said Stokes: "I just want to go change things for people. If people came and helped me, I be damned if I don't go out and help people."

To read our entire package on [email protected], which includes an evaluation of the overall program, its results in revitalizing the neighborhood, interviews with residents and a day in the life of a student, click here. We also include video excerpts of our interview with Urban League CEO Blair Taylor.


 

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