Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The city council has granted the mayor’s wish requiring local hiring for city-contracted projects. Will more jobs really mean less violence?
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is positive that one way to solve the city’s violence program is through jobs. Landrieu’s “Hire NOLA” initiative, which he introduced last month, passed through the city council on October 1. It requires companies or organizations with city contracts over $150,000 to set aside at least half of project-work hours for local residents. A special priority is placed on the homeless, the chronically unemployed, and formerly incarcerated residents—who are set to claim at least 30 percent of those hours under the new local hiring ordinance.
The new policy is largely credited to the grassroots #BlackWorkersMatter-organized campaign orchestrated by the group Stand With Dignity. It’s the latest victory for Stand With Dignity’s parent organization, the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice, which has been pushing for better wages and jobs in the metro region for African Americans and Latino day laborers since Hurricane Katrina. “Hire NOLA” arrives just two months after the city passed a living wage ordinance requiring city contractors to pay workers at least $10.55 hour—a 44 percent pay increase from what workers were typically earning.
According to the New Orleans daily newspaper The Advocate:
The plan is billed as a partial solution to a host of city problems, most notably violent crime. Supporters hope the new requirements for city contractors will ultimately help more local workers reach the middle class instead of turning to criminal activity.
Stand with Dignity’s Divonite Almestica connected the high rate of black unemployment in the city (over half of African-American men there are unemployed) to the city’s reputation for elevated crime when speaking before city council.
This connection between unemployment and violence dovetails with the oft-cited idea that "Nothing stops a bullet like a job"—a notion that Los Angeles Jesuit priest Greg Boyles said “almost feels creepy” in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. Boyles, or “Father G,” as the gang members he works with affectionately call him, was once a champion for the bulletproof-job theory. But after decades of finding employment for gang members through his organization Homeboy Industries, he’s recalibrated his position on this somewhat. Said Boyles in his September 24 interview with HuffPo senior editor Nico Pitney:
“I would always say, a job handles about 80 percent of what needs to get handled. It gives the gang member a reason to get up in the morning and a reason not to gangbang the night before.
But I can see now that, whereas employment and all those things are true, it's kind of superficial. It doesn't get at what this is about. I would find somebody a job, sometimes even a career. But then a monkey wrench would get thrown and something would happen—you know, his lady would leave him or something. Next thing you know, he was back in the neighborhood and then returned to prison. There was the discovery that no healing had happened. He hadn't gained resilience.”
Boyles told Pitney that he’s often brought in to evaluate new programs designed to mitigate urban violence. Those programs, said Boyles, often emphasize labor-skills development or bolstering law enforcement—the latter being what “cough suppression is to the cure of lung cancer.”
According to Boyles, these violence-reduction programs usually are built upon poor diagnoses that focus on crime rather than community health. Said Boyles:
“People need to heal. It's not just services, it's community. A lot of counties and cities, they get into services, and it ends up like the DMV. You know: Now serving number 43. Here's anger management. And here's parenting classes. And here's whatever it is, you know.
The missing link is community. ... These are folks who have endured unspeakable things. And that has everything to do with why they have engaged in serious and violent crime. Everything. … People say, ‘These kids have to measure up, and they don't know enough, they don't have any skills.’ No. They just need to heal from this stuff.”
There’s a lot to heal from in New Orleans—starting (still) with Hurricane Katrina alone. Mayor Landrieu has attempted to build community wraparound services, such as those found in his NOLA4Life program, which got off to a rocky start. There are other issues to iron out in the “Hire NOLA” program to ensure that it actually puts a dent in the black unemployment rate.
The next step is to make sure that those who get these jobs are able to keep them—something that might only be addressed through the kind of deep-tissue healing described by Father G.