The Karibu program provides culturally specific support for people in the Black community who are involved or at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system and have behavioral health needs. Alonzo Roper is a case manager who has previously been incarcerated in Oregon. He says his clients know that he’s walked in their shoes, and that makes a difference in the connection he makes with them. We talk with him and Tori Hatter-Smith, Karibu program manager at Central City Concern.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. There are more than a million Black men in American prisons and many of whom returned to prison within one to three years of their release. Although Black men are more likely to participate in reentry programs, they continue to struggle with recidivism. A study by Florida Atlantic University found one of the reasons is that those programs usually don’t account for the psychological problems that come from racism.
A new program in Multnomah County hopes to get newly released Black men the help they need to reenter society. It’s called Karibu and it’s the first transitional facility geared specifically for Black men in the state, maybe in the nation. Alonzo Roper Jr. is a case manager with Karibu. Good to have you, Alonzo. And Tori Hatter-Smith is a program manager with Central City Concern. That’s the nonprofit that runs the program too. Good to have you as well. Thanks for being here.
Tori Hatter-Smith: Thank you for having us.
Norcross: What does Karibu mean?
Hatter-Smith: Karibu means “welcome” in Swahili.
Norcross: Why do you call it that?
Hatter-Smith: Because we want to have an organization that welcomes everybody and this is a home environment for them. For when they come through the door. And we want everybody to feel welcome and like they’re at home. So this is a new start for the Black men that are coming through our doors. And a lot of times they don’t have that place to call home. So this gives them the opportunity to say, “Hey, I’m at home now.” And my staff knows, and all of us know, hey, when you come through that door, you’re at home and we want you to feel welcome. Like this is a serenity place for you to be yourself and who you are, your authentic self.
Norcross: Did these men not have an option before Karibu opened?
Hatter-Smith: Some of them do and some of them don’t. Usually our program is a referral-based organization. So everybody that comes through there is usually referred to us from the Mental Health Court diversion program through Multnomah County, and if not through them, through DCJ. So a lot of times, it just depends on what their case is or what their probation may say. If they send them to us, they have an option to say, “Hey, I wanna come there. I wanna start my life over again” and this is just a stepping stone.
Now [there are] two parts to our program. We have our community partners, which is who Alonzo works [with] and he works on our outreach team. And that is our community care team that works in the community. So they also will help guys find other places to stay if they’re not ready for our facility. And the guys are welcome to stay there anywhere from six to nine months. If they choose not to stay there, like I said, we can help them find other resources.
Norcross: What’s it like there? I mean, put me in the space. If I was there, what would I see?
Hatter-Smith: When you come in, you will have that warm welcoming. The first thing they would do is when they come, we have them check in and Alonzo does all of our intake processes and we go through everybody’s things to make sure everybody’s safe when they come in. But walking down the hall, you’re gonna have the suite rooms, you’re gonna have a huge kitchen, you’re gonna have a community room with a big screen TV. A lot of times they go in there and watch movies and everything. And if they go in and watch movies, they know that that’s the place to just relax and be themselves or they can go in there and play games. They have gaming back there as well. I know a lot of people used to play their gaming system, so that’s fine. And also outside of that, they have a place where they could go and just relax and just get away from everyone else. They have that one room where they could go and just relax and just be in their own space.
Norcross: It sounds nice. And I’m sure a lot of transitional projects would say they have the same things. But what is it about Karibu that makes it culturally specific to Black men?
Hatter-Smith: So that there is the key word. It is just for Black men. Our space has the clinical component. So our outreach team has a QMHP, which [stands for] qualified mental health professional. It has a counselor, it has a case manager and a peer support specialist. Now, the rest of our team is peer support specialists and assistant case managers. So everybody that works there is Black and we bring our own authentic selves to our place of environment, to our workforce, and we’re able to do that along with our men and they’re able to sit there and look at and talk to someone that looks like them, someone like Alonzo Roper Jr.
Norcross: What kind of conversations are you having with these men?
Alonzo Roper: Conversations range from just day to day, “How you feeling?” “Hey, my kids…” “Did you know…” like just anything. But for the most part, what we do in the building when I’m there, I see people, I talk to them. “Hey, what’s up with you? How you doing today?” And they’re like, “Oh what’s up, man? It’s good, good to see you here.” I get a super authentic welcoming when I walk into work every day. And when I walk in there, they ask me, “Hey, you got time to play dominos today?” and right now I am the standing champion dominoes. So yeah, we give them the family aspect. There’s men older than me there. So when I walk in they like uncles, but when I’m talking to them, I’m talking to them in the form of, “Hey, yeah, I understand we got to get this work done and do these things. But hey, come on with me.” I bring them all the way into [my] arm. It’s like, hey, it’s a standing hug with my conversation really. So it’s like we’re talking every day. I get to know what their day to day is.
Say a participant has issues with, “Hey, today my cousin went out of town going to college and I feel sad about seeing him leaving the state.” “Hey, look, this is what growth is, man.” I just teach him that this is a growing experience. You need to be more welcome and warm to this. Eventually you’re gonna be leaving Karibu and we’re gonna be sad to see you go, but I guarantee we’re not gonna ask you to stay, so let’s take everything as a growing step. And every brother in the building, that’s what I called them when I talked to them. “Hey, brother, how you doing?” They’re receptive to learning how to get back to who they were before incarceration or before addiction, before a mental health issue. They’re trying to learn how to stabilize themselves and get back to the normality of what society considers normal.
Norcross: Are they more willing to talk to you because of your personal history with the criminal justice system?
Roper: I believe. I share my story with them and let them know like, yes, I’ve done my time. I’ve been on the same side of the desk as you. I’ve been there before I sat here, but at the time when I sat there, I didn’t have help. There were no programs that were designed for the people that looked like me to help me get back to who I am. It was a long journey and I’m happy to be able to give that to somebody now because we didn’t have that here in Oregon. I’ve spent my life here and I couldn’t tell you one program that was really designed to help us other than, “Oh yeah, we can take you on little trips and show you little things.” But they never gave us the understanding of how to grow. And I feel Karibu is giving us that chance and that opportunity to give that to the Black men in our community.
I have community clients that are doing so awesome. It’s just hard to explain because you would see him and say, “Look at that guy right there. He looks like he’s just doing great.” And it’s like if you would have seen him six months ago, and six months ago they knocked on every door, they asked for help and they couldn’t find it. And then I remember when I reached out to a few and they’re like, “I don’t know what to do.” And I’m like, “Get a referral into our program, come to our program. I promise you it’s gonna be a difference.” And all of those people are in their own places now, maintaining the rent, learn and stabilize, [managing] their money. Take care of their kids now and be a great father and a great mother. It’s just awesome. Awesome transitions have been happening and I felt like they were going unseen and I was like they’re going unseen, nobody’s seen it. And last week was like my biggest eye opener. I had so many clients come to our building from the community and they came just to update me. Some of them even are taking the path that I’m in and getting the training and they’re already to a job with Central City Concern and are ready to get back to the community as well. The same way that I did. So this is awesome.
Norcross: Tori, you talked a little bit about this earlier about the nuts and bolts of how men actually get into the program. How does it work if someone has recently been released and they think they want to work with you, how does it happen that they actually get to come to you?
Hatter-Smith: Well, once we receive the referrals, because they have to be referred to us from either their case managers, probation officer or whomever they’re working with at that time, we’re immediately on it. We’re gonna try to contact that person in less than 24 hours. A lot of times, a lot of places they go, they have to wait longer than that. But we immediately try to contact them. Now, if it’s late in the evening, that’s something different. But if it’s during working hours, we’re going to contact that person and the community care team is gonna go out and immediately either see them or set up an appointment for them to come in so they could see the place in real time.
Our team is awesome. So most of our team members have lived experience and they’re able to relate to everything that person is talking about or what they went through. So that’s what makes it so great. But anybody that wants to come in, if they’re working with them in the community, and they can’t come into the building itself to live there, they could still work with them out in the community. They just have to get someone to send it in a referral.
Norcross: There’s nothing like this in the state of Oregon. We know that much but is there any program, any culturally-specific program anywhere that you modeled this approach after?
Hatter-Smith: Not culturally-specific, no. There is another program called the Stabilization Treatment Program at Central City Concern that we’re modeling it after. But that’s just the program model itself. However, that one is not [as] culturally-specific as this one is. And what makes it so different is continuous. Like I said earlier, everybody that works at this program is Black slash African American. No, we are not allowed to hire anyone outside of that because it is set up for us to mimic who we are and give that person that space to be able to be themselves authentically and to understand our culture. Because everybody can speak on our culture the best way that we could speak on it. So there is no other program like it in the city, in the county, in the state or in the country as I am aware of. And I’ve worked in many different states and cities. So, no.
Norcross: Alonzo, I understand a neighbor of yours mentioned this program as possibly a good fit for you and mentioned a job opening there to be a case manager. Why do you think she thought that?
Roper: Well, I lived in an apartment complex with her. And I looked like I might have been just hanging out, standing outside. And like the majority of my day I spent outside just chilling. And I knew it looked negative but I always brought something positive. I bought basketball hoops. I bought games, I took the kids to go play games. There was just so much stuff that I didn’t have [like] this growing up. So I wanted to give it to them. My goal was to keep them away from gangs, keep them away from drugs, keep them away from stealing, whatever that could get them in the criminal justice system or anything. So, I did that and I was real close friends with her husband, so we would talk and stuff. But she looked and she seen, “Hey, this guy goes out his way all the time to make sure these kids have something to do.” She like, “You know what? He’s one of those people I believe can give back to the community.” So she was like, “Hey, it’s an opening over at Karibu.” I’m like, “I never heard of that. What is that?” And she said “Go fill out the application, please.” I did it and I had my interview and it was like something I’ve never seen before.
I sat there interviewing and I’m like, “I’ve never had an interview like this in my life.” And at the end of it, I got to figure out what they do here. And I didn’t know if this was for me. I kept second guessing it every day. Like I don’t think this is for me. Day by day went by and once I’ve really got hands on and got to really meet some of the brothers and start doing the work. It was like a no-brainer for me. Like this is what I think I was made for. Today, tomorrow and the next day this is what I’m made for. I’ve seen a lot of brothers that came through the system that didn’t make it and to see the brothers that’s making it right now through our program is amazing.
Norcross: And Tori, this last question is for you. It’s early now. I mean, you opened in February…
Hatter-Smith: Well, that was when we transitioned to our new building.
Norcross: OK. So you’ve been around for a little while now.
Hatter-Smith: Honestly, we got our first client in November as far as our transition program is concerned.
Norcross: Excellent. So how are you measuring success?
Hatter-Smith: Documentation, a lot of documentation. And just a lot of stories that are being told to us every day and how the outcomes are looking for those individuals. I’m gonna call it like a journal on everybody and an update on how they’re doing. And that’s how we’re knowing what’s going on with each individual that comes through that door.
Norcross: And I’m wondering if there are lessons for other populations that may be dealing with the re-entry problem and how they might be able to help their own communities with culturally-specific help. Do you have lessons for them?
Hatter-Smith: Good question because honestly, we’re learning this process as we go. I would say it’s all about the rapport you establish with that individual, how you’re communicating with that individual. And where is your heart at? Because if you don’t have a heart for this, you can’t do it authentically.
Norcross: It’s so great to talk to you both. Thank you so much.
Hatter-Smith: Thank you.
Norcross: Tori Hatter-Smith is a program manager for Karibu at Central City Concern and Alonzo Roper Jr. is a case manager there.
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