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Unsung Hero: Joseph Project pastor brings hope, ‘dignity of work’ to Wisconsin

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Part 6 of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

Pastor Jerome Smith Sr. is growing accustomed to changing lives. He seems to be the right man for the job.

The pastor of Milwaukee’s Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, has seen first-hand the power of bringing together faith and business communities to deliver opportunity and hope to underprivileged neighborhoods.

His Joseph Project has connected scores of low-income, inner-city African Americans with southeast Wisconsin companies looking for workers to fill empty positions. The initiative provides transportation to those companies and job training to participants.

In early November, the program celebrated the one-year anniversary of its first successful connection.

By the end of November, 32-year-old Kenyetta Williams became the 100th person to find a job through the Joseph Project. The program has added a Milwaukee church and another in Madison.

Ms. Williams was part of the first Madison Joseph project class in October. She moved from the classroom to a job at a large Sheboygan manufacturer.

Mr. Smith said employers eager to fill positions are jumping at the chance to connect with a ready workforce.

“The Joseph Project has done a great job improving the lives of poor people and making them more productive citizens,” Mr. Smith told Wisconsin Watchdog last month.

The program draws its name from Robert L. Woodson Sr.’s book, “The Triumphs of Joseph,” about community-based initiatives. Program churches host week-long classes to teach job-seekers the “soft skills” to land a job, to keep it and to move up the career ladder.

The Joseph Project resonates in communities that have lost patience with politicians and government bureaucrats pushing handouts without hope, in social welfare systems that have left families chained to poverty for generations.

And Mr. Smith is not afraid of confronting power — he stood fast in the face of an assault by Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold, who criticized the program. “It’s not enough to pick people up in a van and send them away a couple hours and have them come back exhausted at the end of the day. That doesn’t make a community,” Mr. Feingold said in a radio interview in October.

Mr. Smith did not engage, although U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who helped launch the project and was running against Mr. Feingold, came to his defense. The Wisconsin Republican, who spent his private life building a plastics manufacturer in Oshkosh, said he saw a glaring disconnect in Wisconsin’s growing economy.

“There are 80,000 to 100,000 jobs going unfilled in Wisconsin, yet you have all these high levels of unemployment here in the inner-city of Milwaukee,” he said in a campaign ad. “The Joseph Project’s goal and mission is to make those connections.

In the same ad, Mr. Smith said the Joseph Project is breaking cycles of poverty.

“Without a good-paying job, you can’t put food on the table, you can’t keep the lights on,” the pastor said.

Wisconsin’s 2014 black unemployment rate was the highest in the nation, at nearly 20 percent. As Mr. Johnson notes, those figures don’t count the residents who have given up hope and stopped looking for work.

Black households’ median annual income in Wisconsin is $26,053, significantly lower than for black families nationwide.

Working-age African-Americans have higher rates of felony convictions, lower rates of graduation, and greater incidents of suspended driver’s licenses due to unpaid tickets — a recipe for rampant joblessness, Mr. Johnson said.

Programs like the Joseph Project can break the chain of joblessness, hopelessness, Mr. Johnson says, and it can do it without further burdening taxpayers.

“This is not a government program,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement earlier this year. “We may not be able to save the entire world or the entire nation, but boy, you certainly can turn one person’s life around.”

Mr. Smith sees the impact every day, one life at a time.

“The folks we work with love the Joseph Project, and I love the fact that it provides hope and opportunity for folks in our community who had been left to believe that all that was available to them was minimum wage, temp jobs, government programs, or crime,” he said.

“This is about giving people the dignity of work — that’s something no political attack can take away,” the pastor added.

Especially in the Christmas season, that makes Pastor Jerome Smith Sr. an Unsung Hero.

Part of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.