Welcoming back African-American men with a record

Ujamaa executive director Otis Zanders, right, with Roy Mccaleb, a 33-year-old St. Paul native who gets help with housing, education and job searches from the non-profit group. MPR photo/Dan Olson

I asked Otis Zanders the other day about the war on poverty, and he said we never did finish fighting it. Zanders, the executive director of St. Paul-based Ujamaa Place, works with young African-American men who have a criminal record. Poverty is a theme running through the lives of many of the men.

Zanders has 35 years of experience as a Minnesota Department of Corrections official,  so he knows something about the causes and costs of incarceration. He retired a couple of years ago and quickly took on the leadership post at Ujamaa (pronounced you JAH mah – Swahili for unity).

You can hear more from Otis Zanders today (Thursday) in a new episode of Minnesota Sounds and Voices during All Things Considered.

The war on drugs begun by President Nixon and Congress in the early 1970s was part of a broader war on crime. Zanders says people were angry with law breakers and the reaction was to expand laws and lengthen sentences with little regard as to the consequences.

One consequence is a large population of people, disproportionately African-American men, coming out of prisons and trying to find a way back into society.  Ujamaa gives the young men on-call help and coaching 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Zanders says so far, Ujamaa Place has worked with more than 200 young men. Only one is back in prison.