Forward Community Investments proudly announced the JONAH project as being the recipient of the Game Changer award grant for August. Through its Game Changer program, Forward Community Investments has been awarding $3,000 grants to organizations striving to fight racial disparities in their communities.
JONAH stands for Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope and is based in the Chippewa Valley. They are a grassroots organization made up of faith communities.
JONAH has two primary purposes at the moment. On one hand they work with a group called EXPO (Ex Prisoners Organizting), trying to reform re-entry into the community for ex-prisoners. EXPO is comprised of volunteers who have been incarcerated who saw the challenges faced with men and women trying to integrate back into the community as well as trying to reform crime sentencing.
The other branch of JONAH is the Immigration Task Force. The task force is aimed at helping undocumented people access to attorneys, updates on their paperwork and status as well as building relationships with churches and employers.
Recently, ICE has been stepping up enforcement in the Chippewa Valley. The Eau Claire area is home to a progressive community with lots of farming and menial job opportunities. That makes the area attractive to families who are potentially undocumented and seeking work.
People all over the area have connection to this issue. Folks who do not have legal status are still members of the community. They go to the local churches, work at restaurants, their kids go to school. In most cases, no one would ever know they are any different than anyone else in the area.
The attacks on everyday people by the current presidential administration have led to fear and trepidation in communities around the Chippewa Valley.
“We just had the Mexican consulate here,” says Sandra McKinney, who helps lead JONAH. “We first got them to come here a couple years ago so people would come and get their documentation updated. There were over a hundred people who were either undocumented or their paperwork needed to be upgraded. We didn’t advertise this because there was a lot of fear about putting that out publicly. But we still got 125 people.”
Eau Claire has long been applauded as one of the finest areas to live in. It comes as no surprise that it would be a welcoming area to those seeking lives in keeping with the American dream.
“Eau Claire did a welcoming event last February and within 48 hours we had 500 people show up on a snowy night to support this being a welcoming city,” McKinney continued. “That really gave us a lot of hope for who we are as a city. Eau Claire has a history of that. We did a vigil here after Charlottesville and had over 100 people show up. Eau Claire is very progressive.”
McKinney said that no one was aware of a large population of undocumented people being present until organizations she affiliates with started going into Spanish speaking churches and Mexican businesses.
The other aspect of the JONAH project is helping shape the landscape for formerly incarcerated people. EXPO has worked with the legal system in Wisconsin trying to make sure people coming home from prison have places to go and things to do.
Aside from the monumental racial disparities in incarceration in Wisconsin- some of the worst per capita disparities in the United States- Wisconsin also lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to dealing with individuals about what’s actually going on with them.
“Over 90 percent of it is addiction issues,” McKinney said. “They’ve got some kind of addiction-based crime they’ve been arrested for. Mental illness is a factor as well. If the person has mental illness issues, normally they’re released with no medication if they were taking any. No clothes. It’s hard for people with a felony to even be interviewed for a job.”
Wisconsin has built medium-security prison facilities in Stanley, Redgranite, New Lisbon and Sturtevant since the turn of the century, which have provided small, rural, mostly white towns with infrastructure and employment. But the state has not invested the same money into building an infrastructure for the lives of the people warehoused in those places.
EXPO is watching out for the lives of people not only to make sure they have clean clothes to wear and are clean from addictions, but also trying to provide services to break the cycles of re-incarceration.
“The majority of people in the system focused on punishment in the past,” McKinney said. “There’s a different way we can look at the issues so that we don’t have recidivism. That’s one of the things we’re really trying to look at. It’s a cultural change.”
Like many cities, Eau Claire has been ravaged by meth labs and abuse. The biggest challenge facing people trying to help former inmates recover from addiction is that the staff are so shorthanded. McKinney says that she has been routinely told that many inmates are not allowed entry into the potentially life-altering program because of a lack of staff numbers.
Yet it appears to be a lack of will on the part of the State of Wisconsin to provide similar programming outside of a prison setting and use State funding to staff those programs.
The JONAH project will use the grant money awarded from Forward Community Investments to provide training and resources for their own staff. McKinney said that the Immigration Task Force needs people willing to help and that EXPO will be using grant money to educate its staff about how to best lend a helping hand to formerly incarcerated people.
“We love Eau Claire, we love Wisconsin,” McKinney said. “But there’s some things that can change.”