These Ex–Gang Members Could Soon Be on Your Roof—and Making $25 an Hour

A solar-panel training program at Homeboy Industries has the full support of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Fr. Greg Boyle addresses a crowd at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles as Mayor Eric Garcetti looks on. (Photo: Homeboy Industries)

Mar 1, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When 30-year-old Los Angeles resident David Andrade was released from prison in 2013, he would never have predicted that just three years later he’d be responsible for ensuring other parolees gain the knowledge and skills needed to compete in a green economy—and earn as much as $25 an hour.

“I would find it unbelievable,” Andrade said on the sidewalk outside Homeboy Industries, an L.A.-based nonprofit that has provided training and support to formerly gang-involved or incarcerated individuals for nearly 30 years. “I came fresh out of prison, and they offered me career training,” said Andrade.

RELATED: Reducing Recidivism May Hinge on Movement to 'Ban the Box'

Without that life-changing opportunity from Homeboy, “I would sell drugs or go back to the street,” Andrade told TakePart. Instead, he works full-time as the assistant program coordinator for the company’s Solar Panel Installation Training and Certification Program. “I graduated at the top of my class. I took over as an assistant and worked my way up to a program coordinator. Now I supervise the studies of 75 students at one time,” said Andrade.

On Tuesday, at Homeboy’s first-ever solar panel celebration held at its Downtown L.A. headquarters, Andrade spoke about the program from the same podium as Mayor Eric Garcetti. The mayor applauded Andrade’s efforts and lauded Homeboy’s role in helping Los Angeles become “the solar capital of America.”

RELATED: After 28 Years, Solar Panels Are Back at the White House

Solar panels across the city are being “installed by the best workers anywhere in America. Many of them who got a second chance, or a third chance, or a fourth chance—we are never going to give up on you,” said Garcetti.

David Andrade speaks to guests at Homeboy Industries. (Photo: Homeboy Industries)

Homeboy started the solar-panel training program, which has educated about 500 individuals since 2008, in partnership with the East Los Angeles Skills Center, an adult facility run by the Los Angeles Unified School District. At the celebration, AT&T presented a check for $100,000 to Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in 1998. Those funds will enable 150 more men and women to be trained in the green technology this year.

“It’s safe to say that there isn’t a nonprofit in the United States of America that trains and prepares for the workforce more formerly gang-involved men and women than this place,” Boyle told the crowd gathered at the celebration.

Boyle told TakePart that in the early days of Homeboy, the demonization of people it works with “was quite wholesale” and based on stereotypes. According to the Sentencing Project, nearly three-fourths of people incarcerated in federal prisons “are serving time for a nonviolent offense and have no history of violence.” Only about 1 percent of people are incarcerated for homicide. Although the movement to “ban the box” has been adopted by more than 100 cities, plenty of job applications still explicitly ask whether a prospective employee has committed a felony, thus limiting his or her employment prospects.

“The solar-panel program really is an indicator of what could happen if people said, ‘Oh OK—these folks are eager, willing, ready, they’ve done their time,’ ” said Boyle. “Why would you want to continue to punish them by isolating them and excluding them even more?”

Mayor Garcetti told the crowd that ensuring people get a second chance is personal to him. His grandfather fled war in Mexico, settled in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood, “and got in trouble, and got arrested,” said Garcetti.

He explained that one day when he was a young man watching television with his grandfather, “this very distinguished man on TV came on.” Garcetti’s grandpa recognized that it was the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley. “I was so impressed that my grandfather knew Tom Bradley. I said, ‘How do you know him, Grandpa? And he said, ‘Well, when I was younger and he was younger, he arrested me,’ ” said Garcetti. “So it was one of my predecessors intervening in the life of a young man who was going in the wrong direction—fatherless, in the criminal justice system, making mistakes.”

Garcetti said that his grandfather turned his life around, volunteered in World War II, and became a citizen. “He was a dreamer before we called people dreamers,” he said, adding that his grandfather raised “my father, who got to go to college, and now his grandson is the mayor, the 42nd mayor of this great city, the biggest city in the biggest state of the union.”

To make sure that grads of the program can contribute to L.A.’s economy, Andrade builds networking relationships with different solar-panel companies across the city. “They know that we produce the best solar-panel installers,” he said.

Because of the graduates’ skill level, companies are willing to give them another chance, but some have rules, such as no visible tattoos. “As long as they can cover them up, they don’t care about criminal histories,” Andrade said. The majority of the program’s grads work full-time and earn about $15 an hour. After a three-month probationary period, they’re eligible for raises, with salaries topping out at about $25 per hour, said Andrade. “They’re making money. A lot of my students actually come back to me and visit me, saying, ‘Hey David, look at my new car.’ It’s so rewarding—it’s a rewarding environment,” he added.

“I didn’t even expect to be doing what I’m doing,” said Andrade, smiling again. “Homeboy gave me that opportunity and changed my life.”