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Black men’s employment challenges and health: Researching the potential of Brothers on the J-O-B

Team Represent continues to pursue new and innovative research that explores the lives and experiences of underrepresented Black communities.


Team Represent explored the feasibility of developing Brothers on the J-O-B (BOJ), a structural employment-based HIV prevention intervention for unemployed Black heterosexual men in Washington, DC. Our aim in exploring the BOJ intervention was to increase full-time employment for unemployed Black heterosexual men in DC, including returning citizens (i.e., those with criminal records) by addressing key structural obstacles (i.e.,   incarceration, history lack of education and/or job history) that may increase Black men’s HIV irsk. The George Washington University’s Facilitating Fund (UFF) provided seed funds for the exploratory study.

As an initial step, we conducted extensive research to identify existing employment development programs in the Metropolitan Washington DC area that assist returning citizens in finding jobs (e.g.,  vocational services, supported employment programs, education/certification programs).  We found just a handful of programs; many with long waitlists or that were poorly publicized. We also found that programs were often limited to specific groups such as people with learning disabilities or those who were currently under CSOSA (Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency) supervision. In the case of private companies, we learned that many had policies that prohibited hiring returning citizens, or were reluctant to hire them.  A meeting with Tony Lewis, Jr., CSOSA’s Vocational Development Specialist, was especially informative in terms of documenting the existence of several well-established employment programs for Black men in DC, including returning citizens:  Project Empowerment and CSOSA’s VOTEE (Vocational Opportunities, Training, Educational/Employment Unit).

To solicit input on the intervention’s development and guidance in engaging employers to hire BOJ participants full-time, at a living wage, and with health benefits, we convened an Employment Advisory Board (EAB) of advocates and researchers with experience with returning citizens and unemployment issues in DC. An additional goal of the EAB was to identify potential employers to provide jobs for the intervention.  Despite our persistent efforts however, we were unsuccessful in engaging private employers to join the board.  The EAB perceived that participants in employment programs would likely regard landing a full-time job as their top priority and would show little interest in a health intervention. It also became clear from our EAB discussions that complex issues of job readiness — most significantly, a criminal record, as well as a lack of education and job history — would demand a broader public policy response than the intervention we had proposed.

We also convened a Community Advisory Board (CAB) composed of unemployed Black men in DC, many with criminal records. From them, we learned that all remained unemployed despite having completed numerous DC-based workforce development programs and having earned a variety of certifications. CAB members identified stigma and prejudice against returning citizens as the biggest obstacle to employment. They also noted that employers had little incentive for taking the chance of hiring a returning citizen in a competitive economic climate filled with job seekers without criminal histories.

Based on our findings, we determined that creating an intervention such as BOJ intervention as we had conceptualized it, was not feasible. Our research affirms that legislative and public policy solutions, such as incentivizing employers to hire returning citizens and providing alternatives to direct routes to employment other than those under CSOSA supervision, would more effectively reduce the employment barrier for Black men with criminal records in DC.    We are grateful for UFF’s support of our work and remain open to exploring future research opportunities relevant to Black men’s employment challenges and health, including but not limited to HIV risk. 

What we miss when we talk about depression in unemployed African Americans

Interventions that address the realities of what it means to be Black and job hunting are likely to be the most effective in reducing depression among unemployed African Americans, writes Lisa Bowleg in a blog post for APA’s Public Interest Directorate.


For Tony Lewis, Jr., it’s “DC or Nothing”

CAB member Tony Lewis, Jr. spoke with The Washington Post about his love for DC, advocacy, and mentoring. Lewis, Jr. helps ex-offenders find employment through CSOSA.