WREG uncovers issues with Memphis mayor’s Manhood University re-entry program

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This story has been updated with new information from Mayor Jim Strickland.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WREG has uncovered Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s trademark program Manhood University may not be working as it was intended.

Antonio Johnson said he’s been trying to get another job for years, but no one will hire him.

Records show in 2013, Johnson broke into a vacant apartment.

Eventually, police caught up with him and charged him with aggravated burglary.

“It was burglary of a building no one was in," he said. “I do regret my situation and decision I made to put myself there, but I am trying every day to better myself.”

On a weekday inside Antonio Johnson's rented Whitehaven home, you can find him tending to several small puppies. He feeds them, holds them and trains them at around 6 weeks old.

“I’m a breeder, and I also grow vegetables as well," Johnson said.

He does it to provide for his family, including his fiance and three kids. But it's not enough.

“If you don’t have enough money to do what you need to do, it does affect the way you live,” he said.

He’s now desperate; he wants an honest job but feels like employers won’t give him the chance.

That’s why he took a leap of faith last year and signed up for a program provided by the city called Manhood University.

“In 2016, when the mayor took office, we realized there were individuals who needed help that had made mistakes in life," said Manhood University director and special assistant to the mayor Ken Moody.

Moody has been with the program since it started in 2016.

WREG visited a class of students learning financial tips on a Thursday morning. They're skills the mayor hopes will take these men past the things that hold them back.

“You go through our program, and when you're done with us, we’re gonna make you more marketable," Moody said.

“They were going over resumes, facts of how to fill out your application, how to speak, how to dress," Johnson said. “I was hopeful.”

For six weeks, he attended two-hour sessions every Saturday. At the end, they have a graduation ceremony where they pose with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Johnson completed it last summer.

He thought his job prospects would improve, but he's been disappointed.

“I been looking for a job, been going from place to place, job to job, trying to seek employment," he said. "When they’d call for the interview, I’d also remind them I’ve done this class, changed my life. It just didn’t seem like it mattered."

“This is tough work. Let’s face it," Moody said.

WREG asked how many businesses the city has on board to hire graduates from the program. Moody said only four or five employers, including the city of Memphis, have agreed to participate.

He said it’s simply not enough, when you consider more than 400 people have graduated from Manhood University since 2016.

WREG filed an open records request to find out how much money the city is spending on this program.

The city budgeted $347,358 for the program in the most recent fiscal year, which it referred to as "second chance" in budget paperwork. It only made up a small part of the city's $685 million general fund.

Payroll made up the biggest chunk of the Manhood University budget. In 2019, five staff members' salaries combined to a total of $166,000.

But that part of the budget did not include Moody’s salary, which records show totaled $116,000 last year alone.

“There is plenty of room for improvement," Moody said.

But the city can’t help these men on its own.

“I’ve met with MATA. I’m meeting with the Chamber. I’m personally, myself, meeting with businesses to try to get them to do better,” Moody said. “This is an opportunity for businesses to step up.”

“I don’t think they’re doing enough," Johnson said.

Instead, he suggested instituting Manhood University job fairs and more frequent emails with employment opportunities for graduates.

In fact, he said the first email he got from the program about a job opportunity was six months after he finished. It talked about the mayor’s new public service job corps with part-time job opportunities.

He’s interested but shoots it straight, saying this problem directly relates to crime.

Working with his dogs and thinking about his kids keeps him from repeating the cycle.

“It’s a headache, and I feel like you shouldn’t back a man into a corner like that," Johnson said. "It’s bad. It forces him to do something he doesn’t want to do."

After WREG brought Johnson's story to city officials, they contacted him directly and met with him downtown. They said they offered Johnson some help with child support and other forms in the past, but he never followed through.

They shared in Johnson's frustrations and thanked him for speaking up.


Update

WREG asked the mayor's office how many people have gotten jobs as a result of Manhood University. They said they couldn't answer because they don't have any way to track that.

However, in a weekly newsletter email put out by Strickland after the story aired, he shared the following information:

"In 2019, 364 men enrolled in our Manhood program with 303 graduating and 131 placed in jobs. For our [female reentry] program, we had 80 participants enrolled, 76 graduated, and 11 placed in jobs."

He also added the following comments:

"In addition to job placements, we completed 161 expungements in 2019 and have done another 117 so far this year.

Now, just to reiterate, both programs are unfortunately not a guarantee for a job. They were both designed to help make graduates more marketable as we’re working to help find them steady employment. This is part of the reason that lead to the creation of our Public Service Corps, which will give these graduates a part-time job and an education in a technical trade to prepare them for a good paying career. We saw that even though they had gone through our programs to learn soft skills for employment, we still need more employers to step up and help in this area."

Strickland asked business owners who wanted to participate in the Manhood University program by giving job seekers a second chance to email mayor@memphistn.gov or call the Office of Community Affairs at 901-636-6507.

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