It’s no secret that the U.S. Government’s failed War on Drugs has created generations of felons since its implementation in June of 1971, when then President Richard M. Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.” Since then, the war has focused on minorities, with People of Color being incarcerated many times more often than those in the white population.
Success Centers launched in 1983 by Superior Court Judges, initially to provide education and employment opportunities to youth in San Francisco’s juvenile detention facilities. This effort evolved into helping populations that have been impacted by unjust laws, racial bias, and social inequities, as seen within the War on Drugs. Once released into the general population, this group of citizens often have little resources or skills to start over. Many return to the prison system without assistance to help point them in another direction.
As explained in its Vision statement, “Success Centers’ theory of change recognizes that meaningful change must include the very communities that have been most affected by systemic inequities, without placing the onus of responsibility solely on these communities.”
A Life of Community Service
Liz Jackson-Simpson came to Success Centers as Executive Director in 2010, with more than 32 years of experience in workforce development and juvenile justice experience.
She retired from the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, where she spent 16 years creating job training programs at the Log Cabin Ranch for boys, and then developed re-integration services for young people released from incarceration. After retiring, she then spent five years as the first Executive Director of Program Development for the YMCA—a position created especially for her extensive and unique skill set.
While studying art at San Francisco State University, Jackson-Simpson fell in love with community service work, and began working with the Private Industry Council, now known as the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. She became an expert in workforce development and education programs, eventually co-authoring a Youth Opportunity grant from the Federal Department of Labor, known as YO!, securing $28 million for youth employment programs in the city.
Under Jackson-Simpson’s supervision as Chief Executive Officer, Success Centers’ revenue tripled, taking it from a $450,000 to a $3.5 million dollar operation, doubling staff, bringing in new donors, and the acquisition of a new location.
Two years ago Jackson-Simpson brought in Angela White, a graduate of Oaksterdam University in Oakland, White is a pioneer in cannabis in California in her own right. She helped launch one of the first Medical Marijuana collectives under California’s Proposition 215 in East Palo Alto; then opened a dispensary in San Jose, bringing first-hand knowledge from the industry to Success Centers.
Adding the cannabis industry to its list of job opportunities came after a “sticky wall” activity wherein they posed the question to its young people, “What will you and your friends need over the next five years to be successful?”
“The response was that it was cool we were helping them get jobs in retail, administration, dog walking and restaurant work, but they really wanted “nontraditional” jobs like construction, tech, cannabis, and the arts,” White explained. “Their insights were the key elements to our organizational strategic plan, and as a result, we have training programs in all those fields, including hospitality and health. “
Its Budding Industry Job Shop evolved from this discussion.
“The Job Shop is different from a job fair, because it brings job seekers and employers to an intimate environment to learn about the company where they may be working,” White said. “Employers are looking to hire in all areas, from budtenders to executive assistants, to presidents.”
The outcome was telling, with participants stating they wanted jobs doing things they were interested in, and they wanted to learn from people who looked like them—because trust is an issue.
“The War on Drugs turned out to be a war on people, with the lives of entire families left in ruin,” she said. “Putting their trust and faith in us to help turn things around is a responsibility we don’t’ take lightly.”
A Lineage of Pain, A Lifetime of Knowledge
One story White shares is of a young woman, Reece Benton, who shared the War on Drugs took nearly everyone in her family.
“Her mother died from crack cocaine when she was a teenager, and her mother’s parents died from complications of crack cocaine use, and her father is in prison due to drugs,” she explained. “Although she has lost a lot, she’s built a delivery business, Posh Green Delivery, right here in San Francisco. She’s created her own product brand, and is working to open a dispensary as a sole proprietor. If that isn’t a success story of drive, ambition, tenacity and will, I can’t tell you what is.”
Success Centers’ Equity for Industry Program provides a series of workshops for incubating Equity Applicants. The program element also provides the opportunity for businesses to give back and to be compliant. The program also brings together business owners to share industry and business practices to assist Equity Applicants obtain the business acumen necessary to be successful in the legal marketplace.
“Due to wealth disparities and the exuberant cost of rent, many Equity Applicants are unable to secure a location to open their businesses,” White said. “It costs a minimum of $500,000 to open a cannabis business in town. Many are looking for investors or incubators to work with because they need Capital.”
Another story from the Budding Industry archives is of a young man who everyone thought just wanted to get high.
“In reality, he wished he could have extended the life of his grandmother with edibles and tinctures,” Jackson-Simpson shared. “This young man now studies environmental science at the university level, with dreams of becoming a master grower.”
Those transitioning from an illegal market will have wild skills to share, and though the terminology is changing, White said you can’t beat their edge on knowledge and experience.
“I think livable wages for work like trimming and bucking needs to be revamped in the legal industry,” she concluded. “This is very tedious and time consuming work that not just anyone can do. We want to be more attractive to those coming from the illicit market with years of experience under their belts. People can’t live off minimum wage – especially in the Bay Area, or California in general. We will ask folks who are offering employment, ‘could you live and feed your family on minimum wage?’ The answer is usually no.”
Relating to Weed
On a personal note, both White and Jackson-Simpson have their own stories of cannabis.
“At one point in my life I thought I’d never stop smoking weed,” Jackson-Simpson laughed. “In fact, I wrote my college thesis on the Legalization of Marijuana in 1983! But, while raising my children, with a husband who abstains, I stopped.”
Since taking on this work with the cannabis industry, Jackson-Simpson said she was reintroduced to the plant.
“I’ve discovered CBD products, like Papa & Barkley that I use for aches and pains—and they really help,” she shared.
White, on the other hand, suffered from serious migraines beginning in the 1990s, helped by cannabis.
“Often I would be bedridden, in the dark, with a scarf covering my eyes,” she shared. “I spent many days away from my children in pain, until my doctor—off the record—told me to ‘go buy a dime bag of weed.’ This female plant has all the properties to nurture the mind, body, and spirit—without the negative side-effects from pharmaceuticals.”
White said that during her years of working at a dispensary as a budtender, she heard from patrons from all walks of life, with varying types of health conditions, sharing how this plant worked miracles for them.
“I became fascinated with this female plant, and discovered that I wanted to bloom and uplift the spirits of everyone that crossed my path,” she said. “My relationship with it has changed over the years, and I maintain my ‘one hitter quitter’ regiment on the onset of symptoms since the nineties, and this protocol continues to keep me migraine-free.”
White’s background with Oaksterdam University in Oakland continues with Success Centers, through a partnership.
“We provide scholarships with Oaksterdam University, where participants can attend Cannabusiness and Horticulture seminars,” she said. “We also bring in local industry professionals to conduct workshops. Participants can also visit a cultivation operation at MD Farms and learn first-hand knowledge of what it takes to operate a farm.”
As the cannabis industry expands into one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world, White is confident those who are transitioning into the legal market are up to the challenge.
“We work hard every day to support our community and protect them from the inequities faced by our constituents,” she surmised. “We remain hopeful and demonstrate day after day, that given the right resources and opportunities, our folks have proven to be Captains of the Industry.”