RACINE — When greeted by Carl Fields, with his easy smile and gentle demeanor, one might never guess he’d spent 16 years in the Wisconsin prison system.
Today, Fields spends his days working as the program manager of Racine’s Hospitality Center — and he spends his spare time advocating for others with organizations including the Racine Interfaith Coalition, WISDOM (a statewide interfaith group) and EXPO (support/mentor group advocating for prisoners in the system). All of it is work the Racine resident is deeply passionate about.
“I feel like this is what I’m called to do,” said Fields.
He found his calling through hard work, beginning with the decision he made while incarcerated to get his life back on track. He’d been locked up for charges of reckless endangerment, after firing shots at police officers during a stand-off. And the same anger that led him to make that poor choice — anger stemming from his mother’s murder — landed him in “the hole” (segregation), while in jail, for fighting.
“That’s when I had my first epiphany,” said Fields.
While in segregation, Fields said he came to accept that his mother “was gone, no matter what,” and that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“I realized I still had a chance of getting my life back,” he said.
Fields signed up for whatever programs were available to him in prison and, during his time there, served as a program aide for cognitive intervention groups, and in domestic violence and anger management counseling. He also participated in the re-entry program as a tutor and clerk, and became a group facilitator for conflict resolution, life skills and critical thinking workshops. And he kept pushing onward, despite having to deal with serious health issues he developed in prison.
“I knew a lot of people were counting on me to come home and be better,” Fields said. “I also did it for my mother because I knew it was what she’d want me to do.”
Fields’ work inside helped change his thinking and earned him early release. Once outside, he continued his forward push with the help of Racine Vocational Ministry — a faith-based, nonprofit organization that works to empower unemployed and underemployed citizens to become productive, fulfilled members of the community.
“Carl really took advantage of his time in prison to grow, and when he came out he hit the ground, running,” said James Schatzman, RVM executive director.
Through RVM, Fields got an internship with the Racine Interfaith Coalition, which fueled his interest in being a community organizer and led to his involvement in other advocacy organizations. And that work experience led to his position at the Hospitality Center, where his duties include everything from greeting people to coordinating volunteers and donations, and facilitating a couple wellness programs.
“Racine Vocational Ministry was instrumental in plugging me into a lot of things here in the city,” Fields said. “Having the chance to learn how to be a person under my own terms, again, was very powerful.”
Fields exemplifies someone who has committed himself to the positive transformation that is RVM’s mission. He is one of many personal success stories that the nonprofit, based at 214 Seventh St., has helped write in its 15-plus years of existence.
RVM is very close to placing its 4,000th participant in a job or education — a point that Schatzman said has been reached even faster than previous milestones of 2,000 and 3,000 placements. The nonprofit’s track record includes 10 consecutive years of placing more than 200 participants per year in work and school. And one of the keys to its success is its focus on vocation, or calling, rather than employment.
RVM’s programs address the whole person and aim to identify the transformative elements that profoundly change participants’ perceptions of themselves, their families, their peers and their place in the community.
Its five-step program is designed to help participants improve their lives and careers, and the four-day “Solutions for Success” training class teaches interview techniques and addresses hindrances to productivity. RVM also offers one-on-one counseling with a case manager, as well as job-placement and career development support.
The last couple of years have brought some big changes for the organization, which opened its doors in 2002, having grown out of a task force on employment issues formed in 2000. In 2016, RVM faced the challenge of transitioning from having significant federal funding to finding more local donors to support its services. And, by 2017, it had secured enough new funding sources to make the organization more stable than it had been in recent years, Schatzman said.
Still, funding continues to be — as it is with most nonprofits — RVM’s biggest challenge, he said.
“We’ve got a vision for what we want to do, but it takes money.”
With financial assistance received from a couple area churches last year, RVM has also been able to expand its services into Kenosha, Schatzman said. He’s been working with elected officials in Kenosha to develop the program presence there and, so far, Kenosha Vocational Ministry is operating out of an ELCA outreach center, with a part-time office person in place.
Schatzman said he also expects that the arrival of Foxconn in Racine County will bring more employment opportunities for RVM participants — not necessarily with Foxconn, but at small and mid-size companies in the Racine/Kenosha area which may struggle to retain employees with Foxconn’s arrival.
“In the next few years we are going to need all hands on deck,” he said. “I’m feeling very good about the future.”
For more about Racine Vocational Ministry and its work, go to www.rvmracine.org.
Carl Fields, program manager at Racine’s Hospitality Center, is shown in the center’s library. Fields, who spent time in prison, transformed his life with the help of Racine Vocational Ministry, a faith-based nonprofit that is close to placing its 4,000th participant in employment or education.
LEE B. ROBERTS, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in the Racine Journal Times.