Giving ex-felons a second chance, the corporatization of higher ed, and the religious roots of Cultivate Coffee and Tap House… on episode 31 of the Saturday Six Pack


This last installment of the Saturday Six Pack was really good. And I think I’d say that even if it wasn’t my show. It was interesting and topical, challenging and funny. There was just a lot to like about it. We talked with an inspiring ex-felon, a fiery union organizer, and a local man whose deep religious conviction led him back to Ypsilanti to open an aggressively community-fucsed coffee shop. Among other things, we discussed recidivism, the commercialism of higher education, and sustainable business practices. We talked about ethics and the desire to build things that we can be proud of, things that can make our communities stronger. I don’t know that it’s always the case, but this is the kind of episode that, for me, demonstrates what community radio can be.

Here, for those of you who won’t just scroll down and listen to the whole episode, are just a few of the highlights.

After kicking things off with an awesome new intro song by our recent guest Frank Allison, we jumped right into the thick of things with Paul Hickman and Calvin Evans from Urban Ashes, an Ann Arbor-based producer of hand-made photo frames and custom-made furniture built from urban salvaged wood.

We talked with Hickman [pictured below], the founder of the company, about the path that brought him to Michigan, and the circumstance that led to the launch Urban Ashes. We talked about how, after burning out from years in the fast-paced world of themed-environment construction in Las Vegas, he’d relocated to Berkeley to take a job at EcoTimber, where he learned everything there is to know about the then nascent field of sustainable building materials… an education that would serve him well several years later, when he’d move to Michigan just as the devastation of the Emerald Ash Borer was becoming apparent. And that’s when the idea for Urban Ashes started to take shape, as Hickman began to consider alternate uses for the ash trees that were being cut down and either burned or turned into mulch to deter the spread of the virulent pest. With a considerable amount of work, a network of mills was formed, a product line was developed, and a local urban salvaged wood industry was born. According to Hickman, it occurred to him fairly early on in the process, though, that just doing that wouldn’t be enough. He didn’t want to just build a green manufacturing company around the creative reuse of trees that would otherwise just be destroyed… he wanted to do it with a team of people who needed a second chance in life, like ex-felons.


Urban Ashes picture frames are now available in 220 locations across 42 states, and the company is growing. Currently there are six employees in the company, and they’re preparing to hire four more. They’re also expanding beyond picture frames, into furniture and in-store display units for businesses in the retail and hospitality industries. And they’ve expanded beyond just harvested ask trees, working with all kinds of repurposed wood.

Key to this growth, as noted before, is Urban Ashes’ dedication to hiring from the ex-fellon labor pool. And that’s what much of our conversation during this episode of the Saturday Six Pack centered around. [Presently, three of the company’s six employees are ex-felons.]

Urban Ashes Human Relations and Operations Manager Calvin Evans, who joined the company after serving 24 years in prison, explained in detail what he and Hickman were hoping to build. Not only do they want to expand their own hiring of ex-felons, according to Evans, and construct programs to support them in their successful transition back into life outside of prison, but they want to provide the infrastructure so that other interested companies might participate as well. Both Evans and Hickman paint a picture of a facility were, in the future, companies in a number of different sectors could join together to train and support people reentering the workforce from prison. [They’re already beginning to build this infrastructure at their facility by Ann Arbor’s airport.]


Evans [seen above] says he wants to lead by example and demonstrate to other former prisoners that they, like him, can accomplish anything they set their minds to it.

We talked for over an hour. We talked about the diminishing educational opportunities in prison. We talked about the problems people encounter on the outside, after being released from prison. We talked about the circumstances that led Evans went to prison, and how he made his mind up early on that he wanted to build something upon his release that would help other ex-felons. We talked about how prisoners are taken advantage of by companies who pay them pennies an hour for their work while behind bars. And we discussed the need to provide young people with “a meaningful alternative to selling drugs” and an appreciation for the importance of not just having money in the short term, but creating generational success. We talked about the peer-to-peer mentoring programs Evans set up in prison, and what it’s been like for him going back into Michigan’s prison system now, as a motivational speaker. [Trust me. You should listen.]

[If you would like to listen to episode thirty-one of The Saturday Six Pack, you can either download it from iTunes or scroll the bottom of the page, where you’ll find the Soundcloud file embedded.]

At the 51-minute mark, after saying goodbye to Evans and Hickman, we played a song by our friend our friend Peter Larson. [This week’s contribution was a cover of a song that he’d written for us a few weeks ago, performed by Pete and a friend in Kenya.]

Then, at the 55-mintute mark, we invited in Judith Kullberg from the EMU Faculty Senate and Howard Bunsis from the EMU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to discuss the controversial Eastern Michigan University presidential search, which is being done behind closed doors, without any input whatsoever from the university community. We talked about the concept of “shared governance” in higher education, and how, according to EMU’s own policies, the regents are supposed to actively confer with the broader university community when making decisions like this. In spite of this, however, it would seem that Eastern’s regents have no intention to even bring their finalists onto campus to meet with he university community before making their decision, as has long been the tradition.

As Kullberg makes clear, this isn’t something that’s just happening at EMU. We’re seeing an increasing loss of public control over institutions across America, she says. “The corporate elite,” says Kullberg, “is finding ways to keep the people out of the process.” They’re systematically decreasing transparency and finding new ways to silence dissent. And that, she and Bunsis argue, is essentially what’s happening at EMU. And this isn’t terribly surprising, given the present makeup of the university’s Board of Regents, who are all political appointees. Seven of EMU’s eight current regents were placed in office by Republican governors, and most of them come from the corporate world… “If we look at the kinds of decisions that the regents have been making,” says Xullberg, “they definitely have a view of the university as a large company.”

Bunsis is clear that the faculty union, which he represents, isn’t asking for the power to choose their next president. He knows it’s ultimately the job of the regents to make that decision. According to him, however, he feels as though a better decision would be made if the regents consulted with those who, like him, are closer to the mission of the university, which is teaching students. He doesn’t care, he says, if they bring in a non-academic to be their next president. “All we want is a voice in the process and a seat at the table,” he says… an opportunity meet with the finalists and talk with them about the unique challenges and opportunities that EMU faces.

Again, I’d just encourage you to listen. We talked quite a bit about the search firm contacting the EMU presidential search [Parker Executive Search], the recent scandals they’ve been involved in, and their role in all of this. [Among other thins, Parker Executive Search helped place a corporate executive in the office of president at the University of Iowa, over the warnings of faculty, only to have it come out later that he had falsified several items his resume.]

Here are Kullberg and Bunsis talking with me about the possibility that someone truly horrific, like former Speaker of the House John Boehner, could be named their next president.


Then, at the 1:22-mark, Billy Kangas, the Director of Coffee and Cause at Ypsilanti’s Cultivate Coffee and Tap House, came in to talk about everything from the relationship between Cultivate and Ann Arbor’s Grace Church, to his personal motivations for wanting to create a safe, welcoming space for the people of Ypsilanti, regardless of their religious belief. We talked about the overlapping vocations of bartender, barista and pastor, and how he sees his role within the community. Among other things, we talked about how he and his partner came to start Cultivate, their dedication to fighting hunger, and their promise to pay employees a living wage… So, if you’ve wondered about the backstory of that beautiful little garage-turned-coffeeshop in Depot Town, we’ve got your answers.


Thanks, as always, to AM 1700 for hosting the show, Kate de Fuccio for documenting everything with her camera, and Brian Robb for running the board, making sure the bills paid, and insuring that the toilet paper stays stocked.

If you like this episode, check out our archive of past shows at iTunes. And do please leave a review if you have the time, OK? It’s nice to know that people are listening, and, unless you call in, that’s pretty much the only way we know.

Now, if you haven’t already, please listen for yourself, and experience the magic firsthand.

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  1. Kat
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    You were right when you said that Grace Church has information about Cultivate on their site.

  2. Ted
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Great interview, Mark. Calvin was also good on NPR a few days ago. Here’s the link, if you didn’t hear it.

  3. T. Todd
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I very much liked this episode. In particular, I liked the Urban Ashes segment. Paul and Calvin are doing important work, and I’m happy that they found one another. It’s somewhat off topic, but I wish that you would have followed up when Calvin said that he chose to go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit rather than name the person responsible. That’s something that makes no sense to me.

  4. Meta
    Posted October 30, 2015 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    It looks like UM did a study several years ago on the effectiveness of post-prison jobs programs.

    More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and around 700,000 are released from prison each year. Those who are released face daunting obstacles as they seek to reenter their communities, and rates of recidivism are high. Many experts believe that stable employment is critical to a successful transition from prison to the community.

    The Joyce Foundation’s Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration (TJRD), also funded by the JEHT Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor, is testing employment programs for former prisoners in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, using a rigorous random assignment design. MDRC is leading the evaluation, along with the Urban Institute and the University of Michigan. The project focuses on transitional jobs (TJ) programs that provide temporary subsidized jobs, support services, and job placement help. Transitional jobs are seen as a promising model for former prisoners and for other disadvantaged groups.

    In 2007-2008, more than 1,800 men who had recently been released from prison were assigned, at random, to a transitional jobs program or to a program providing basic job search (JS) assistance but no subsidized jobs. Both groups are being followed using state data on employment and recidivism. Random assignment ensures that if significant differences emerge between the two groups, those differences can be attributed with confidence to the different types of employment services each group received.

    This is the first major report in the TJRD project. It describes how the demonstration was implemented and assesses how the transitional jobs programs affected employment and recidivism during the first year after people entered the project, a period when the recession caused unemployment rates to rise substantially in all four cities. Key findings include:

    The TJRD project generally operated as intended. The TJ programs developed work slots and placed a very high percentage of participants into transitional jobs. About 85 percent of the men who were assigned to the TJ programs worked in a transitional job, reflecting a strong motivation to work. On average, participants worked in the TJs for about four months.

    The TJ group was much more likely to work than the JS group early on, but the difference between groups faded as men left the transitional jobs; overall, the TJ group was no more likely to work in an unsubsidized job than the JS group. The programs provided temporary jobs to many who would not otherwise have worked, but at the end of the first year, only about one-third of the TJ group — about the same proportion as in the JS group — was employed in the formal labor market.

    Overall, the TJ programs had no consistent impacts on recidivism during the first year of follow-up. About one-third of each group was arrested and a similar number returned to prison. Most of the prison admissions were for violations of parole rules, not new crimes. In one site, the transitional jobs group was less likely to be reincarcerated for a parole violation.

    These results point to the need to develop and test enhancements to the transitional jobs model and other strategies to improve outcomes for former prisoners who reenter society. They also raise questions about the assumed connection between employment and recidivism, since there were no decreases in arrests even during the period when the TJ group was much more likely to be employed. This is not the final word on the TJRD project; both groups will be followed up for another year, with two-year results available in 2011.

    Read more:

8 Trackbacks

  1. […] which has held EMU hostage these past several years. And I’m sure, if it was anything like our last discussion, during which we spent a great deal of time discussing the growing trend toward corporatization in […]

  2. […] the end of the video, you’ll notice that he mentions Calvin Evans, who we’ve had on the show before to talk about his work within Ann Arbor’s Urban Ashes […]

  3. […] the end of the video, you’ll notice that he mentions Calvin Evans, who we’ve had on the show before to talk about his work within Ann Arbor’s Urban Ashes […]

  4. […] the end of the video, you’ll here Senghor mention Calvin Evans, who we’ve had on the show before to talk about his work within Ann Arbor’s Urban Ashes […]

  5. […] with those who came after them.] One of the men, however, did keep his word, and that was Calvin Evans, who, as you might recall, was a guest on the Saturday Six Pack before, talking about his work […]

  6. […] with those who came after them.] One of the men, however, did keep his word, and that was Calvin Evans, who, as you might recall, was a guest on the Saturday Six Pack before, talking about his work […]

  7. […] with those who came after them.] One of the men, however, did keep his word, and that was Calvin Evans, who, as you might recall, was a guest on the Saturday Six Pack before, talking about his work […]

  8. […] you haven’t heard the episode of the Saturday Six Pack where I talked with Paul and Urban Ashes Human Relations and Op…, you should really check it out. It’s one thing to imagine what it might be like for someone […]

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