Sarah McKinney Contributor
It’s no secret that the prison system in America is broken, but the statistics are pretty shocking. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, and 23% of the world’s prison population – that equals roughly 1 in 100 adults that are in prison. The problem is complicated and hits on hotbed issues like gun control, racism, the war on drugs, sentencing laws, overcrowding, privatization of public services, and prison profits supporting politicians and political agendas that keep us all, metaphorically speaking, locked in.
The support services needed for those 95% of prisoners facing re-entry are weak, resulting in high recidivism rates that further exacerbate the problem. This is particularly true in California, where a 2011 report showed that approximately 60% of prisoners returned to prison within three years of their release. Job training is a huge part of what’s needed, and in a struggling economy the cards are stacked against ex-offenders to be competitive with others seeking employment. This is where electronics waste recycling comes into play, and a Los Angeles-based business that packs both a social and environmental punch.
Meet Kabira Stokes, the founder of Isidore Electronics Recycling – a startup that employs people with criminal records to recycle electronic waste in Los Angeles for companies seeking a more responsible way to manage their environmental footprint, and avoid exporting e-waste to developing countries that have poor environmental and workplace safety standards. In the United States, it’s estimated that50-80% of the e-waste collected for recycling is being exported (predominately to Asia). And only 25% of total e-waste is being collected for recycling – most is discarded in landfills or incinerators, releasing dangerous toxins into the land and air. While e-waste represents just two percent of America’s trash in landfills, it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. So how did Isidore Electronics Recycling come to be?
Stokes grew up in Philadelphia and, when asked where her passion for the environment came from, she says matter-of-factly, “I’ve always been concerned.” After sharing a laugh about how fun that makes her sound, she explains how September 11th (and the events following) led her to become a more vocal activist. She was living in Los Angeles at the time, and helped found an organization called The Young Progressive Majority – the aim of which was to get young people involved in local politics, believing that’s where real change can more easily occur. It was during this time that she first met Eric Garcetti, who spoke at one of their events. The two stayed in touch and, after becoming President of LA’s City Council in 2006, he hired her as Field Deputy for the Echo Park and Atwater Village areas of the city. Stokes soon learned that these were not just playgrounds for Hollywood hipsters seeking a less crowded brunch spot.
After months of reading crime reports, it was during a follow-up visit with the mother of a boy killed in a drive-by shooting that she experienced a life-changing aha moment. Unable to simply watch this woman suffer in isolation, Stokes organized the local community to bring her meals for the next three weeks. She knew it wouldn’t ease the pain of losing a son, but it was the first time she recognized her own power, and felt a strong sense of personal responsibility to do what she could to help.
To become an expert on how to make progressive changes at the city-level, she decided to obtain a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Southern California (USC). Around this time a friend of hers made an email introduction to Van Jones – a prominent environmental and civil rights activist who launched Green For All, a national NGO dedicated to “building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” (President Obama later appointment him as Special Council on Green Jobs.) They began a correspondence, and Stokes could see her social and environmental passions coming together.
Through getting involved with Green for All, and her continued friendship and mentorship with Jones, she learned about an Indiana-based organization called RecycleForce that was using e-waste recycling to create jobs for people with criminal records. She booked a flight, and after spending three days observing founder Gregg Keesling in action she knew she wanted to create a similar venture in Los Angeles. And so, in September of 2011, she founded Isidore Electronics Recycling, and continues to be guided by an impressive list of advisors including Rebuild the Dream’s Van Jones, the LA River Revitalization’s Omar Brownson, and GOOD’s Ben Goldhirsh. Her core team has grown to six, with employees sourced from partner organizations such as the Coalition for Responsible Community Development(CRCD), Homeboy Industries, and various sober living and halfway houses.
When asked what her biggest challenge has been so far, she unhesitatingly responds with, “Having our warehouse burn down.” Indeed, In May of 2012 an unfortunate electrical fire burned down the Lincoln Heights warehouse Stokes was renting, forcing her to start back at square one. While many business owners could have chosen to interpret this as a sign that it was time to quit, the event merely strengthened her resolve. Says Stokes, almost surprised by her conviction, “I realized how deeply I care about this.”
Now secure in a new space within the same area of Downtown Los Angeles, business is going well – they’ve recycled approximately 200 tons of e-waste, and have been named one of LA CleanTech Incubator’s portfolio companies. This relationship will help them continue to grow their client list, which is what Stokes says she’s currently focused on. Ideal candidates include any medium-to-large sized company located in Los Angeles that is looking for a more responsible way to manage their e-waste while simultaneously providing jobs to people seeking to break free from the prison system – once and for all.