The last couple of times Brenda Peterson had job openings in her court-reporting company, she filled the positions with members of an unlikely pool of candidates: ex-convicts, or more politely put, the formerly incarcerated. It sounds frightening, but when I arrive at the swanky downtown offices of Brenda Peterson Reporting, a young woman with a bright smile calls the office manager who then gives me a tour. Along the way, the office manager introduces me to the production team, the sales team, the calendaring team, and the man in the video room. None of them look like felons.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘In a million years, I would never think you had some kind of a criminal background,’” Beverly Camerino says.
It’s a few minutes after the tour, and we’re sitting in a conference room lit with the natural light from wall-to-wall windows that overlook a huge outdoor terrace. Camerino, the 31-year-old woman who greeted me when I first arrived, sits up straight in her chair and talks about her new life in a strong voice. When I ask questions about her old life, she starts at the six-month drug-treatment program she entered in September 2013. And when I inquire further back than that, the brightness of her face dulls, and she sketches a vague picture of a life of “theft, robbery, and selling drugs.”
That old life wasn’t terribly long ago. She has been with Brenda Peterson Reporting for only seven months. It was the first job she interviewed for after graduating from a one-month job-readiness program, which she began straight out of the drug program. Just over a year ago, Camerino sat in jail looking at a “county year” — an eight-month incarceration in county jail. On the advice of a friend, she requested, and was sentenced to, drug treatment and probation instead.
Prior to her three-month stint (awaiting sentencing) in jail, Camerino hadn’t held a job in six years. Before that, she had worked a few months here and there as a medical assistant in area hospitals. How was it that she landed a $13-an-hour full-time job with benefits (after 90 days), straight out of the gate?
Enter Brenda Peterson. In 2008, Peterson decided she wanted to volunteer somewhere. She went online, puttered around a bit, and then remembered a story she’d seen on 60 Minutes back in the late 1990s. The television show featured a program in Harlem called STRIVE, which offered job-readiness training to the “chronically unemployed.” After following a few links online, she contacted Second Chance, a nonprofit on Imperial Avenue whose job-readiness program is modeled after STRIVE. The administrators at Second Chance invited Peterson to sit in on an orientation for program participants.
“The room was filled with about 80 potential students. It was a little scary,” Peterson confesses over the phone the day before I meet Camerino. “They asked the question, ‘How many of you have ever been convicted of a felony?’ Almost all the hands in the room went up, and I was, like, ‘Holy crap, where’s the exit?’”
Peterson decided to hang around anyway. She, did, however, have a list of volunteer positions she did not want. No answering phones, no paperwork, no fundraising. She wanted to do something that would be helpful and give her direct contact with the people she was serving. When David Benites, the job developer, asked whether she’d like to come in at the program’s end each month to conduct mock interviews, she agreed.
“At that time, I think I’d had my business for over 20 years, so I’d done tons and tons — hundreds, probably — of interviews,” she says. For the past six years, Peterson has gone to Second Chance once a month for three and a half hours to guide the participants through the mock interview process and to critique their performance. The process takes place at the end of the four-week program, after the students have been trained in eye contact, smiling, handshaking, punctuality, and other interview skills. While these skills might seem basic, the 160-hour workforce training program places a strong emphasis on personal accountability, a concept that takes more than handshake practice to instill.
In her 2013 graduation speech, a woman named Gwendolyn C., who had been incarcerated for 32 of her 54 years by the time she joined the program, said, “I thought I had it all together, but going through Second Chance, showed me there were a lot of rules I didn’t know about. Miss Tonya [Rindskopf, her trainer] had to get all up in my face more than once, but finally I surrendered my arrogance and learned to be humble.”
Peterson says her job facilitating the mock interviews is the easy part.
“When I come in, their lives have already been transformed,” she says. “I’m just doing the detail work with them, the nuances.”
In early 2014, Peterson did a mock interview with Beverly Camerino, who recalls the experience with pride.
“Brenda was, like, ‘That has got to be one of the best interviews I’ve done,’” she says. “Based on my appearance, my answers, and I guess my whole demeanor and how I carried myself.”
The following week, when Peterson called Benites to announce a job opening at her firm, she requested that he send Camerino along with any other candidates he thought qualified. So far, Camerino has proven herself to be, in Peterson’s words, “very enthusiastic, intelligent, and as it turns out, very accurate in being able to get down the information that we need.”
Peterson’s employees include 40 independently contracted court reporters and 3 videographers who work out in the field, plus the 16 people who work on production, transcribing, tech, and calendaring in her B Street office. Her clients include law firms, governmental agencies, and corporations. Camerino is often the first contact when someone walks in or calls the office. Besides fielding phone calls, she is also responsible for scheduling the reporters for hearings and depositions.
Peterson never did make a big announcement about the backgrounds of the two employees she hired through Second Chance. She left it up to them to reveal to their coworkers or not. And while she expresses no hesitancy in speaking with me, she does question how her clients will respond to the idea of any of her employees having a less-than-desirable history.