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who grew up in working-class Sacramento, had served nearly seven years in California correctional facilities for participating in a robbery at the age of 16. His personal saga of downfall and redemption, combined with his business acumen, seemed to embody all that Stokes hoped Isidore could become: a company that made money, promoted sustainability, and created jobs for those who had paid their debt to society and now deserved to reenter it. Together Stokes and Malloy leveraged $450,000 worth of seed money into a start-up that began attracting attention from the moment it opened for business. The pair’s dedication to a much broader definition of “recycling” was summed up by Isidore’s mission statement: “building a world in which our resources—both human and natural—are valued, not wasted.”

If the word “recycling” means anything to Kabira Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation

Three years later—despite setbacks like the fire in May and Malloy’s departure in August—Stokes still believes that the key to Isidore’s competitive advantage is buried within that mission statement. The ethos of creative reuse, she maintains, extends not only to objects but to people. Given the terms of their release agreements, new hires at Isidore have a powerful impetus to remain sober and stable. Given the discrimination they’ve faced, they’re inclined to be self-motivated. In other words, Stokes says, “They’re job-ready.” All they need is an employer who sees the flecks of gold just beneath the cracked shell, someone “who can understand that they’re going to need to go to court, or that they’re going to need to go to their N.A. [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting. We’re that employer.” When Shaye Elliot was offered a job at Isidore in 2013, he

was on the verge of giving up hope. When I ask him why, the 44-yearold native of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, quietly volunteers that he has been in and out of prison since his teens, serving a total of 17 years for various infractions. With a record like that, he says, he figured upon his last release that he’d be lucky to find a job in construction. The recession of 2008 closed off that particular avenue. Still, that didn’t stop Elliot from looking for warehouse work, driving jobs, janitor shifts. What was worse than the pavement pounding, he says, was the silence from potential employers who never bothered

to call him back. To him it suggested that even though he had done his time as far as the state of California was concerned, in the eyes of the business community he was serving a life sentence. Stokes and Malloy gave him a chance. These days, Elliot tells me, he wakes up feeling grateful for the opportunity to come in every morning and de-manufacture electronics—but he’s even more grateful to be judged for what he’s doing right now, not for what he has done in the past. At Isidore, he says, “you’re not looked down on for your history. The people here can handle your history.” Feeling essential rather than marginalized has fostered a new sense of dedication and self-determination that looks and sounds a lot like pride. Eric Grigsby, a slender, athletically built 24-year-old who helped train Elliot, has rotated through nearly every stage of Isidore’s recycling process, from de-manufacturing to repair to online resale. The time he has spent taking things apart and putting them back together again has allowed him to reconnect with his youthful dreams of becoming a carpenter or an architect—dreams that were derailed when Grigsby was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon at the age of 17. “After I got out, I tried everywhere looking for a job,” he says. Like Elliot, Grigsby didn’t receive a single call back. Stokes and Malloy, however, discerned a natural energy and intelligence. Over time Grigsby became one of Isidore’s most trusted and experienced employees, and he now trains others in the company’s day-to-day operations. Accompanying the new job and the new skills is a new sense of self-worth. With a laugh, Grigsby relates how friends and family pester him for free IT advice. (“My Granny calls me 24/7 with questions!”) With his employer’s enthusiastic blessing, he recently announced that he would be leaving Isidore to attend an electronics school that will guarantee him union affiliation upon successful completion. After graduating, he pictures himself moving to Atlanta, buying a house, maybe even a little extra land. Stokes has said many times that her goal is to create jobs that are more than entry-level positions, “to get folks on career ladders so they’re not making minimum wage for the rest of their lives.” Given the rate at which our ever-advancing technology turns last year’s must-have gadget into this year’s e-antique, the stream of e-waste isn’t likely to ebb anytime soon. In fact, all signs indicate that the stream will swell into a torrent. If we’re serious about minimizing this torrent’s negative environmental impact, we’ll need to create e-waste recycling systems like Isidore’s on a macro scale. Stokes isn’t just creating jobs; she’s creating jobs in a genuine growth industry. After the fire and Malloy’s departure, Stokes’s staff had to rally to keep the company alive. Brian Fox, a newer employee who had been in charge of repairs, rose to the challenge of filling Malloy’s shoes and was eventually promoted to warehouse manager. Isidore kept picking up new clients, including the city of Pico-Rivera and—auspiciously— MGM, one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. (It’s a small account at the moment, says Stokes, but there’s plenty of room for growth in the relationship, if all goes well.) “Whether you’re locked up or your business burns down, you have to keep fighting,” says Stokes. By last fall, thanks to that fighting spirit, the renewed dedication of her staff, the loyalty of old clients, and the addition of new ones, Isidore found itself operating once more at its pre-fire performance and productivity levels. If ex-cons and computers deserve second chances, then karma has apparently decreed that Isidore Recycling deserves them too. spring 2014

onearth 3 9

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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