Q&A with ‘The Wire’ actor and Refoundry’s Gbenga Akinnagbe
Actor and Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Gbenga Akinnagbe is best known for dynamic and intense roles in mega-shows like “The Wire” (as Chris Partlow) and “The Deuce” (Larry Brown), but his actual calling is off screen, where he provides a voice to the voiceless, fights for justice and offers opportunity.
His lifestyle brand and apparel company, Liberated People provides funding for such organizations as the Trayvon Martin Foundation and Black Women’s Blueprint. And his latest role is as Board President at the Brooklyn-based Refoundry, a nonprofit focused on helping the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter society.
Tell us about Refoundry
What we do is work with people who are impacted by the experience of being incarcerated. We help them to learn life skills and then a craft – whether it’s wood working, metal working, or sewing. The goal isn’t just getting a job but a career, and for those who want to go further, we can show them how to start their own businesses, but it all starts with the basic skills that so many who leave prison are lacking.
And you’re based here in Brooklyn?
Yes, we’re in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with our operations and workshop space. The Navy Yard has been amazing. We also have a small but growing presence in Los Angeles, as well. We hope to continue to grow and to make it a national organization to address this communal problem of how we treat brothers and sisters once they come home.
How did you get involved?
I was asked to join the board years ago, and I hadn’t been really engaged. Last year, when we shut down due to Covid, was a time when there was a lot of change, a lot of shuffling of board members and policies. This is when I did get more involved, and I ended up as the board president. I’m really excited as we’ve been able to bring back our small staff, and we’re building a dynamic new curriculum and starting new partnerships. It’s been amazing.
Who are some of the new partners?
We did a great collaboration around the holidays with the Brooklyn Public Library where we made Refoundry Bears for them to give out. We also made a lot of bears for Children of Promise, a NFP out of Bed-Stuy that provides holiday gifts for children of people who are incarcerated. They usually have tons of gifts donated, but this year, for whatever reason, they were really low, and we just happened to hit them up about donating some bears, so the timing really worked out this holiday season.
Can you tell us more about the curriculum?
Well, it’s being updated now under the guidance of our incredible Program Director, Adam Blackman, but irregardless of the specifics, there are either two or three sections of what could be as much as a 20 week program, each focused on the skills that are part of the mission. Everyone begins with basic life skills, such as computer skills or best interview practices, how to make a resume to get that interview, how to secure a new ID and find housing. Things like that. Then there’s the training in the respective craft, where working with wood or metal or sewing is taught, using repurposed materials. Finally, for those so inclined, we teach entrepreneurial skills to help those who want to start their own businesses. Overall, we are looking to provide the ability for those who have been away for a while to successfully re-assimilate into society and be financially independent as a result.
What makes this project special to you?
I think it’s incumbent upon us as people who have the privilege of being able to think about society’s problems to do something about them. When I say problems, I mean like how we set people up for success or failure. We need to recognize that there are systemic hindrances to groups of people, and that this is a problem that affects us all, whether we realize it or not, and so it’s upon all of us to address. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I grew up in the background that many of these people who went to prison share. So, to me, it’s not a foreign issue. I was in and out of trouble myself. I haven’t been incarcerated, but I do understand what it’s like to be taken away and put into an institution, and then having to come out and figure things out. I was only in a hospital for less than a year, but I still experienced the challenge of getting out and finding my way. Roughly half the people who are released from prison find themselves rearrested within a year. You know, 60% of those released from prison are not employed one year after. So, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and a very strong cycle which is difficult to break.
When will you officially relaunch full operation?
We’re excited to get started. As mentioned, and it’s worth mentioning again, we’ve been able to bring back for a little our staff of three full-time employees. We’ve also been able to re-engage those who provide most of our funding. Shout out to JP Morgan and Wells Fargo for just being there. And we have some great sponsors out on the West Coast as well. We plan to launch our first cohort of 20 men and women some time this spring. Folks are excited about what we plan to do. I’m excited about what we plan to do.
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