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Na’am Al-Amin | Founder

In this compelling interview, Na’am Al-amin shares his transformative journey from incarceration to entrepreneurship. After serving three prison terms, Na’am faced significant barriers to employment. Undeterred, he founded Swag Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes ownership and provides employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals. Swag Inc. also offers supportive services such as transportation and food vouchers, and works with employers to change their recruitment practices. Na’am’s story is a powerful testament to resilience, transformation, and the power of second chances. His work is not just about helping individuals, but also about changing systems and perceptions. This interview is a must-read for anyone interested in social justice, entrepreneurship, and the power of personal transformation.

visit them here: swagginc.org

 

What Nonprofit Questions are Answered?

  1. What is Swag Inc. and what does it do?
  2. How does Swag Inc. help formerly incarcerated individuals find employment?
  3. How did Na’am Al-amin’s personal experiences shape the creation of Swag Inc.?
  4. What are some of the challenges Swag Inc. faces in its mission?
  5. How can the community support the work of Swag Inc.?

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Transcript:

(00:00) behind them KC cares is the intersection of the non-profit and profit communities making Kansas City a better place to live work and play this KC cares segment is brought to you by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation www.kauffman.org I’m Ruth Baum Bigus people who have been incarcerated often face an uphill battle when it comes to employment opportunities the Bureau of Justice statistics claims that approximately 60 percent are formerly incarcerated individuals will struggle with unemployment compared to the low

(00:34) unemployment rate of just under four percent for the general population those have experienced incarceration spend 0.8 to 4.2 years without jobs these are daunting odds but they didn’t stop Naim al-amin incarcerated for a number of years Naim left prison and worked to make his future as well as that for others productive naeem started swag Inc it’s a local non-profit focused on promoting ownership for those who have been incarcerated and working to prevent others from going down that path we welcome naeem to KC cares it’s so

(01:11) great to have you good morning Ruth and I’m grateful to be here glad to be with KC cares this morning well I feel like we should really start with your sharing your story and your journey it goes back even to Childhood and I I was a little shocked when I learned that would you share what you you feel comfortable with absolutely and I appreciate you for allowing me to elaborate on my story and the 30-year Journey has been in introducing a new business model in the mass incarceration space and so for me um I like to think of it as

(01:47) environmental when we consider the way that an environment can impact someone’s trajectory or their future and so for me that would come by way of the foster care system um I was born in Junction City Kansas with my nucleus family and I was eventually placed in foster care because of my mother’s dysfunction and uh struggles with alcoholism and in that environment I went from Junction City Kansas to Los Angeles California went from a place where um I was introduced to gangs graffiti drugs um uh militarization of police

(02:23) presidents in the community things that I hadn’t seen before and I was approached by a gang and they asked me to commit a robbery but the way that they approached me Ruth was uh interesting they said to me hey we know you just moved into that [Music] do you know again so you were telling us about you’re in LA and how did you get in introduced into a life of crime right well uh it will come by way of the environment that I would will be uh introduced to and so I went from a place where I enjoyed my nucleus family my

(03:01) sisters my cousin uh we didn’t have any uh uh police sirens or any gunshots in our environment our gang’s presence right I didn’t know anything about that culture but being in Los Angeles California in the late 80s um that was the climate of the day and so I was approached by a gang in my neighborhood they said hey we know you just moved to this uh foster home do you know who your father is I said no I don’t they said well here’s a gun go rob somebody bring us what you get back or you can’t live here and that was my

(03:31) instructions and I was terrified um I bet you were how old were you uh this was 1987 and I was eight years old when this happened oh my gosh yes um but was was perturbing Ruth is the the the my experience in the police station got my interaction with the police I mean they prosecute they process booked me fingerprinted took photographs of me and placed me in a cell with grown men they never directed me to talk to a social worker or a counselor or even ask how I got in this position right and that would be my introduction to the

(04:07) criminal justice system at eight years old and create a trajectory for me um 18 21 and 35 in terms of being incarcerated three times as an adult my head around that and what that experience must have been can you share a little bit of what happened you know with those other times obviously did you go into a juvenile justice system when you were that young right so what happened subsequently absolutely uh to to unpack that further um at nine years old I started drinking um at 10 I seen someone murdered for the

(04:49) first time and by 11 I was running away from the foster care system to escape the sexual and physical abuses that I was experiencing not only by my foster parents but also by the other boys in the group home and so I ran away and I joined one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles California in the rolling 60 Crips as a way to protect myself and have some seamless of family and I would actually be introduced to juvenile hall at 13 that’s where I actually turned 13 in juvenile hall and so it’s been a progression of of of me having birthdays

(05:24) uh in incarcerated setting and returning to the community pressing the start over button right and so um that’s what this this journey has been like for me and the things that I had to overcome in developing a 10-rung ladder if you will to to illustrate my social upper mobility and so for me my 10 runs would be dysfunction trauma poverty systemic racism foster care gang nice prison also disenfranchisement and then moving on to ownership it’s on that 10th rung through the vehicle of social entrepreneurship creating a nonprofit

(06:00) they’re introducing new business model in the master conservation space to elevate people who have been impacted like I have okay I feel there’s a jump in there somewhere though that we missed so you’ve gone through the system you’ve in terms of foster care and then joining a gang and you were in the criminal justice system when did you come out and what was that like for you right um so I came out of different uh uh timelines in in in my um adulthood right and so I went in at 18 in 1997 um right after graduating high school

(06:38) and I went for kidnapping and it was a situation in which I didn’t commit that crime but I said I did in order to protect someone because I was under that mindset right of that that um that gang bang mindset and so um that’s what my loyalties lied and I hadn’t got my prison Stripes yet right and that’s a that’s a that’s a um that is a rise of Passage however counterintuitive it may sound for us that are in that culture right um being able to have your prison Stripes is equivalent to you know being

(07:11) a king and so that’s what I was striving for and I was able to get that um and so nevertheless um I didn’t commit the crime and so that’s the disenfranchisement the prosecutor and the defendant they read a statement that said I didn’t have anything to do with it and the person I did that they let go and the judge was upset about that he gave me 10 years and he suspended eight and a half for that so um I received um a year and a half in prison I did at that time and I came back out to the community and I

(07:40) went right back to what I was doing which was gang Banking and selling drugs because again my mindset hasn’t elevated yet um and I was still stuck in that um uh idea that this is all I had because this is all that my environment communicated to me right I think the perceived instability Theory speaks to that you know your environment either supports your upper social Mobility or it confirms that you know there is no upper social Mobility for you right and so um that’s where I was at in my life at that time

(08:12) um progressing on to 21 when I went to prison a second time um in the interim of that uh I experienced a lot of loss Ruth uh in terms of that gangbang culture um losing a lot of friends being shot myself um and just um being in danger and I decided at that time that I didn’t want to be a part of that lifestyle anymore um however I still see for me I grew up in a drug trade right that’s the other um byproduct of joining the gang right there’s different routes you can take right you can uh be a killer you can be

(08:49) a drug dealer you can be someone that stays in the hood and and is there for target practice as we say um or you could just be there uh doing nothing and so for me it was about getting money right that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did and I came up through those predictions of first developing a relationship to have the product which wasn’t easy to do in the early 90s um and then having a corner to fail that on moving on to a drug house and then moving on to being able to go to be uh to have Commerce in terms of trans

(09:23) transient in and out of state right and so that’s the gradation that I came up through and that’s what I did and that’s what I brought with me at 21 even though I was done with that lifestyle of perpetuating violence um and I was arrested fairly quickly for possession of marijuana with intent to sell back in 2001 and so even though I had 21 Grams um I was sent to prison I received a four-year prison sentence and I served three and a half and really during that time is where I started to really do self-introspection

(09:57) about what I was responsible for in my life the different things that I had been through and what I wanted to go moving forward and I decided um at that time when I was stuck between a choice between life and death I chose Freedom through education and so I said when I get out of prison I’m gonna go to Kansas State University and I’m gonna be able to start a career after I earned a degree and subsequently I would earn three degrees from Kansas State University to Bachelor’s of science one in sociology criminology and as in

(10:30) Psychology that transferred actually from cloud Community College and so um I had a wonderful time at Kansas State University I mean it you know I went from I went I went from someone that um that that only seen white people that were in the positions of power in terms of police and then also uh teachers at the grade school level where I didn’t have favorable outcomes with them right and I was in an environment that that was populated by black people that looked like me so I had no other interactions with anybody right right

(11:04) other than the people close in my environment within those in Authority right and so I was missing out on life as well um and so but Kansas State University had an opportunity to join the student government Association um connect with a lifelong friend as it would turn out in Adam tank um I I became president of the criminology Club I tried out for the K-State football team uh you know that was awesome wow all right uh under Prince and Snyder so um it was just an amazing experience where I got to culturize and cultivate

(11:39) myself and meet a lot of people and and uh uh really learn that the business of life through uh through Academia and so um how marvelous that experience was Ruth all the good things come to an end and I graduated in 2010 um and I hit the the the the the market hard with my my degrees and I went zero for 200 over a three-year period no employer would hire me they they only referred to to my drug offense that I went to prison for for the for marijuana right and so I was going through a lot of uh uh different emotions in terms of you

(12:18) know the path I’m gonna tell you because remember I’ve made a decision where you know um I’ve decided that that prior life or those prior life experiences was an indulgent time in my life where I took more than I gave and I didn’t want to revisit that and be that person again you know but the the the first rule of nature of self-preservation and you know for me I came up through the drug trade and that was easy to get back into and that’s what I did um and I did that for for a couple years

(12:48) and I remember going back home it’s three years now and um going and I’m like wow I’m doing the same thing um and I don’t want to do it but um I happen to to go uh to the marathon store are you familiar with the marathon store I heard of the marathon brand I am not okay well here’s a a a a a a good story that I like to share with you about um a conversation on Legacy and how it changed my life um but I’m going back home I’m beat up by uh the workforce can’t get no opportunities I’m back

(13:23) selling drugs and I go to buy uh some drugs from home and bring back to Kansas and in in the process I run across one of my uh friends from my neighborhood who was in the process of signing their first major music deal and his name is Nipsey hustle have you heard of nipsy hustle yes okay so that’s nipsy hustle uh and he has the marathon brand but um we both grew up in the same Community from the same neighborhood from the same game and there’s a decade apart in terms of our age group with me being a little older than them and so

(13:56) man I’m excited to talk to him and I’m like yo bro who you going to sign with Rick Ross or some other uh major label and he’s like for me it’s about patience I know the moment that I signed that contract my life changes forever it’s about ownership creating a long-term plan and elevating the status of the people around me that’s what’s important to me which will ultimately become the values of our organization at swagging um but I didn’t understand the language she was saying to me at the time I had

(14:22) never heard this word ownership elevating the people around me being patient in the midst of a multi-billion dollar deal and want to reinvest in your community and and speaking about economics and ownership and business all these things were new to me and and that’s the magnificence of of that 20-minute conversation that we had um because I would carry that and I would work on that business plan incarcerated a third time at 35 with a five-year private sentence for not testifying on a friend that was under investigation and that would be my

(14:57) third time in prison after graduating Kansas State University looking to to start a career uh getting shut out um by the HR department and you know just really struggling to to you know with self-efficacy and and being able to provide for my family and those kind of things and so um but I didn’t let that stop me I reflected on the conversation that I had with Nipsey um and also a conversation that I had with my daughter on the phone who was serving this five-year prison sentence right um my daughter asthma I was calling her

(15:31) uh to check on her and it’s about I’m about two years in at this time two three years in and I say hey baby how you doing today she says Daddy I’m doing good now but I wasn’t good earlier I said why what happened she said well we had donuts with Dad day and my seat was empty but my friends wasn’t I said wow yeah it broke my heart um started tearing up immediately and you know I was torn because you know mass incarceration so it’s really it’s really less about those that are incarcerated

(16:02) and more about what they leave behind family society and economy and in this situation you know you had a judge a prosecutor a public Pretender a a bailiff a clerk right who all knew that I committed no crime to send me to prison for five years right and so um I knew that there was guilt by association but I also knew that I wasn’t given opportunity and so it’s kind of it’s a struggle when you know you’re disenfranchising you’re still trying to to seek ownership right yourself and um so but I was able to

(16:38) materialize that through writing the the um business model for swag Inc you know in terms of so you you wrote it while you were in prison absolutely I was in Lansing Correctional Facility um serving a part of my five-year prison sentence and and again um another story with my daughter that she seems to inspire the best of me um even against my will you know I didn’t want her to come to a maximum security uh prison to see me um you know but it had been a few years and she needed to see her dad and so my mom

(17:10) you know she she um she brought her up to see me and she says to me she says daddy um she says uh you know when she went to when I went when she went to when I went to prison she was four she was about seven now you know she’s missed me at donuts with dad’s day and she’s having conversations I imagine about my absence and what jail means and these kind of things and so she says uh to me you know what did you do to get in here and I said I put the family before the streets and she said nah tell me what you did daddy

(17:42) what’d you do and I said well um I was selling drugs and she said uh well why would you do that and I said well I was having a hard time fighting the job and she said well why wouldn’t you be more patient and I said well I should have consulted with you first consulted with you first right and and so then I remember what Nipsey told me about being patient and about ownership and creating a long-term plan and elevating the status of the people around you and so I was sort of looking at my environment in a different way as

(18:15) a way to uh to be collaborative and I didn’t know if then Ruth but I was using the five principles of design thinking to craft out my business plan in Lansing Correctional Facility uh those principles being empathy Ida prototype Define and test so again empathy Ida prototype defined and test in the empathy piece what we’re doing is looking to solve for the pain points of someone before generating Revenue right and so that’s the idea and that’s what we’re able to do um the Ida part is you know what

(18:51) services do you need and for everybody that I talk to in that environment was if I had employment prior to release right that was the main tenant have an employment prior to release um uh if the Ida prototype never go in never go back and help employers change the way they recruit right connecting employers to that untapped talent in the Department Corrections Define swagging serve witness and give guidance inspiration never ceases and and that’s what we do and tests again never go in never go back and helping employers change the way they

(19:25) recruit and we had a proofing concept um with UPS which was the employer that gave me my first opportunity out of prison um I was hired as a package handler within four months I was promoted to Human Resources I introduced my business plan as I have been transversing through the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Kansas City MO shout out to the ecosystem shout out to Rick Usher we’re doing a fantastic job and the management installed value allowed me to work autonomously co-brand swagging ups and focus my hiring

(19:56) initiatives on return citizens and in a year I was able to increase retention by 70 percent attendance by 50 percent and zero recidivism meaning none of our clients returned back to prison after hiring and this was really phenomenal rule if we had ups HR team in uh and uh the the one of the 44 districts uh probation and parole officers doing a hiring fair right and hiring in real time and and I’m the HR supervisor where they’d be working with and also the community partner uh in the non-profit that is supporting them in the community

(20:30) and the employer and so that’s how we would um Branch off to being able to partner with larger corporations like jaida construction Big Brothers Big Sisters and Global Industries this is an amazing story what resilience you have and what a wise daughter maybe you should hire your daughter you know she seems to be quite the go-getter and and wise Beyond her years I I would like for you to just tell us you know briefly if you can how did you go about them establishing swag here you are you come out you you finally get some employment some

(21:14) stability and then you decide okay I’m gonna do a non-profit and this is what I want to do so how did you make that happen well it really again it really speaks to the entrepreneurial ecosystem um but um also also being a Visionary I didn’t know at the time that I was introducing a model that had never been seen before in terms of pre-entry planning working with people one year prior to release Improvement offering a suite of services and then also one to three years in the community helping them to discharge probation and parole

(21:47) while having partner with employers that will compensate us to recruit for them and leveraging our 501c3 taxes entity uh with donors foundations and um and granting opportunities um and so I didn’t know all this was going on but it would be through education um which is really the vehicle to ownership and I had an opportunity to be in the Aaron Levitt change maker challenge offered by UMKC I participated in determination Incorporated entrepreneurial program for returning citizens three times over uh before our

(22:22) place in the final third time um I was in the first business cohort of porterhouse KC uh developing entrepreneurs and in fact that’s where I met one of my my best my best friends and mentors and Joe Goldberg the voice of the Kansas City Royals uh and that in that cohort um I had an opportunity to be in the Heartland Chambers uh business Encore program and so it was a lot of upskilling and then a lot of presenting um in that in that way but I think the the the opportunity that allowed me to really share my story on scale and work

(23:01) with with employment partners of the work that I do with our clients um in that role as a HR supervisor with ups and so here’s the timeline so I was released from prison March 22nd 2018 after serving five years uh I was released homeless geographically displaced and without any money and so I went through 2018 um I was hired at UPS and I did that up until 2020.

(23:29) so a couple things happened uh Kobe was introduced and the relationship that we had with probation and paroles that allowed us to do those in-person hiring events was no longer there and so I was actually introduced to the Department of Corrections at a state level which was then Kansas City re-entry Center and at that time in 2020 they had no Warden and no re-entry coordinator right and so who’s how who who’s man in the hell that was the first question and and what who’s managing who’s managing the zoo absolutely you got it

(24:06) and so um so we did that and I was able to pitch kcr team on that pre-entry approach for a year and and they accepted that and so I crafted out that model at the same time UPS was transitioned into AI to deliver the HR functions and so I accepted the severance package which allowed me to just transition fully into the role of the founder and fuel of swagging and and that would be the entrance into into really really being a part of a new of a new funding model and I had an opportunity to look at another one of your

(24:45) interviews with Chris Rawson uh United Way and he touched on the trust-based funding right and I thought that was really amazing and and really excited that he really unpacked what that looks like because prior to that model being introduced as a as a social Enterprise what we’re looking at you know empowering people the metrics doesn’t match with a foundation that’s looking to make money right that kind of thing right they’re not equipped for that and so we we went in a lot of um uh conversations that were great but

(25:18) ended up with no funding so uh with the admin of that trust-based funding which is really a collaborative relationship where you know you allow this founder to fund the parts of their business that that they need to be funded and even funding them and so it will for us it will come through the Hadley project KC um have you heard of the Halley project KC roof really oh that’s an amazing well tell us in a nugget because I don’t want us to end the program without you sharing too how the community can help what you’re

(25:50) doing absolutely and so the Halley project KC is a trust based and funding entity and so they support black Founders who focus on social inequities in their Community right it had a three-year funding opportunity that we’re able to be a part of and we’re in our third year of that funding opportunity and so it’s been majoring in us being able to mobilize the idea we’re sharing in terms of promoting ownership for people impacted by mass incarceration um the way that the community can support us um is in sharing that idea right of

(26:25) promoting ownership for people impacted by mass incarceration we’re always looking for volunteers to connect with that’s why I think we have amazing opportunities in the different um parts of the services that we provide for our clients we’re over on Truth at equal-minded Cafe and event center and we have a support group every Sunday from 10 a.m to 11 A.

(26:47) M for people and families impacted by mass incarceration as a way to people from that experience and connect with the community how many lives have you can you say you’ve touched and changed at this point that’s a really great question um and I’ll have to say uh there’s been a fight I’m going into my fifth year and uh you know again I was in human resources at UPS I was also with the Full Employment Council as a career development executive and then being in the role of the founder and CEO of Swag Inc and so I would say up to a thousand

(27:22) at this point um I’ve been I’ve been in decision making roles in in both in all three categories and I’m just looking to help someone you know I don’t have any barriers I’m just looking to help someone well you’re doing it I know you you have a variety of programs you have Mentor opportunities you have um you’re trying to help those who come out get employed it sounds like you’re working within the business Community what would you say is your greatest challenge at this point our greatest challenge has been we’ve

(27:54) been in the Department of Corrections being who they say they are um and so our model was designed to be an incarcerated setting and I intimated you know working with kcrc and helping them develop that model there we went live in April of 2022 and swag Inc is no longer a program and service provider there we were kicked out because we held them accountable um we came from the premise of ownership and also that this is business not charity you know we have a Dei model at swag Inc that that you know we we value

(28:27) and so diversity for swag Inc is developing relationship with employers that allow our clients to transition as stakeholders Equity is creating market value assets that allow our clients to be portable amongst Industries and inclusion is promoting that ownership for people impacted by mass incarceration but also elevating the people in positions the power to do something about it right and so when people Elevate their mindsets reduce their barriers and provide access you gotta be ready to go we can’t be disenfranchising

(28:56) people and and just repeating the same thing that that recidivism model that recipe for recidivity so that’s the biggest challenge um but we’re we’re um working through those challenges daily we’re still being able to connect with people and families and Elevate them that have been impacted we currently have five clients that we’re serving uh we have three go through our first cohort with je Dunn construction for opportunity there we have a client working at big brothers and big sisters and we want to say a tremendous thank

(29:26) you and shout out to Goodwill Industries for providing the Supportive Services that we need in terms of Transportation um vouchers food vouchers also upskilling and um just being a resource for us so we want to say thank you to them as well maim you’re doing incredible work what guts resilience and everything I want to make sure everybody knows go check out the organization at www.swagginc.

(29:58) org thank you so much for your time and and we will love watching you as you continue this journey all right thank you Bruce it’s been a pleasure to be on KC care thank you for joining us for KC cares Kansas City’s non-profit voice were produced by charitable Communications also a non-profit this KC care segment was brought to you by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation www.kauffman.

(30:22) org if you’d like to be a guest on KC cares like Naim or if you’d like to underwrite what we do in the community visit our website kckersonline.org and spread the love you can find us on Facebook and Twitter at KC cares Radio and on Instagram at KC cares online and don’t forget you can catch us on Saturday mornings at 8 A.M at ESPN 1510 a.m and 94.

(30:47) 5 FM thank you for joining us on KC cares