During the 1999 mayoral campaign, the incumbent, Willie W. Herenton, encountered many ex-felons in the City of Memphis who were unable to get a job. Because of their prison record, many employers were unwilling to take a chance on hiring them. The difficulty of finding and securing a job was a major challenge for these citizens who petitioned the mayor to address their need for an opportunity to be a productive citizen.
The notion of assisting ex-felons with training, jobs, and opportunity, however, was not a well-received issue. The plea for help, however, resonated with this Mayor, a product of South Memphis; a man who had experienced the hardship and knew the value of having an opportunity extended. This was no typical Mayor; this was Mayor Willie W. Herenton, who believed that all citizens in this community deserved an opportunity to be gainfully employed. Mayor Herenton began to look for ways to accomplish this major task.
In February 2000, Mayor Herenton asked Human Resources Director if the City of Memphis had a policy to that prohibited the hiring of ex-felons. His first goal was to ensure that the City of Memphis did not exclude ex-felons from consideration solely based on a previous conviction. Mayor Herenton firmly believed that in order to convince employers to hire ex-felons, the City of Memphis had to take the lead. The following weeks entailed a wealth of research on the number of ex-felons that were released from penal institutions, their status upon release, and the rate of recidivism.
In March 2000, Mayor Herenton presented the concept of an ex-felon program to attendees of the Kennedy Democratic Organization. As word spread about the Mayor's new initiative, Mayor Herenton received several letters and phone calls from individuals interested in the program. The media fan stories on the promises and potential challenges of such a program. Likewise city leaders expressed support and/or concerns about the program. In July 2000, Mayor Herenton distributed a position a position paper, which highlighted the tremendous need for such a program. The position paper features an article on President Clinton's Executive Order, which also attempted to assist ex-felons.
In addition to distributing the packet of information, the Mayor shared several letters that he had received. The letters were from a variety of citizens, judges, ex-felons, family members of ex-felons, local leaders, etc., who knew directly or indirectly the value that a program for ex-felons could have for the Memphis community. One of the letters was submitted by Yalanda McFadgon, a former member of the Mayor's security detail and an ex-felon. Yalanda's letter spoke passionately about her personal dilemma of trying to re-enter the workforce and explained how her quest to become gainfully employed was a challenge that she and many others faced with enormous difficulty.
In November 2000, the Second Chance program was birthed. McFadgon was assigned as the coordinator of the program. With no benchmarks to follow, she was charged with the daunting task of developing and implementing a quality, successful program. Her hard work resulted in the program's design and procedures.
In December 2000, the Mayor held a press conference to officially introduce the Second Chance program to the City of Memphis. The Second Chance program would provide job training and professional development skills to individuals with only one felony conviction. Further, the program would link its participants with job opportunities around the City of Memphis. The initial partners of the program included: MS Carriers, Memphis, Light, Gas and Water, the City of Memphis, Memphis Housing Authority, and the Memphis Area Transit Authority. The mere nature of the program, however, caused public skepticism and scrutiny.
Several local news media outlets expressed doubts about the program and its ability to work. The Mayor and his administration spent well several months defending the merit of the Second Chance Program as well as the Mayor's decision to place McFadgon at the helm of the program. News coverage, although informative, cast the participants in a negative light and continually focused on McFadgon. Notwithstanding, her leadership and proven passion for the program ensured that the goals and objectives of the program were always met. She offered practical applications and real life experience to the program. She spoke honestly about her conviction and inspired others to use the Second Chance program as a conduit for progress.
The Mayor moved forward with his vision and announced that the first application process would begin on January 2, 2001. January 2001 was bitterly cold and snowy. Despite the inclement weather, more than 1,000 citizens of Memphis and Shelby County braved the conditions to apply for the program. In May 2002, Second Chance graduated its first class. The ceremony, which honored 26 graduates symbolized that persistence can be a road map to a "Second Chance". Seven years later, the Second Chance Program is credited with serving over 3,200 citizens and the number of participating employers had grown from five to over one hundred.