Ex-offenders have it M.A.D.E.: Local leaders build returning citizen support

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Leon El-Alamin (left) formed M.A.D.E. Institute to help returning citizens like Malik Watson re-gain life and career skills. Photo: Paul Engstrom
Leon El-Alamin (left) formed M.A.D.E. Institute to help returning citizens like Malik Watson re-gain life and career skills.

He went down in a hail of gunfire.

At 21, Leon Wilson’s life as a flashy drug dealer and partier, who’d just bought champagne from a Saginaw Street market, appeared near its end. He bled from his head and back, wounded by masked men in a drive-by.

Two weeks later Wilson woke from a coma with another chance to choose his fate. The near-death encounter was one factor that nudged him toward the transformation he now encourages for ex-offenders in the M.A.D.E. Institute he established last year. An acronym for Money, Attitude, Direction, Education, the name represents resources offered to community members with criminal histories, and the second chance many of them desire.

Known today as Leon El-Alamin, M.A.D.E.’s founder has walked their path.

“People look at these men and women as if they are nothing, but people don’t realize that’s the field God plays with. He makes something out of nothing.”
– Wantwaz Davis, 5th Ward Councilman

“Drugs, guns, I used to be very involved in the streets,” says El-Alamin, 36.

Raised on Flint’s rough north side streets, he gravitated to gang life. When he separated from partners in the gang El-Alamin says palpable tension developed in the neighborhood.

“We were at war among ourselves over turf,” he recalls.

But, even after rising from a coma and suffering partial hearing loss, he couldn’t resist a familiar pull.

“I still was addicted to the streets,” El-Alamin admits, “addicted to that fame and fast money.”

Paranoid and reckless, now he not only sold drugs, but began using them. It wasn’t until his arrest and 12- to 20-year sentence for trafficking and weapon violations that El-Alamin began taking self-inventory.

“It was a reality check,” he recalls. “I had to man-up and I wasn’t in much of a position to really deal with it. But, by the grace of Allah, he helped me handle it.”

El-Alamin encountered Muslim inmates who mentored him, and he converted to Islam, taking his current surname. Also, like many searching beneath the surface for factors that help explain their own choices and circumstances leading to incarceration, El-Alamin turned to books. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other black historical writings about Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman inspired him.

Money, Attitude, Direction, Education guide ex-offenders like M.A.D.E. Institute founder Leon El-Alamin (left) and program participant Michael Becker. Photo: Paul Engstrom
Money, Attitude, Direction, Education guide ex-offenders like M.A.D.E. Institute founder Leon El-Alamin (left) and program participant Michael Becker.

“As I read each page, I got a better sense of who I am,” recalls El-Alamin.

His reformation was further aided by a renewed bond. His mother, who had been a functional substance addict, left El-Alamin and his sister to be raised much of their lives by their grandmother. Now, El-Alamin says, his mother was alarmed enough by her son’s struggles to become a support source.

Following early release from prison he bumped his head against walls familiar to many returning citizens – employment and educational opportunities were fleeting.

“It was a whole new world for me. I didn’t even know what Facebook was,” he says.

Returning to Flint’s north side, he found houses had “disappeared” and violence had increased.

A Mott Community College Workforce Development program trained El-Alamin in home rehab, and he eventually found work, but was later unemployed for six months. During his personal challenges “old thoughts” occasionally resurfaced, but he says spiritual faith kept him centered.

“As I began to learn my way around the community I had this new spark from Islam.”

When he crossed paths with Timothy Abdul-Matin, a former street rival who’d also begun a new journey, the pair began laying foundations for what ultimately became M.A.D.E., a non-profit that gives entrepreneurship and life skills training to returning citizens.

wantwaz-davis
City of Flint Councilman Wantwaz Davis understands the value of second chances.

Flint has a greater need for programs like the Institute than many realize, says 5th Ward Councilman Wantwaz Davis. Imprisoned as a teenager after killing a man who was reportedly involved in the rape of Davis’ mother, the councilman knows the value of second chances.

“When you’re not being considerate of these men and women coming home, to have something in place for them that helps develop a quality of life, they start thinking irrationally, in terms of survival,” Davis says. “Eventually, after that thinking goes on for so long, it becomes an act.”

Elected one year removed from parole in 2013, after campaigning face-to-face to almost 8,000 voters, Davis says, support for returning citizens is central to his work. The councilman helped bring 380 manufacturing jobs to Flint through auto supplier C3 Venture, arguing ex-offenders could help fill slots. Through his company, Quality Custodial Residential and Commercial Cleaning Services, Davis also hired seven ex-offenders.

Similarly, El-Alamin contracts returning citizens through Abdullah Building Performance Bloc, his maintenance and home renovation company. Partnering with Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, M.A.D.E. recently won its first grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation to launch the “Green Construction” pilot program. Ten returning citizens at significant risk of re-incarceration, according to demographic profiles, will be trained to build projects that create renewable energy.

“Instead of a blue collar economy,” says El-Alamin, “we want to create a green-collar economy in Flint and in the state. What better way to help people who have barriers?”

Leon El-Alamin has high hopes for the future.
Leon El-Alamin has high hopes for the future.

Meanwhile, financial literacy and other skills will be taught through M.A.D.E., located at 4119 Saginaw, not far from where El-Alamin was once left for dead. The proximity is no coincidence, he says.

El-Alamin and Davis offer themselves as proof Flint’s ex-offenders can positively contribute to the community.

“People look at these men and women as if they are nothing, but people don’t realize that’s the field God plays with,” says the councilman. “He makes something out of nothing.”

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