EnRich Program Brings a Trauma-Sensitive Lens to Entrepreneurship Education
Location: Decatur, Illinois
Enrollment in 2019 (credit and non-credit): 5,435
Part-time students: 73%
Continuing education students: 36%
Number of EnRich training program participants since 2018: 1,500
In central Illinois’ Macon County, the unemployment rate for African Americans sticks stubbornly at around three times higher than the rate for white residents. Recognizing that the reasons for this extended beyond the sheer number of unemployed, Richland Community College in Decatur applied for workforce training funding to address both skills gaps and employability skills. In 2018, it was able to expand its training services to include a new program called EnRich.
The EnRich program offers 400 hours of training over ten intense weeks. Participants are paid an hourly stipend and receive education in technical and essential skills within a trauma-sensitive practice. In addition, the program builds a bridge from employers to the people who face barriers to employment. For example, those with criminal records, limited education, or other factors.
One of EnRich’s unique features is the Minority Mentor Protégé Program, which seeks to assist and support low-income and minority adults who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. The program’s former director, Dr. Jeremy “JK” Morris—now the college’s Vice President for Finance and Administration—explained that many of the participants have a history of trauma-related experiences that may cause them not to be hired or to be fired.
“From that trauma lens and the lens of helping our participants be more resilient, we have to ask the question, ‘What happened to you?’” Jeremy Morris said. By helping people understand how those events impacted them, they can work on the triggers hindering them from getting and keeping jobs and embarking on successful self-employment.
Richland Community College and its community partners offer many resources for assisting people in overcoming challenges and moving forward with their careers. First, they need to be identified through programs like EnRich and be open to receiving those resources.
Jeremy Morris and his wife, Dr. Juanita Morris, were both working for Richland Community College when they learned of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative and its Ice House programs centered on instilling an entrepreneurial mindset.
Richland had written entrepreneurship into a state workforce equity initiative grant. It needed a curriculum for a noncredit course outside of the traditional academic path. The Morrises had taught entrepreneurship from a traditional perspective at other universities. They immediately recognized that the Ice House model would be a better fit for Richland than other approaches.
“Richland felt like a perfect place to offer the Ice House model because of the people it serves,” Jeremy Morris said. “They would benefit greatly from a shift in their mindset and how they see themselves.”
After getting the OK from Richland’s President, Dr. Cristobal Valdez, the Morrises both attended Ice House facilitation training via Zoom in early 2021 and trained their first cohort in the fall. Classes meet once a week for two hours. Registration is free. After the two sessions—which had a total of 29 participants—they decreased class sizes to 10 people maximum. This was to help build a more tight-knit group and to allow for more individual feedback. Rather than advertising the courses, the Morrises relied on word of mouth, asking past participants to spread the word to people they thought would benefit.
SETTING THE STAGE:
Because many of the people who attend have a history of trauma and resilience, the Morrises have chosen a specific style of facilitation that’s sensitive to their audience. “We are intentional about how we show up—as husband and wife, as 2 African-Americans, as very educated and polished,” Juanita Morris explained. They’re also clear about what they want participants to bring. “Our expectation is that participants support one another, listen to one another, and remain connected.”
As the course unfolds, the Morrises share their own stories—Juanita Morris of growing up with parents climbing out of poverty in Decatur, Jeremy Morris about the family of entrepreneurs who shaped his childhood in Mississippi, where the book “Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur” is set. In fact, his family had been acquainted with the main character, Cleve Mormon, as well as co-author, Clifton Taulbert. The couple also shares the journey that led them to move back to Decatur in 2016 and start J. Morris Enterprises, which groups the small businesses they founded.
“We’re definitely unlikely entrepreneurs. We’ve lived these lessons on a day-to-day basis. We’ve taken on these habits. That’s what our participants see when they come to class,” Jeremy Morris said. “They see themselves in us, in what we have gone through as business owners and husband and wife. That helps them become more comfortable in the entrepreneurial space.”
They know that some of their participants are reluctant to be “at school,” even in a non-credit course. This is because of their past experiences in the education system. Jeremy Morris joked that his wife is “the Queen of Uncomfortabilty”—a title that she willingly owns. “We definitely push to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions because the only way we can create a sense of safety and belonging is if folks start to release the walls,” Juanita Morris explained. “And what they come to realize is that no matter how my husband and I show up, we’re just like them. No one would hire me when I came back to town, which is why we started our own businesses.”
The discomfort works because the Morrises have been so intentional about how they show up as facilitators. “If you have a certain anxiety about coming back to class, it looks different when you show up, and there’s a black man teaching it,” she said. “The community we’ve built creates openness to vulnerability.”
By July of 2022, 53 participants had completed the program. Juanita Morris said it’s remarkable to see how much their mindsets shifted within only 10 hours of class. “If someone had told me you could take a 5-week, 2-hour-a-week class, and change your life, I would have said that was b.s.,” she laughed. “But it happens through a sense of belonging and community. That’s what we’re building.”
Jeremy Morris agreed. “The participants in our Ice House sessions have been absolutely amazing,” he said. “They really get a sense of themselves and how they can move forward with whatever direction they choose. They have more independence and a better understanding of where they are and how they can proceed than they would in a traditional course.”
During the summer of 2022, Juanita Morris’ contract with the college ended. Jeremy Morris decided to focus fully on his new leadership role. That means a new facilitator will take over the Ice House course. The Morrises said they would be supportive but also give them space to continue to shape the program.
But they’re staying connected to past cohorts, who continue to actively share ideas and encourage each other. Some have asked to come back together for a deeper study of the book, which Juanita Morris will lead informally. They are also always willing to connect alumni with resources at Richland Community College and in the community “because when you shift a mindset and then send the person back into their regular environment, it is difficult to navigate both,” Juanita Morris said. “You need support.”
And they’ll continue to interject the entrepreneurial mindset throughout the Decatur community. They’ll make a point of frequenting and promoting the small businesses the Ice House alum launch. “The pandemic has taught us to be fluid in our activities and what we’re passionate about,” Jeremy Morris said.