Roots in the News: “Former Inmates Get Clean Start with Soap”

Roots’ social enterprise, Clean360, was featured in the Oakland Tribune!! Many thanks to Tammerlin Drummond and Jane Tyska for providing a window into our work and the impact it can have. Read all about it!

See the full article, video and photo slideshow here.

Drummond: Former inmates get clean start with soap

By Tammerlin Drummond, Oakland Tribune Columnist

Contra Costa Times

When Jessie James King was growing up in West Oakland back in the 1990s, some of his older relatives sold drugs for a living.

Yet they insisted he stay in school and not follow them into the streets.

King stuck to the plan for a while. He graduated from McClymonds High. But after that, the only work he could find was in “dead-end jobs” like warehouse work and seasonal stints at the post office.

“I resorted to something I knew how to do,” he says.

That something was selling drugs, which would ultimately land him in Santa Rita Jail for eight months. With a felony, his job prospects were exponentially worse. King struggled to support himself and his family working sporadic construction jobs. But then in 2014, he was thrown a lifeline. King got accepted into a pilot program called Emancipators that transformed his life.

The program run by Roots Community Health, a nonprofit in East Oakland, has an unusual approach to helping people who have served time get a clean start: It teaches them how to make handcrafted soap. In the process, the participants learn light manufacturing skills that prepare them for factory jobs. They develop a sense of pride in making something with their hands that people need. But even more important, Emancipators brings stability to their lives by helping them tackle the obstacles that often prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting on solid ground.

While participants learn the art of soap making, Roots signs them up for public benefits like food assistance and health insurance, and helps them get their licenses back and deal with back child support.

“I tell them we will give you the full force of this organization but you have to change your behavior,” says Aquil Naji, Roots chief operating officer. “We get these men to stand up and be an asset to our community rather than a drain.”

The process of transformation starts at the appropriately named Clean360 factory that Roots operates at a storefront at 41st and Broadway. Out front, Emancipator participants sell bars of soaps with exotic names like Lovely in Lace, Citrus Exfoliation, Heaven and Lemon Explosions.

Meanwhile in the back, in what looks like a large restaurant kitchen, the six workers mix lye, oils and scents in giant steel pots to make exquisite smelling natural soaps.

They’re all men except for Charnay Bell. On a recent afternoon she was using a blow dryer to shrink cellophane over baskets stuffed with soaps, loofahs and bath salts.

Bell says she was convicted of assault stemming from a fight in college. In 2013, she applied for 150 jobs during a seven-month period.

“This has given me hope for sure,” Bell says. “I’m not a criminal … I made a mistake.”

Emancipators was set up as a social enterprise with the goal that it would ultimately become self-sustaining as the soap-making factory became profitable. The workers earned $13.50 an hour for 40 hours a week. The program was initially subsidized by Alameda County. It allocated $696,000 to the pilot project from late 2013 through the end of December 2015, a pittance compared to the human and social costs of incarceration. But that funding has run out just as Roots officials have begun to aggressively market the soap. They’re setting up partnerships with distributors to handle sales and the products can be purchased online at

The nonprofit is trying to get the county to renew its monetary support and give Roots the opportunity to apply for another grant. In the meantime Supervisor Keith Carson stepped in and gave the nonprofit $50,000. But Roots officials say they’ve had to scale the program back. It’s now a fixed eight-week academy, rather than participants being able to stay until Roots staff felt they were ready to go out into the work world. It’s also only open to people who were incarcerated within the last year. Before, those on CalWorks and General Assistance who didn’t have a criminal record but also find it difficult to get work were also eligible.

King was one of the first men to complete the program. Now, he works as a health navigator at the Roots clinic. He helps others who have just been released from jail get linked up to housing, medical care and other services.

Meanwhile, he’s studying to get his community health worker certificate at City College in San Francisco. King and his longtime partner, who have three children together, plan to marry this year.

“This is like the mother,” he says of the Clean360 factory. “As long as you show up here and do what you’re supposed to do, there’s no telling where you’ll end up.”

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her

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