Taj Stokes is putting into practice the quote, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The former pastor of Passion City Church on the Southeast side of Colorado Springs is a keep-it-real, street-level guy who knows people find themselves in unfortunate situations. But he also knows they can overcome them. Through Thrive, the charitable organization he co-founded with six others, he’s helping them do just that. Having recently left his church post, he’s ready to give the 501(c)(3) all his time and attention as its executive director.
With a focus on the Southeast part of Colorado Springs, Stokes, a Charis Bible College graduate, teaches potential entrepreneurs how to become stronger, more financially successful individuals who can one day give back what they’ve learned through the “Thrive Project.”
There’s a reason he focuses on the Southeast: Stokes grew up on the Southside of Chicago and has seen its challenges. Now he wants to do some good in a part of Colorado Springs that many believe needs it the most.
In other words, he wants to see it thrive.
Talk about your youth.
I saw the shift [in South Chicago]. I was born in the ’80s and we started to see the shift in the ’90s. They weren’t afraid of cops anymore. In fact, shooting cops became a badge and mark of honor in our community. … When I was a young kid, there was a point in our life when my family was extremely poor. At one time, we had milk, bread, syrup and green beans. We didn’t know when we were going to get more food. … On the way to school, someone was like, ‘Hey, do you wanna make 50 bucks?’ … I grew up with this person and I said, ‘Yeah, how do I make 50 bucks?’ … and he put a brown paper bag in my backpack and [told me] ‘You get on the bus; you go to school. … We’ll pick up the bag and give you another 50 bucks.’
A hundred dollars to an 8-year-old who ain’t got food to feed the family? Yeah. What I didn’t know was that I had unwittingly become a drug mule. … Someone used my affection, love and responsibility to my family to suck me into crime before I hit double digits. That’s where you get real ghettos. … I was a bit of a trouble student in [my Baptist] high school, was about to get kicked out, when a pastor changed everything for me and gave me a second chance . … I never had a positive male role model. … He thought I had potential. … Within about six months, I was an ‘A’ student, did well on my SATs and thought I may make it to college.
How did Thrive begin?
It started underneath our church. We started meeting in March of 2015. … [At the time] I was sort of executive pastor [of Passion]; I ran the programs. We started brainstorming ideas to be more relevant to the needs of the community. … I’ve started and have run a couple of small businesses. We said, ‘We can teach people how to make a job’ and that’s where Thrive came from: ‘If you can’t find a job, we can teach you how to make one.’ … We had to beg the first 10 people to go through the 12-week program. … On the Southeast side, it’s all about ‘small’ wins. If we can demonstrate that we’re out in the community, the community shows up. … [Now] we have had over 200 applications.
How does your Pay It Forward model work?
The way that we structured Thrive was, we went to business owners and folks in the community, supporters of the Southeast and said ‘Hey, we got this program. We need this initial investment.’ Nor’wood [Development Group] was the first to cut us a check for the first class. What we said in the first class was, ‘If this is a value to you, pay it forward. Sponsor someone else. … In 2016, over 90 percent fully paid, and sponsored someone else, to take our class. … The Pay It Forward model keeps community engagement high.
Can you name some of Thrive’s success stories?
A lot of folks were like, ‘It gave me hope.’ I just had one of my first students … who ended up with a six-figure tax bill when [her husband] skipped town … [In two years] she taught herself forensic accounting, started working with an accountant and figured out the legal way to create a case that proved that wasn’t her debt. She got a tax bill from the IRS saying she only owed $500. … Another student started her own salon. Another student has his own general contractor license and has started his own construction company. Another student teaches soft job skills. … What you see is, whether they use it to start a business, be better employees, or be better parents or people, our whole method is teaching creative problem solving — recognizing problems as opportunities — control that critical thinking component that tells you that you can’t do something and start investigating and exploring the opportunities.
How were you involved with the Transforming Safety Bill?
In January of 2016, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition reached out to us. They were looking at Southeast Springs as their second pilot location for their Transforming Safety Bill (House Bill 17-1326) and we got involved with them. One of the cool things was, as we were talking to the congressmen and senators at the state capitol, it was really interesting to give them human stories like, ‘This person went from generational poverty to supporting her entire family and household and now she’s helping other people support their families.’ Or ‘This person was an ex-con and now he has a business where he’s employing ex-cons.’ [We’re showing them] that economic and community development are far more powerful tools for public safety and crime prevention than mass incarceration. The bill passed.