Twelve years ago, Juaquin Mobley made a life-altering decision that landed him behind bars for the better part of a decade. But the path he’s taken since being released inspired the message he shares with young adults living in Southeast Colorado Springs — a message about self-worth, community and the value of stable employment.
Mobley spent nearly eight years in prison for armed robbery and has since been determined to help others chart a different course. The executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Springs Works recently opened The Community Barbershop, Salon, Hub & Pub as a social enterprise — a point of outreach for an at-risk population, and often those who have been justice-involved. Mobley, who also acts as chairman of membership for the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce, spoke this week about turning bad decisions into learning experiences and being a positive influence on his part of town.
Where are you from?
Colorado Springs by way of New York City. I graduated from Sierra High School in 2002. Then I started college in New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
At the time, it was probably the No. 1 fashion school in the country.
While I was there, I’d made some bad business decisions that put me in a hole. I came out here to visit in the middle of trying to get back on my feet and made a terrible decision that ended up costing me some time in prison. As a result, I had to rebuild a relationship with my children and reestablish myself in this community and the community in New York City too.
Had you been employed while in New York City?
I was selling T-shirts I’d designed as part of a company I started called Conglom. I would sell shirts — sometimes on the train in my neighborhood of Washington Heights. I had a little success and my uncle said I should go to school and get formal training in the fashion side of business. I did well in high school and figured it wouldn’t be hard, so I enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I made good connections but bad money decisions. I tried to invest and wasn’t aware of what I was getting myself into. It put me in a hole and I tried to dig myself out.
In 2006, I came out here. My daughter was living in Michigan at the time and I came here to visit my mother. [My daughter] was going to stay here a couple weeks and I was going to take her back to family in New York. When I came out here everything was going bad in New York. I decided to get involved in a robbery. It was terribly wrong. Nobody got hurt, but the fact we [did it] was a bad idea.
And you were incarcerated?
I was in the county jail for three years and 30 days [before transferring to a penitentiary]. The whole time I was trying to figure a way out. I wasn’t trying to get out of trouble because I knew I had to pay for what I’d done; there was no way around that. But I was trying to set myself up to where when I got out, I could be an asset to the community.
They sentenced me to 15 years, but because I’d built relationships within this community and in New York City, I think the judge was inundated with more than 100 letters of character. Due to that, they reduced my sentence to 12 years. I did close to eight [years] and then was released to a halfway house for parole. I did well and they terminated my parole in half the time.
I was in a halfway house in Denver in 2013. I tried to parole to New York City three times but they wouldn’t let me. I was trying hard but it wasn’t lining up so I thought, ‘Maybe I’m supposed to be here for a reason.’
Did you find work while on parole?
I was in Denver doing odd jobs and I kept studying and preparing so when I got an opportunity, I could take advantage of it.
I was a [construction] flagger for a while. That progressed and my boss saw my work ethic. He made me a forklift operator. Then I became the lead forklift operator.
Then I got an opportunity in Colorado Springs with a roofing material company. The pay was way better than I was making as a forklift operator. I took advantage of that and I was working 16, 17 hours a day. I was also promoting a club here in the Springs. I was saving every dime I had and was sleeping at my father’s house to save money. … The way the roofing business was set up, it was seasonal. When it slowed down I thought I’d take a leap of faith and invest in myself and see what happens.
And how did you do that?
I got involved with the free phone [Lifeline] program. It meant becoming an independent contractor. During that time — a friend of mine is the executive director of DenverWorks [a nonprofit that assists job-seekers with coaching and job connections]. He wanted to make the free phone program a subsidiary of DenverWorks and wanted to start a branch down here called Colorado Springs Works. He wanted me to be in charge of it. I’d served more than 1,000 people in the phone program and told them, ‘We’re giving out phones now, but in the near future we’ll have a bunch of support services, programs, job placement, therapy — all that stuff.
How did CSWorks take off?
I pitched the idea to the [Latino Coalition for Community Leadership]. They liked it and gave us a grant for almost $800,000. That was great, but I didn’t think it was enough to make a mark in the community. So what else can I do?
After I got out [of prison], I read a book about social enterprises. I thought there had to be a way to take CSWorks and mix it with a for-profit. Being that I grew up around a barbershop, I knew the ins and outs. My mother’s husband is essentially a master barber. He’s been a barber since the ’80s. My grandfather … was a barber in New York City.
I realized that, essentially the stuff caseworkers do and client managers do in nonprofits is the same thing barbers do — referrals, advice, mentorship — all of that stuff. … This is where [CSWorks] comes in — if someone needs help with job placement, in cognitive behavioral therapy — which I’m certified in … in job training. I’m actually qualified by CDOT to facilitate flagger tests and we’ve also partnered with American Seal Coat, an asphalt company, to create an apprenticeship for asphalt paving. I think it will be the first in the state. … We’re also setting [an apprenticeship] in stone with an electrical company.
Who does CSWorks target?
Our target market is those who have been justice-involved with a high emphasis on individuals 18 to 24 years old. We try to work with people in this community — they take precedence because of the bad rap the Southeast has.
We get them trained and pair that with cognitive behavioral therapy. From the research that’s been conducted, individuals want to work but are not mentally prepared to work and retain a job. They’ll go to a job and think they’ll stand there and get money. There are soft skills we teach. You have to be able to talk with people and, more importantly, work with people.
The beauty of mixing this with the community barbershop is they can come in and get a haircut, they can talk with barbers who have a wealth of knowledge of what’s going on in the community and they can build a resumé all in the same place. There are a host of things they can do here to be work-ready.
I’ve noticed a lot of Millennials aren’t going to religious institutions for help. Not that they don’t attend — they just don’t look for help. So we’re meeting them where they’re at, and that’s the barbershop.
What advice do you have for those seeking help?
The thing I pass on — I give people a dose of reality. There’s nothing you can tell me you’re going through that I haven’t been through. I notice a lot of individuals go to these nonprofits and [the Citizens Service Center on] Garden of the Gods [Road] and paint this picture, but [caseworkers] don’t know how to relate. They don’t know how to respond. It’s not that [caseworkers’] intentions aren’t good. They are good. I’ve met a lot of good people, but it’s hard for them to relate to me. They haven’t been through what I’ve been through. When these kids come through here, I’m a no-nonsense type of individual. … I’m going to hold you accountable. That gives them a foundation and they can’t just do what they want to do.
What should people know about the Southeast?
How creative we are. Even the ideas I hear about business — some of us just don’t have the opportunity. And the ones who do have the opportunity don’t always take advantage of it.
What are your challenges?
I’m a visionary. People don’t always see where I’m trying to go. Some people I deal with have a myopic view — ‘A barbershop is just supposed to be this.’
But it’s more than that. There’s more going on. That’s my biggest hurdle.
Do you still want to go back to New York City to live?
Maybe not now. But I’m hoping in the future to open the same concept in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago. I’m supposed to go to New York City at the end of August to put something together. … Next month I will move to vice president of all programs, relinquish this position and will be in charge of scaling the program and taking it to spots around the country.