Around 40 men and women gathered at the American Job Center offices Thursday to prepare for Friday's job fair for ex-offenders.
Those in attendance were separated into smaller groups for crash courses on résumé building, interview skills and how to "dress for success."
Tony Taylor, 30, was one of those people. He's been trying to get a job for five months now, but his criminal record has been holding him back.
"I was kinda down and out about that, and, you know, just to hear about this, it was definitely a big help," he said. "Just to see the genuine help that these guys have [to help]."
He still had a few classes to go through, but he was already feeling hopeful and plans on being there [Friday], too, he said.
"I just want to get ready for [the interviews] in any way that's possible," he said.
And that's exactly what the job fair is there to do, said Troy Rogers, Chattanooga's public safety coordinator, to give former inmates the tools they need and a chance to prove themselves in the workplace.
"When you are trying to do right and you are a felon or have a record, 'the good people' hear you but they don't believe you," he said.
And ex-offenders need that support because they have so many hurdles to overcome when they're released or they risk the possibility of ending up back in jail.
"There are child support payments, fees, court fines and/or state fines that have to be paid," Rogers said.
He hopes the event sheds light on deeper issues within the community, issues like socioeconomic and educational inequity.
"It is a rallying cry for our community leaders to become life coaches for this targeted population who has been left out of opportunities," he said. " Everybody really wants the same things in life but not everybody gets the same slice of the American pie. Some get what they are handed in life and that's not always a fair portion."
In addition to job-seeking skills, the event also offers expungement assistance, child support assistance, free federal telephone service and voter rights restoration.
NAACP political action committee Chairman Dwight Smith was there Thursday helping participants determine if they're eligible to restore their voting rights.
It's his fourth time volunteering at the job fair, and it's been amazing, he said.
"We're trying to make sure that voters' rights are not disenfranchised," Smith said. "I've watched a lot of lives get changed in here."
Like with voter rights restoration, records expungement can be just as tedious. And, usually, Smith said, if voting rights can't be restored, records can't be expunged. Having a record expunged means it's completely removed from the public record.
Local attorney Stephanie Rogers was at the event helping participants with an initial evaluation of their expungement eligibility.
"If we think that somebody would be eligible, we'd have to do a lot more digging into that," she said.
There are a lot of restrictions and it's a long process, Rogers said. But in general, most misdemeanors can be expunged, (though, there is a long list of ones that are not eligible) and only a select few low-level felonies.
But even if someone is eligible, they can't file to have the record expunged until at least five years have passed after their sentence is completed, including incarceration and probation.
"Even if we have to give people an answer, that's like, 'Okay, you can't get this expunged. I'm sorry.' You can say, 'Look, you have all these other resources here to help you overcome that barrier there,'" Rogers said.
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