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The Redeemers
The folks at Isidore Recycling are very good at taking things apart. But they’re even better at putting broken things back together again.

On the outskirts of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, in an industrial neighborhood of low-slung, graffiti-bombed buildings made of cinderblock and corrugated steel, three men are hard at work inside a warehouse. Though they’re surrounded by all manner of computer, communications, and video technology—keyboards and cell phones and screens are everywhere—not one of them is typing a word or crunching any numbers.

If it’s accurate to say that these men work for a technology-related start-up, it should quickly be added that this isn’t the kind most people would envision. These keyboards are dusty; the screens are dark. The atmosphere is about as cutting-edge as the old computer equipment, giant fax machines, dinosaur-era dot-matrix printers, and superannuated VCRs that share space in this potter’s field for electronica.

One man is moving heavy pallets across the floor. Another, bent over a workbench overflowing with computer motherboards, scours the shiny bounty of their circuitry like a cyberpunk prospector. The third sifts through a small mountain of monitors: beige relics from the not-so-distant era when the desktop still reigned supreme.

All three work for Isidore Recycling, a company with a seemingly straightforward mission: to find the hidden value in what others have cast aside. Since its founding in 2011, Isidore (named for St. Isidore of Seville, widely considered to be the patron saint of computing) has intercepted more than 150 tons of discarded high-tech gadgetry.

At Isidore, the philosophy of redemption doesn’t stop with motherboards and monitors.

Every year, electronics consumers around the world generate at least 20 million tons of “e-waste.” In 2012, according to the United Nations, Americans were responsible for 10.3 million tons, only one-quarter of which was recycled. All of this poses a real problem—as well as a real opportunity. The salvageable commodities to be found in our e-waste, mainly precious metals like gold and copper, share space with a number of hazardous and difficult-to-extract materials such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. For its part, the city of Los Angeles currently recycles less than 25 percent—about 1,500 tons—of its annual e-waste output.

Kabira Stokes, Isidore’s founder and CEO, looks at all of this high-tech trash and sees in it a veritable gold mine (or copper mine, depending). Through a process known as de-manufacturing, her employees collect and sort unwanted electronics donated by individuals or companies. Salvageable metals, plastics, and wire are bundled and sold to certified processors en route to being recycled into new goods. Items that aren’t completely beyond redemption are repaired, cleaned up, and resold.

But at Isidore, the philosophy of redemption doesn’t stop with motherboards and monitors. The men working the floor are themselves part of a reclamation project: each of them came to work at Isidore after serving hard time in California’s correctional system. As ex-prisoners, they are generally considered among the least employable individuals in society. But if the word “recycling” means anything to Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation. From a purely business standpoint, it also means capitalizing on the considerable energies and talents of an overlooked, undervalued segment of the labor force.

As Stokes puts it: “It doesn’t make sense that just because someone messes up and serves time, we never actually forgive them. It’s not working. And it’s a waste of value.”

* * *

The first quarter of 2013 was Isidore’s best on record: Stokes and her employees collected and processed 20 tons of e-waste in that three-month period. Then, in early May, an electrical fire ravaged the company’s warehouse, destroying much of its inventory and forcing it into temporary space.

“The silver lining is that we got to reboot,” says Stokes. The tall, blond, 35-year-old Philadelphia native is clearly someone who believes that setbacks—even outright disasters—carry within them the seeds of rebirth. As a graduate student in public policy at the University of Southern California, Stokes studied the criminal justice system, particularly the challenges and roadblocks routinely faced by ex-prisoners as they attempt to reenter society. Her research led her to an obvious question: “What are we doing when folks come out of prison? Because 98 percent of them do.”

In graduate school, Stokes also took courses exploring the idea of sustainable cities, which in turn led her to take a closer look at the impact emerging industries were having on Southern California’s land, air, and water. She began to see how her two fields of study were complementary: both were concerned with what it takes to make a community healthy, in a holistic sense. Later, while working at Green For All, an organization founded by the social activist (and NRDC board member) Van Jones and dedicated to bringing green jobs to urban areas, Stokes visited Recycle Force, an Indianapolis-based full-service recycling facility co-founded by Gregg Keesling and staffed largely by ex-prisoners.

Suddenly her varied public policy interests cohered into a single, unified vision. After returning to Los Angeles, Stokes posted a query on a job-seeking and networking website aimed at sustainability-minded students, professionals, and employers. In it she announced that she “wanted to start an e-waste company that would hire formerly incarcerated people. And I was looking for a co-founder.”

She got only two responses. One came from Aaron Malloy, an MBA candidate at the University of Southern California. Malloy’s profile certainly suggested that he’d be a good fit for the sort of enterprise Stokes was imagining. In addition to the business degree he was pursuing, he had a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and had worked for a nonprofit that prepared at-risk high school students for the job-seeking and educational challenges facing them.

But something else distinguished him. Malloy, an African American who grew up in working-class Sacramento, had served nearly seven years in California correctional facilities for participating in a robbery at the age of 16. His personal saga of downfall and redemption, combined with his business acumen, seemed to embody all that Stokes hoped Isidore could become: a company that made money, promoted sustainability, and created jobs for those who had paid their debt to society and now deserved to reenter it.

Together Stokes and Malloy leveraged $450,000 worth of seed money into a start-up that began attracting attention from the moment it opened for business. The pair’s dedication to a much broader definition of “recycling” was summed up by Isidore’s mission statement: “building a world in which our resources—both human and natural—are valued, not wasted.”

Three years later—despite setbacks like the fire in May and Malloy’s departure in August—Stokes still believes that the key to Isidore’s competitive advantage is buried within that mission statement. The ethos of creative reuse, she maintains, extends not only to objects but to people. Given the terms of their release agreements, new hires at Isidore have a powerful impetus to remain sober and stable. Given the discrimination they’ve faced, they’re inclined to be self-motivated. In other words, Stokes says, “They’re job-ready.” All they need is an employer who sees the flecks of gold just beneath the cracked shell, someone “who can understand that they’re going to need to go to court, or that they’re going to need to go to their N.A. [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting. We’re that employer.”

* * *

When Shaye Elliot was offered a job at Isidore in 2013, he was on the verge of giving up hope. When I ask him why, the 44-year-old native of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, quietly volunteers that he has been in and out of prison since his teens, serving a total of 17 years for various infractions. With a record like that, he says, he figured upon his last release that he’d be lucky to find a job in construction. The recession of 2008 closed off that particular avenue.

Still, that didn’t stop Elliot from looking for warehouse work, driving jobs, janitor shifts. What was worse than the pavement pounding, he says, was the silence from potential employers who never bothered to call him back. To him it suggested that even though he had done his time as far as the state of California was concerned, in the eyes of the business community he was serving a life sentence.

Stokes and Malloy gave him a chance. These days, Elliot tells me, he wakes up feeling grateful for the opportunity to come in every morning and de-manufacture electronics—but he’s even more grateful to be judged for what he’s doing right now, not for what he has done in the past. At Isidore, he says, “you’re not looked down on for your history. The people here can handle your history.” Feeling essential rather than marginalized has fostered a new sense of dedication and self-determination that looks and sounds a lot like pride.

Even though he had done his time as far as the state of California was concerned, in the eyes of the business community he was serving a life sentence.

Eric Grigsby, a slender, athletically built 24-year-old who helped train Elliot, has rotated through nearly every stage of Isidore’s recycling process, from de-manufacturing to repair to online resale. The time he has spent taking things apart and putting them back together again has allowed him to reconnect with his youthful dreams of becoming a carpenter or an architect—dreams that were derailed when Grigsby was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon at the age of 17.

“After I got out, I tried everywhere looking for a job,” he says. Like Elliot, Grigsby didn’t receive a single call back. Stokes and Malloy, however, discerned a natural energy and intelligence. Over time Grigsby became one of Isidore’s most trusted and experienced employees, and he now trains others in the company’s day-to-day operations.

Accompanying the new job and the new skills is a new sense of self-worth. With a laugh, Grigsby relates how friends and family pester him for free IT advice. (“My Granny calls me 24/7 with questions!”) With his employer’s enthusiastic blessing, he recently announced that he would be leaving Isidore to attend an electronics school that will guarantee him union affiliation upon successful completion. After graduating, he pictures himself moving to Atlanta, buying a house, maybe even a little extra land.

Stokes has said many times that her goal is to create jobs that are more than entry-level positions, “to get folks on career ladders so they’re not making minimum wage for the rest of their lives.” Given the rate at which our ever-advancing technology turns last year’s must-have gadget into this year’s e-antique, the stream of e-waste isn’t likely to ebb anytime soon. In fact, all signs indicate that the stream will swell into a torrent. If we’re serious about minimizing this torrent’s negative environmental impact, we’ll need to create e-waste recycling systems like Isidore’s on a macro scale. Stokes isn’t just creating jobs; she’s creating jobs in a genuine growth industry.

After the fire and Malloy’s departure, Stokes’s staff had to rally to keep the company alive. Brian Fox, a newer employee who had been in charge of repairs, rose to the challenge of filling Malloy’s shoes and was eventually promoted to warehouse manager. Isidore kept picking up new clients, including the city of Pico-Rivera and—auspiciously—MGM, one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. (It’s a small account at the moment, says Stokes, but there’s plenty of room for growth in the relationship, if all goes well.)

“Whether you’re locked up or your business burns down, you have to keep fighting,” says Stokes. By last fall, thanks to that fighting spirit, the renewed dedication of her staff, the loyalty of old clients, and the addition of new ones, Isidore found itself operating once more at its pre-fire performance and productivity levels. If ex-cons and computers deserve second chances, then karma has apparently decreed that Isidore Recycling deserves them, too.

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image of Lynell George
Lynell George is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels. In 2013 she was named a Getty/Annenberg Arts Journalism Fellow. MORE STORIES ➔