Giving ex-offenders a second chance is this man’s ‘silent protest’

CJ Jessup is no stranger to second chances. Having spent his formative years in Illinois’ juvenile facilities and adult prisons, he devoted his life to service and began a tenured career in the nonprofit sector where he emerged as a community leader in the Twin Cities.

After working and partnering with many organizations, Jessup is now utilizing his platform as an agent of change with the development of the Second Chance Project, an initiative focused on providing resources to those who are re-entering society following incarceration.

Established by Jessup in May 2020, the Second Chance Project offers a physical location in South Minneapolis where residents are provided shelter and support as well as an opportunity to enhance their leadership skills. On August 1, the doors opened to welcome their first resident.

Jessup, who has called the Twin Cities home since 2006, cites a personal relationship as well as a career setback among the driving factors behind the project.

“In February of this year I was terminated from my company unexpectedly following 12 years of service,” said Jessup. “At first, I was heartbroken, but then I looked at as an opportunity to start my own thing.

“Initially, I wanted to open a group home and didn’t think about the Second Chance Project. I just wanted to work with people to see what it would look like for me. But the whole project came to be based on a relationship I had with Kevin Fenner, who is a young man out of Detroit, Michigan.

“He moved his family to Minnesota around 2005, 2006, and shared with me that his father was given a life sentence in Minnesota back in 2006 on a three-time offender law. Following the murder of George Floyd, his life sentence was overturned thanks to the support of Trae Tha Truth, who is an artist out of Houston.

“Now Kevin Fenner, Sr. is coming home, and when he gets out, he wants to reach back into the community. This made me think about putting together a business where we can provide services to individuals coming out of incarceration and state facilities while also being a part of healing. And that’s where the whole Second Chance idea came about.”

The five-bedroom property is intended to serve as a safe haven for residents who are looking to re-integrate themselves into the community. With this process, Jessup wants to provide holistic support to each person who may have a full range of needs.

“Right now Hennepin County is one of our biggest partners, and that’s based on the mental health services they provide and the relationships we’ve built with their caseworkers. Because we may be working with individuals who have mental health needs or require disability support, the call for 24-hour supervision is important. So, we’re working with some good people in South Minneapolis to help meet these needs.”

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, South Minneapolis has become both a hotbed of controversy and a catalyst for activism. Jessup, who has a home in the area, recognizes how the Second Chance Project can positively shape the community.

“I live in South Minneapolis, and although I placed my sons in the Hopkins School District, every morning they’d ride the bus on 38th and Chicago,” Jessup explained. “With the George Floyd incident, and even with the Kevin Fenner story, there was a way to give back to the community.

“As this was going on, I was working with a young man that did 25 years, and after he got out, he went into a transition program and then worked his way out of the transition program. Unfortunately, he was not able to find any place to live and was denied housing 17 times.

“I invited the young man over to see our property, and from there he was able to find a place to stay. Taking this story, the Kevin Fenner story, and the George Floyd story, and putting those components together, I consider it to be my silent protest.”

While he remains steadfast in his belief in second chances, Jessup understands that he has to combat many obstructive narratives, including those that may not see value in the rehabilitation of former intimates. Despite the contrasting thoughts, he wants people to see the benefit in this work.

“If you take somebody out of an environment and put them back into the same environment they left from, chances are they are going to repeat some of the same behaviors. My vision with the Second Chance Project is that once these individuals are released from whatever institution they’re coming from, we can provide them with leadership, role models, service and support that will successfully integrate them into the community.

“This way they can reach back and pull another person up,” Jessup said. “At the end of the day, a second chance starts with self, but the Second Chance Project will give individuals another opportunity to be productive and love themselves.”