Joaquin Wallace Biography
Shaped by Experience, An Idea from the Internet, Not Just Computers
Founder, Project Transition Inc.
In 1998 former college baseball player Joaquin Wallace founded the non-profit Project Transition Inc., a welfare-to-work program that put long-term unemployed and "working poor" African-American clients into a corporate setting to build their confidence and self esteem. The project was based on the idea that giving people access to real-life, white-collar work situations would help them get white-collar jobs; something no welfare-to-work program had tried before. Starting as a "demonstration project," Project Transition eventually became a flagship scheme, receiving in over five years around $3 million in funding from California's Alameda County alone. The project also attracted national attention. Wallace was featured in magazine articles, received several awards, and even received a letter of encouragement from George W. Bush in the early days of his presidency. It is estimated that over 1,000 people benefited from Project Transition in its five-year existence.
Joaquin Wallace was born on September 11, 1965, in Oakland, California. His father is Emanuel Wallace, a laborer, and his mother is Dorothy Ann Wallace, a restaurant cook and hostess. An only child, he was raised in the Bay Area and attended Oakland Technical School, where he excelled at baseball and graduated in 1983. He attended San Francisco State University on an athletics scholarship—he was a college baseball player—and graduated in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 1995 he graduated with an MBA in marketing from Golden Gate University, and in 2005 was working towards a PhD in public policy, also at Golden Gate. Wallace married Jamelle Simon in 1995, and they have three daughters: Jameela, Sasha, and Kendall.
Shaped by Experience
By 1987 Wallace was studying for his degree and had won a much sought-after internship with the San Francisco Giants; in August 1987 he was hired by the Giants to work in the front office. As the first black to do so Wallace appeared in newspaper and magazine articles, becoming an example of the franchise's willingness to promote blacks to public positions. Wallace's experience was not a happy one, however, and by 1988 he had been fired and was working as a gas station attendant. Wallace told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that this experience was one that inspired him to help others break out of the cycle of unemployment, low pay, and low self-esteem that seemed to him to bedevil the black community. He also explained that this was a moment when he realized that education was the key to breaking that cycle.
It was almost a decade before he had the idea behind Project Transition and was able to act on behalf of others. Wallace concentrated on his own education, studying marketing, while working as a computing instructor at Laney College in Alameda, and developing an interest in public policy that he would eventually pursue at the doctoral level. This academic mix of economics, marketing, and public policy is what Wallace credited for his insight into the problems faced by old-style welfare-to-work programs, as well as for some of his ideas about how to solve them.
An Idea from the Internet
Wallace told CBB that the idea behind Project Transition came to him one night in 1997 while he was browsing the Internet and came across articles about President Clinton's 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which among other things aimed to help the unemployed and working poor support themselves through training. President Clinton declared the aim of the act was to "end welfare as we know it." Wallace said he realized that the existing model for welfare-to-work programs was not working. He noticed that training programs for the unemployed aimed to place people in blue-collar and service jobs paying low wages; such low expectations did nothing to improve their self esteem. The radical idea behind Project Transition was that it would help people leapfrog blue-collar work and find placements in well-paid white-collar industries.
The basic principles behind Project Transition were based on Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs," a theory Wallace had come across while studying psychology. Maslow argued that after needs such as food, water, shelter, safety, and security are taken care of, human beings need self esteem, a place in society, and what he called "self-actualization." Wallace decided that Project Transition would address self-esteem and self-actualization, the two areas where he found poor black Americans to be most lacking. The project would raise its clients' self-esteem by offering them access to high-quality equipment and comfortable, corporate-style training facilities in business districts. The idea was to put clients in a corporate environment so they could see themselves working there and set their sights higher than before. Wallace likened this process of self-actualization to the techniques used in car sales: "If the salesman can get you into the driver's seat of that car, so you can see yourself driving it, well then he has a much easier job persuading you to buy it."
But before Wallace could begin working on selling the idea of white-collar work to his clients, he had to sell the idea of Project Transition to investors. In early 1998 he began researching for a business plan and persuading people to join the non-profit's board of directors, a task that took over a year to finalize. He raised money from local banks and Wells Fargo donated a free facility in the basement of one of its buildings in downtown Oakland. When the doors opened on September 7, 1998, Wallace had already spent half of his $40,000 startup budget on computers; he and his family had redecorated the neglected basement, buying high quality office equipment, leather armchairs, and good carpeting, and hanging framed pictures on the wall. Wallace told CBB that he wanted to break the assumption that non-profit meant "non-quality."
By the end of the year the project was out of money and facing a major setback. A grant application to Alameda County for $300,000 was put in the wrong category and rejected. Wallace appealed the decision and invited county officials to visit the Oakland facility. What they saw was impressive and soon Alameda became one of the project's key investors, inventing a whole new grant category, known as "Demonstration Project" to award an initial $100,000. Over five years Alameda County allocated $3 million to Project Transition.
Not Just Computers
Between 1999 and 2002 Project Transition delivered almost 300 free classes in basic literacy and computer skills. Working together with his wife Jamelle, Wallace offered after school clubs, a children's daycare service, and a girls' basketball program alongside its adult training programs. By 2002 Project Transition had three state of the art computer labs, networked together; the facilities were so good that corporate clients used them for their own training courses.
But Wallace's idea was not just about practical computing skills; he estimates that in fact computing was only about ten percent of what the project did. Aware that members of the poorest black communities often lack the communication and presentation skills that would make them valuable employees, the Wallaces provided well-rounded training to get people into good jobs. Wallace told CBB of his pride in the "rate of return" for his efforts: over 80 percent of Project Transition graduates found a job and 80 percent of them kept that job for 180 days or more, with average earnings over $30,000 a year after that time.
Wallace's tendency to use the language of business made it difficult for him to promote the project with public-sector organizations, and by 2002 the project seemed to have reached its natural limit. Over 1,000 people from the Oakland area had benefited, but Wallace said that by then he felt he had done all he could at a local level. Changes to the welfare system and reductions in the amount of money available for training of welfare recipients meant that the tide was turning against Project Transition at a national level too. For example, Wallace estimated that it cost $16,000 per year to train someone to the same level as through Project Transition, but that the return on that investment was that many of them found work paying well above the national average wage. Under the new system only $4,000 per year was available for training, far less than was necessary to provide the quality for which Project Transition had become known. In 2003 the scheme folded, leaving Wallace, his family, and those who had been helped to turn their lives around disappointed. Wallace told CBB that abandoning Project Transition was very hard, but he remained optimistic about the future. He hopes to persuade forward-looking investors and politicians to take up his idea on a national or even international level. In the meantime he had begun planning books about setting up a successful welfare-to-work program and a motivational book geared towards African-American men.
City Flight Magazine, March 5, 2002.
Essence Magazine, November, 2003.
Oakland Post, November 27, 1998.
Oakland Tribune, March 12, 2003.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 2002.
Additional material for this profile was obtained through an interview with Joaquin Wallace on November 29, 2004, and from material supplied by him.
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