GameChanger: Caryn York

We catch up with the CEO of the Job Opportunities Task Force.
—Photography by Schaun Champion

When she graduated from Baltimore City College in 2002, Caryn York thought she knew where her life was going.

“I was going to be some sexy international jet-setter,” she says, living somewhere like Geneva, Switzerland, maybe working as a lawyer negotiating a nuclear missile treaty or two.

But after getting her international studies degree from Washington College on the Eastern Shore, the Park Heights native realized she didn’t have to go anywhere to do meaningful policy work. For the last decade, York has had roles in state and local politics, and today—as the youngest-ever CEO of the statewide, city-based nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF)—she’s making big changes by growing the 25-year-old organization’s footprint.

What does JOTF do and what issues are you trying to address?
Our mission is to help low-wage workers advance to high-wage jobs. Our work really focuses on eliminating the educational and employment barriers for workers to access the job skills, and increasing wages and job opportunities, to be successful and support themselves. We’re a bit unique in that, where you’ll find organizations that focus just on programs, research, or policy advocacy. We do all three and find that synergizing them is important to the success of our mission.

What are some examples of your programs?
For the past 14 years, we’ve run Project Jumpstart, the premier pre-apprenticeship construction training program in Baltimore City. We focus on the trades of carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. We partner with Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) for instructional training, safety training, and job placement support. The demographics of our program are about 99 percent African-American males. More than half have some type of criminal justice involvement. More than half enter the program lacking either a driver’s license or significant work history and are saddled with a ton of challenges that directly impact their ability to secure employment.

We also pay for driver’s education, knowing that transportation is a huge barrier for folks. We take for granted that we were able to afford this when we were younger—$200 or however much it was back then. There are now individuals in their 40s and 50s who don’t have a license because of this.

We help navigate any and all legal challenges, too, appearing in court with individuals, to act as an advocate, to help with challenges with child support. Every Project Jumpstart graduate is also eligible for up to $2,500 upon placement in employment, which they can use to actually get a car. That’s the idea of aligning access to capital with access to transportation. Many of our folks don’t have networks of support. We are their network of support. We try to make them comfortable with bank accounts and show them how to budget, as well as build a credit profile.

And you also have a bail fund, correct?
Our second program is our community bail fund. Last year, in Baltimore City, we had been engaging in bailout efforts. The idea is that individuals are sitting in jail, for non-violent offenses, more often than not, simply because they’re poor, because they don’t have $100.

We use those examples to show that this system is not working. Instead of putting folks in jail, maybe if we align them with community-based organizations, support systems, and resources, they’ll actually stay out of the system. Instead of using a bail bondsman, we bail them out. When we ensure that they appear for court and are helping with their reentry, we actually get their bail money back that we paid. Whether it’s $100, or whether it’s $50,000, we get redeposit it into our fund so that it can be used for other people. It’s a revolving bail fund. I’m still shocked that we’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s clearly needed. We bailed out about 10 individuals the week of Thanksgiving. But we also understand that our programs can’t fix everything.


“Individuals are sitting in jail, for non-violent offenses, more often than not, simply because they’re poor, because they don’t have $100.”

What are you focused on now?
A big portion of our agenda since 2018 has been focused on decriminalizing poverty. This is actually a result of one of our recent reports, which is our third strategy: research and public education. We are collecting our own data, disseminating our own data, disaggregating it, and then drafting reports and white papers to generate conversation that could help drive policy reform.

In 2015, after the Baltimore Uprising, we started to do our own investigation. All the fires are gone and the city still looks the same—we still have the same issues. What is up with this interaction between poor people and the cops? After a two-year investigation, we found that the majority of folks interacting with the criminal justice system are mostly because they cannot afford the financial demands of the law. And this tends to weigh more heavily and be more pronounced in communities of color.

For example, one of the big things we find in our pre-apprenticeship construction training program is you have to have a car. And by law, if you’re going to have a car, you have to have car insurance, but car insurance companies are able to use what’s called “non-driving” factors when they’re setting their premium rates. They’re using things like credit, education, income, and zip code, but that means that certain folks are going to be paying more for car insurance than others.

Recently, we ran a car insurance estimate for a graduate and found it was $675 a month for liability only, just because this individual lived in Park Heights and only had a high school diploma. They can’t afford that, but they got to get to work. And they’re like, okay, if I go to work and make money, then maybe I’ll be able to afford car insurance. But if I live in a community that’s overpoliced and my tags are being run all the time, then I’m going to get stopped for driving without car insurance. My car is impounded and now I’m incarcerated because I couldn’t afford something that was required by law.

And that creates a cycle.
There are common pathways by which folks enter into the system. Then when they’re in the system, there’s the disparate treatment of the poor. These are the fines and fees that folks have to pay. There was a Baltimore Sun and Washington Post article about the fact that, it’s a pandemic, and the jail and prison populations across the state are decreasing, except the Baltimore City pretrial population.

Why? One of the reasons is that, instead of giving people the option of cash bail, they’re saying we’ll put a box on your ankle so that you can be out and about, but you have to pay the GPS monitoring fee. The problem is, is that in certain counties, particularly Baltimore City, they’re charging anywhere from $11 to $17 a day. We have clients whose parents or grandparents are paying $250 a week for GPS monitoring. And if they can’t pay that, the individual goes to jail. A lot of our work is getting our policy makers and other folks to understand, none of this makes sense. We’re all familiar with these systems, but many of us are actually not familiar with how they work.

Does it seem like many people aren’t even aware that these things are happening?
What I have found fascinating is that, when we frame these particular issues this way, we find that it’s actually a bipartisan issue. We’ve been able to secure support from Republicans, Democrats, Black, white, young, old. Because when you tell folks, this is what’s happening, there’s no way in the world, regardless of your political affiliation, that you can agree that that makes sense.


“A lot of our work is getting our policy makers and other folks to understand, none of this makes sense. We’re all familiar with these systems, but many of us are actually not familiar with how they work.”


How did JOTF even get involved in this type of work?
Quite honestly, we fell into it, because there’s no way in the world you can do the work of economic justice and be focused on advancing opportunities for our disadvantaged communities in Baltimore City and not recognize the very incestuous intersection between race, criminality, and poverty here. If we are talking about making sure that individuals are employable, then we have to get into this type of work.

How many of these initiatives started under your tenure as CEO?
I’ve been with the organization since 2011. When I started as the CEO in 2017, there were a number of things I wanted to do. I wanted to figure out how we could extend Jumpstart, which was then mostly focused on adult workers, to younger workers and job seekers. But also, how can we diversify it in terms of gender? How can we ensure that the construction industry and the building trades are attractive to women and people of color?

After my first year, we released the criminalization of poverty report, and we’ve just released another called The Double Pandemic: Socioeconomic and Racial Inequality in the Era of COVID. It talks about how COVID-19 is having devastating effects on low wage workers of color, who were already devastated prior to the pandemic, and includes policy recommendations for how we can ensure that they’re not further devastated as we try to crawl our way out of this “new normal.” It’s important for us to do this research, because it’s one thing just to be an advocate. It’s a completely different reception when you are actually coming with facts. These are the numbers.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in West Baltimore in Park Heights, at the corner of Cold Spring and Pimlico. My neighbor was actually the new mayor, Brandon Scott. We could throw rocks at each other’s houses—that’s how close we lived—and we didn’t even know each other back then. I’m a graduate of City College high school. I live in Southwest Baltimore in Hollins Market now.

When folks ask, “How did you get into this work?” I say, “Listen, I’m not supposed to be in this work.” My entire life, I expected that I was going to be focused on international law. I was going to be some sexy international jetsetter. I was supposed to be living in Geneva, working in the Palais des Nations at the Conference on Disarmament, trying to do something around missile material treaties or nuclear weapons. That is what I thought I would be doing. I left Washington College [on the Eastern Shore] and thought I was going to go to Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced School of International Studies. And then you come back to Baltimore with a different lens, different experiences. You’re older, you’ve seen things. And I was like, wait, what? I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m just going stay here.


“There’s no way in the world you can do the work of economic justice in Baltimore City and not recognize the very incestuous intersection between race, criminality, and poverty here.”


What have you learned over the years doing the work that you do?
I came to JOTF knowing nothing about workforce barriers. I didn’t know anything about re-entry or the challenges that someone interacting with the criminal justice experiences, or how easy it is for folks to interact with the criminal justice system.

It was literally like a light bulb went off. There was no one really in the workforce space that was talking about the workforce challenges of those who have interacted with the criminal justice system. Part of our new report focuses on the collateral consequences of those interactions. The criminal record is your barrier to everything: Employment, housing, education. Maryland is unique in that we have the Maryland Judiciary Case Search. Usually in other states, you have to secure some type of special authorization to access the database of criminal history, and in Maryland, all you need is internet access to access anyone’s full file all the way back to the 1970s.

Over 70 million Americans, according to the National Employment Law Project, have some type of arrest or conviction record that’s going to appear in a routine background check. And you have 90 percent of employers who admit to using background checks in hiring, and many employers are not looking to see what the charges are, how long ago it happened, if the person was even found guilty. I felt that it was incumbent upon us to make sure we understood that our policies around public safety were actually in direct conflict with the policies that we were trying to push to increase economic opportunity for these same populations. That’s really been our focus and it’s a lot of work.

Where does JOTF get its funding?
Historically our funding has been heavily philanthropic, but we’ve started to focus more on private and corporate donations. It was really because we just weren’t in the same spaces with a lot of these corporations and individuals. They probably see JOTF and say, “Oh my goodness, they’re like the ACLU, the NAACP.” Then we get in the room and start to frame things and they’re like, “Where have you all been?” We’re here.