At first glance, Revolution Workshop (RW) in Chicago looks like a typical woodworking shop. People wearing hard hats and tool belts plane wood. A table saw buzzes as it cuts boards. Recently built and well-constructed wooden sheds are on display and for sale. Desks in the office, created out of reclaimed wood, were made on the premises. 

But RW, located at 3410 Lake Street in Chicago, is anything but typical. It’s a place where futures are built; where hope takes root in the lives of people affected by crime and trauma, including homeless men and women, previous substance abusers, and individuals with criminal backgrounds; where people are given training, and a future, that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. 

Manny Rodriguez, RW’s executive director, makes it his goal to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their background, while still holding them accountable.

A nonprofit, Revolution Workshop takes people with little or no skills — and often little or no hope — and trains them in carpentry and construction, electrical work, and plumbing, bringing them to pre-apprenticeship level and helping them find jobs. Oftentimes, said Rodriguez, remedial writing and math skills are needed as well. 

“We provide a robust technical skill set,” said Rodriguez. The training includes certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research in core skills, OSHA-10, and forklift operation. It’s a 10- to 12-week program, open to 24 individuals at a time, referred to as a cohort. 

And it’s free. RW provides transportation assistance to participants and gives graduates their own tool belt, basic set of tools, and equipment like steel-toe boots and a hardhat. They also provide snacks and coffee to participants, many of whom are homeless. 

“You can’t focus if you’re hungry,” said Rodriguez.

Aside from hands-on technical training, RW teaches life skills to participants. This includes financial management, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and different pathways in construction, including steps to take to work as an electrician, a plumber or in HVAC.

Once training is completed, RW works with its wide network of union and nonunion companies to help place participants in jobs.

“We teach them how to fish,” said Rodriguez, referring to the old adage, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” Graduates of the program are instructed in how to write a resume but must put it together themselves and how to go onto career websites to look for jobs.

“Everything we do here is through a lens of no judgment,” said Rodriguez. “When I interview people interested in training here, I don’t care what they did before. I don’t care what kind of trouble they’ve been in. I want to know why now? What motivates you now? What is telling you to change your life?” Sometimes, he said, it’s someone’s kids who are the motivation for change. Sometimes someone’s best friend or brother was killed. “Sometimes people say they’ve been to hell on earth and don’t want to go back there,” he said.

RW holds regular Monday morning information sessions for people interested in joining the program.

“We also work with other nonprofits, including halfway houses and substance abuse and anti-violence programs, to look for motivated individuals and take them the rest of the way,” said Rodriguez. These nonprofits include Breakthrough Urban Ministries, the Salvation Army, and Above and Beyond Recovery Center.

Participants are treated like employees during the training period. They need to clock in and out and are expected to be there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. 

“But 8 a.m. really means 7:45,” said Rodriguez. “When you’re working a job, you can’t pull into the parking lot at 8. You have to be in the shop and ready to go by then. Work ethic is a big part of what we teach.” The cohorts are broken down into groups for the program, each with a rotating team leader. “We try to simulate what it’s like on a job site,” he said. 

And, just like in a regular job, trainees are held accountable. They must show up on time and can’t miss days without approval. If they mess up, they’re given a verbal warning, then a written warning, and then terminated from the program. But each warning or termination comes with a discussion about what went wrong and how to improve. And anyone terminated is given a chance to come back to the program and start over. 

“Every cohort has had someone who was kicked out,” said Rodriguez. “But each person who returned completed the program successfully.”

The requirements to join the program are fairly basic. You must be between the ages of 18 and 40, authorized to work in the United States, able to obtain a driver’s license by the end of training (with help from RW, if necessary), and have no sex offenses. Other offenses don’t matter to Rodriguez, who said that about 75 percent of people he trains have some kind of criminal background. A high school diploma or GED isn’t required, but RW will assist people in getting their GED.

Rodriguez says it’s a great time for a program like this. Roughly 85 percent of people working in the trades are middle-aged white men. There is high demand for skilled entry-level employees in fields where the bulk of the work force is aging out. And bringing more diversity to these jobs is important. RW’s trainees are about 73 percent African American, 21 percent Latino and 6 percent white. 

As a nonprofit, RW receives grants, but also raises unencumbered money to help feed the cohorts and pay for outstanding tickets and fines so that participants can clear their records and receive driver’s licenses. 

The Social Enterprise branch of RW builds semi-custom wood products, such as tables and podiums, for individuals or organizations. When the Forest Park Review visited, a photographer from a Chicago-area synagogue was there taking photos of a table in progress, commissioned by the synagogue through RW, which also produces and sells standard products such as cutting boards and Jenga-style games.

Rodriguez, born and raised in the Chicago area and a Forest Park resident for the past seven years, is no stranger to hardship. He and his two sisters, one of whom was seriously ill, grew up with a single mother. His grandmother, who lived with them, struggled with mental illness. His father was in and out of his life and suffered from addiction. But Rodriguez was fortunate to have a strong mother and to meet good people in his life who became role models.

An Eagle Scout, Rodriguez said one of his scout leaders had a huge impact on him, giving him a code of values and demonstrating that helping other people is key. His leader was an electrician and provided Rodriguez with training and a job. He attributes this to him staying out of gangs, drugs and violence. From this, his desire to help others was born.

In college at the University of Illinois Champaign, Rodriguez studied business and co-founded the U of I Latina/Latino Alumni Association. Having a network, he said, has been integral throughout his life. At RW, he has created a similar experience for participants, who keep in touch and help each other get jobs after graduating from the program.

“I didn’t always feel blessed as a kid,” said Rodriguez, “but I have been nothing but blessed since adulthood.”

Rodriguez is one of 12 finalists in the Coors Light Líder of the Year contest, a nationwide competition featuring “Latino community leaders demonstrating an outstanding commitment to empowering their communities.” The winner, announced later this month, will receive a $25,000 grant for his or her nonprofit. Rodriguez said he’s honored and humbled to be a finalist. 

“But I’ve already won, regardless of whether I win this competition,” he said. 

Carmen Marsans, media coordinator of the contest, said all the finalists this year are amazing and doing so much for their communities. What stands out to her most about Rodriguez is that “he’s giving people dignity.”