When Billy Cole returned home from prison, he had no idea he would end up leading a nonprofit. He initially began doing outreach to fellow returning citizens through the county sheriff's office, and eventually went on to establish Supreme Felons
, a nonprofit that recently received $1.2 million from the Washtenaw County Community Priority Fund
to continue its mission of assisting former prisoners and reducing recidivism.
"We have a true, passionate mission of trying to uplift the community that most of us helped destroy," Cole says. "When we all come together, we have this common denominator of trying to sincerely have a positive effect in the community."
Members of Supreme Felons have been doing just that through mentorship, helping former prisoners find work and housing, street outreach, and more since 2019, paying for all their expenses out of their own pockets. Cole says the grant will fund more of the work the group has already been doing.
Funds for violence intervention programs
Supreme Felons is just one of several local nonprofits, most in Ypsilanti, that recently received community priority fund grants or technical assistance from the county to address community violence. In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) created a COVID-19 recovery fund to support local governments helping their communities recover from the impact of the pandemic. Washtenaw County commissioners established the community priority fund to disburse that money across five ARPA-eligible categories: community violence intervention; educational disparities; early childhood education; direct assistance to households; and housing and homelessness.
Washtenaw County Public Information Officer Crystal Campbell says that the community review body that determines who receives those funds decided to tackle the $1.65 million allocation for violence intervention programs first because "there was an urgency."
"There's been so much gun violence, and there have been parallel efforts happening in the county to address gun violence," Campbell says. "There was obviously an urgent need, so it was a priority for the board."
Three proposals received full funding, with Supreme Felons receiving $1.2 million. The Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center
received $200,000 for its restorative justice programs run in partnership with the county prosecutor's office, while Ypsilanti-based A Brighter Way
received $250,000 to support the formerly incarcerated with mentorship and access to community resources.
Two more projects were recommended for technical assistance from the county. Campbell says these projects were judged by the review body to have "good ideas that weren't fleshed out completely yet." Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper
(WMBK) and We the People Opportunity Farm
, both headquartered in Ypsilanti, are eligible to refine their proposals and reapply for the remaining $350,000 of community violence intervention funds. Campbell says both organizations will receive "close, hand-held attention from county staff to help them bring their proposals up to a level that can be funded."
Jamall Bufford, project specialist for WMBK, says he is in the process of figuring out how WMBK's intergenerational musical project, Formula 734, can be framed as violence intervention. The project's current focus
is on diverting youth from courts and the criminal justice system.
Organizations that did receive funds will also receive county assistance in making sure they have the proper documentation and know how to navigate the process of contracting with the county.
"The ultimate goal is to have organizations that may not have contracted with the county before make it to a position where they can apply to contract with the county in the future," Campbell says. "That expands and diversifies our pipeline. And being able to contract with the county ... gives those organizations bandwidth, and just imagine what they can do with that. More funding, connecting with other organizations and foundations and other governmental bodies. They'll be in a position to confidently, efficiently apply for funding in the future."
Supreme Felons to launch Supreme Builders Preparatory Academy
Cole says that while law enforcement agencies like the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office provide re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated, Supreme Felons can offer something extra: a connection to the community. Member Jeannette Hadden has been doing what the group calls "street outreach" on her own and with Supreme Felons for the last several years as well.
"Jeannette was out there doing street outreach well before we got the name Supreme Felons," says Ypsilanti resident and Supreme Felons Vice President and General Manager Bryan Foley. "You'll find her at the bus station all the time handing out tokens, directing young men and women to mental health and substance abuse agencies and programs. She helps people with toiletries or provides them with clothing, and shows them where these things are. She's been doing that for years."
Cole says Supreme Felons doesn't interfere with law enforcement efforts, and all the members know that "law and order is a necessity."
"We still feel we can help bridge that gap of understanding in our community," Cole says. "There were issues law enforcement had no idea about and couldn't find out about, because they weren't from the community. Being from this community enabled us to knock on doors and get inside homes without those people being intimidated by our presence."
Cole says he chose the name Supreme Felons on purpose because the groups's members "are not trying to hide anything."
"Those of us who are Supreme Felons have accepted responsibility for the acts that put us in the Michigan Department of Corrections," Cole says. "That leads us out of the criminal mentality to be able to adapt back here in society with a true, passionate mission of trying to uplift the community that most of us helped destroy."
Supreme Felons currently offers help with housing and employment for the formerly incarcerated, along with mentoring, youth programming, and mental health support.
The $1.2 million grant will allow Supreme Felons to do more of that work as well as adding a new program called the Supreme Builders Preparatory Academy. The program will prepare young men and women for careers in the skilled trades.
Foley says many schools no longer have shop classes or other classes in the industrial arts. Foley, a licensed electrical contractor, reached out to his local contacts in the local trade unions and got many of them to agree to train young people referred by Supreme Felons.
"They'll be trained and also they'll take them onto job sites so the young men and women can see what the construction of buildings looks like before they're finished," Foley says. "We're going to get young men and women interested in the skilled trades and get them a head start into apprenticeship programs."
Cole's ultimate hope for Supreme Felons is to intervene with young men who are involved in the criminal justice system and "prevent that pipeline to prison."
"We're planning to keep doing what we're doing, but on a much larger scale," Cole says.
Campbell says Supreme Felons is not alone in starting as a small, grassroots organization with members funding the work themselves.
"So many organizations like that start with people with ideas or a passion spending money out of pocket," Campbell says. "I hope the grant will mean that's a load off their shoulders. They don't have to decide between paying a bill and helping somebody out. It gives them breathing room and space to build out."
More information about the Community Priority Fund is available here
. More information about Supreme Felons can be found here
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.