A Second Chance For Good Karma
YogaCityNYC, October 12, 2011

Karma Builders Opens Doors In The South Bronx. Skillful Carpentry and Meditation. (Illustration: Matthew Steinke)

Social Change, Ecology, And Good Business
German businessman and yogi Peter Oppermann is committed to creating a model for socially and ecologically responsible business based on the idea of second chances for people and materials alike. His new organization, Karma Builders, will employ ex-offenders in green jobs and provide them with yoga and mindfulness training at a facility in the South Bronx. Oppermann, 46, spoke with YogaCity NYC’s Sara Neufeld:

SN: Tell me what the organization does.
PO: The mission of Karma Builders is to train and employ formerly incarcerated people…. The Osborne Association has a very successful program called the Green Career Center where they screen and train people coming out of prison in a six-week program… to help them find jobs in the green industry in New York City. From this audience, we will take about 20 participants to join our six-month program, where they will get trained in woodworking and be employed at the same time and make a decent living. There will be assembly and low-skilled work they can do immediately, hard skills training and soft skills training. Hard skills is the shop work, the actual woodworking. The soft skills are mindfulness training based on work by Jon Kabat-Zinn, yoga, meditation and movement, a powerful complement for people to become more aware of their actions and make healthier choices in life.
The clients of Karma Builders are themselves local sustainable companies that need assembly services or other services that can be delivered by our participants. (The first client is Oppermann’s business, Shoji Living, which makes Japanese sliding doors from sustainably sourced wood.) We are going to seek out more clients that share our vision…. The more clients we have, the more participants we can employ to offer a second chance.
SN: Explain the societal issues you are working to address.
PO: Karma Builders’ mission is to break the vicious cycle of incarceration, unemployment and recidivism. People with a criminal record have a very hard time, especially in these economic times, to find a job… whether for lack of work skills or prejudice. Chances are high that they will fall back into their bad habits and then back into prison. Two-thirds of incarcerated people (being released) will land back in prison in a three-year period. About 90 percent of parole violators are unemployed at the time of violation in the state of New York. It is very costly, obviously, on a personal scale but also from a taxpayer perspective. It costs about $60,000 to keep an adult in prison per year. Our mission is one step at a time, one person at a time, to offer some best practices to help individuals who are ready to come back into society and also inspire other business leaders to adopt our philosophy of giving second chances.
SN: How does your business model work?
PO: We charge our clients a certain hourly rate, and we pay our participants a lower rate … generating the income to run the program. It’s a 35- to 40-hour work week consisting of work stills training, mindfulness training and shop work. Participants are paid through the whole time, including the training time. The program is only successful if people get a living wage from day one.
SN: How many people are running the organization?
PO: Currently it’s myself and one assistant (plus three interns and volunteers). Soon we’ll be hiring a contractor to renovate the space.
SN: Tell me about your background, what inspired you to start this.
PO: I’m in woodworking myself. I’m originally an engineer from Berlin, but I always loved woodworking. I started Shoji Living in East Berlin and was doing a lot of mindfulness meditation myself. I studied with Jack Kornfield and became a yoga teacher at Kripalu. It was very rewarding to build furniture in a mindful way…. I always had the dream to incorporate unemployed young adults or some population that would benefit from this simple, beautiful activity of working with wood. You see a product growing in front of you, and it teaches you patience, perseverance, attention. It’s very grounding to see something physically built that has one’s own thumbprint.
I expanded my company to the U.S. in 2006, and then right when the recession hit and Lehman Brothers fell, that was a real wake-up call for me to see that currently the way our economy is run is not sustainable. It’s based on greed and living beyond our means and polluting the planet, alienating human beings from their essence. My vision was to think of an economy that is actually sustainable, that only uses as much energy as is being regenerated, that only uses materials that can be re-grown, where the economy becomes a force to clean up the planet. That same principle also applies on a human level where people (who have been) alienated … would actually feel empowered and can contribute to further self development and ultimately awakening, if you want to go that far. The same idea of repurposing things we consider waste includes a population that’s very much on the dark side of our society. (The goal is) to consciously bring them in, to give people a second chance, address their talents and let them become a part of creating something beautiful.

– Sara Neufeld is a Brooklyn-based writer and certified Anusara teacher.

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