Things have come full circle for Kabira Stokes. Nearly 15 years after working as a wardrobe intern on the campy Wet Hot American Summer, Stokes was approaced by staff from the movie's upcoming sequel on Netflix. They were looking to rent a vintage boom box. Given her occupation, it makes sense.
Stokes, 37, is founder and CEO of Isidore Electronics Recycling, which employs former prisoners to salvage old computers, TVs and the like. "In the interview process, we bring someone in," she explains, "and the question that they are dreading, we never ask. We know you have a record — and we don't care."
It's an unglamorous industry, all pallets and forklifts inside a 6,000-square-foot warehouse between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. Each day, Stokes rolls up in her Chevy Volt. Skinny and striking, with wavy blond hair and eyes large enough to come out of a Margaret Keane painting, she looks like the fashion designer she once wanted to be.
Around 2002, Stokes was peddling her creations in downtown's Arts District. "I was in front of Zip Sushi with racks of clothes," she recalls. "This gold Cadillac pulls up and a guy jumps out. 'Hey, I'm Dov Charney. I own American Apparel. Do you want to model for us?'" She became his assistant. "Insane" is how she describes her year with Charney. "But I owe a lot to Dov. And he never tried any hanky-panky with me."
Having grown up in a Sufi household in suburban Philadelphia (she was named via a telegram sent by her parents' guru in Sri Lanka), her basic outlook is: "All of that stuff that the world puts on you, none of it matters. It's just how you treat people."
Opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stokes turned to local activism. She got a job as field deputy to then–city councilman Eric Garcetti, and while reading over neighborhood crime reports rife with gang violence, she concluded, "If white kids were dying like this, it would be on the front page of the L.A. Times every day."
Many guys, she realized, were shackled by the label of ex-con. "If they do their six years and we as a society tell them we are never going to forgive them, that's bullshit," Stokes says.
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She earned a master's degree in public policy from USC, then asked herself: "Do I want to try to make a public policy that will create jobs for people, or do I just want to create jobs?"
She chose the latter, opening her electronics recycling business in a corner of an American Apparel warehouse that Charney loaned her. Four years later, she employs 12 people, eight of whom were incarcerated. Stokes calls them "psyched to be here."
One recent day, Serena Barabas was stripping a 10-year-old Compaq computer. Media drives, RAM, CPU, battery, ribbon wire — nothing of value was thrown out. The symbolism was hard to miss. "Kabira is one of those people," Barabas affirms, "who likes to pull us out of the cracks and stand us on our feet."