Sean Saved My Life with that Knife
When Cliff Nivens uttered the words, “Sean saved my life with that knife,” which coincidentally became the title of his story, we wondered if he rhymed it on purpose. “What?” Cliff responded. He paused and thought about it… ”Oh man! No! I didn’t. But that is good, huh?”
Even if the rhyme wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t surprising. Cliff may spend a lot of time working at Oak Harvest Kitchen prepping, cooking, and ringing up orders for customers, but that’s not all that he does. He is also a rapper and singer.
His persona, Campaign Papa (on instagram as @campaignpapa), is always bubbling, creatively, just under the surface.
But Cliff’s path hasn’t always been a straight one, and at times, has been full of unexpected turns.
When Cliff was released from the carceral system, he was looking for a job, and enrolled with Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO)--which provides training and employment services for people who have recently returned home from incarceration.
How did he cross paths with Mandela Partners? Through a referral from CEO staff who told Cliff about Mandela Partners’ Re-Generate Opportunity (Re-Gen) Program. Launched in 2019, Re-Gen was created to address barriers to employment for Alameda County residents, including people in re-entry. In partnership with Oak Harvest Kitchen -- a produce-centered restaurant and kitchen incubator in downtown Oakland -- Re-Gen offers food-based job training followed by paid internships at partnered food businesses to build a broad range of skills in the high-demand food sector, and gain experience in live kitchens.
"With me getting a job, came me changing."
Flash forward to Cliff’s first day of training.
“I was late!” Cliff says with a bashful smile. “I remember meeting Sean, and he wasn’t mean but he held me accountable. That was a little scary for me.”
Of course, Cliff was referring to Sean Brekke-Miesner, Food Retail Manager at Mandela Partners and Lead Kitchen Trainer for the Re-Gen Program.
This interaction was an important one. Over the next several weeks, Cliff learned the ins and outs of a restaurant kitchen from Sean; julienning vegetables and making a mirepoix were all concepts that had been foreign to Cliff before Re-Gen.
Yet, Cliff learned something else from Re-Gen that couldn’t be quantified: How to change.
“With me getting a job, came me changing. It made me more responsible, reliable and dependable,” says Cliff. “There’s no hourly wage on the corner. It doesn’t necessarily balance out so you’re always worried. Now I know what the benefits are of coming to work.”
Shortly after Cliff completed the Re-Gen training, he was offered a job at Oak Harvest Kitchen. The pride Cliff finds in his work is evident.
“My biggest achievement is my job and following through,” Cliff comments. “Showing up to work everyday and knowing I’m setting a good example for my kids is huge for me.”
In thinking about what’s next, Cliff shares a realization: “I didn’t know what I wanted but now that I got a job and I’m in a position to do what I want to do, I can think toward the future.” For Cliff, that future could include marriage, a clothing line, and/or his own restaurant. In the near term though, Cliff has his sights set on moving into a management position at his home base of Oak Harvest Kitchen or in a new kitchen environment.
So, as Cliff puts it, Sean may have saved his life “with that knife” through the Re-Gen Program, but Cliff is the one who keeps pushing on every day to absorb, learn, grow and invest in his future.