Working for a chance at a job

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The Washington Post
By: Theresa Vargas
December 8, 2010

It's a Monday morning and Rodney Brown's 28 students shuffle into a lime-colored room at the Department of Employment Services on H Street NE. Several arrive late. Many wear clothes made for lounging, not impressing.

"I see some of you wearing tennis shoes," says Brown, his 6-foot frame tidy in gray slacks and a tie. "You come in here tomorrow with them, and I'm going to have to send you out."

He is just getting started. Around him, shirts are untucked. Belts bear blinged-out buckles. Pants sit low - too low.

"How you going to get on Air Force One with your pants down to here?" Brown says, hitting the sides of his thighs. "If you know you don't wear size 40, why you buy size 40?"

"And sisters," he says, "we know you like to look sexy, but. . . ."

This is Project Empowerment, the District's most expensive job-training program, aimed at one of its most desperate populations. The goal: Take participants from the only Washington they've known, where unemployment is chronic, and show them a city they've watched from afar, where women wear practical heels and men match their belts to their wingtips.

Of more than 800 participants the program serves each year, nearly all are African American, 80 percent have criminal records and many have never held a full-time job.

The $11 million-a-year project, begun in 2001 as a welfare-to-work endeavor, has become so popular on the District's roughest streets that no advertising or recruiting is necessary. About 7,000 names linger on a waiting list. Those who receive the call will earn $6.69 an hour (after taxes) while they attend a three-week class. If they graduate, they will get a six-month subsidized stint at a workplace that has agreed to take a chance on them. And if that goes well, they might finally land a prize that too few people around them have won: steady employment.

But first, they must pass a soul-scraping test: a class like Rodney Brown's on what it takes to make it in the other Washington.

Among the students that first day are three people facing very different barriers to employment. In the back row sits Antoine "Ali" Moore, who went to prison as a teenager and came out an adult. Tucked in the middle row is Patrice Taylor, a single mother of two known to throw a punch. Front row center is Johnny Perkins, who is trying to start over at 55, when most men are thinking about retirement. For six months, The Washington Post followed the three through setbacks and triumphs to see if what they learned in Brown's class would be enough.

"None of you in here were slaves!" Brown shouts that first day. "None of you in here were killed for reading a book. We have people who come here from another country, don't know the language or nothing, and they learn the system better than us. At one time, we were second-class citizens. Now we're third-class."

And then he tells his students: "If I'm hard on you, it's because I love you and want to see you succeed."

The way Patrice Taylor dresses turns heads. Tall and slender, she wears clothes that cling to her curves. She prefers heels, sexy and high. And she has her nails done every two weeks, often in bold colors - Caribbean blue one week, Concord grape another.


But Brown's class is making her think. One day, Taylor posts this nugget from class as her Facebook status update: "Don't dress like who you are or where you come from. Dress like who you want to be and where you want to go."

Taylor, 26, will tell you she is shy, and she often glides her hand over her mouth when she laughs, covering her braces. But of the five women in the class, she is the most outspoken, her hand shooting up almost daily to ask questions.

It's up on the day that representatives from a bank visit to distribute checkbooks for the direct-deposit accounts they've set up for each student.

"If our routing numbers are the same," Taylor asks, "is it safe for us to switch checkbooks?"

No, one bank man explains, because the account numbers are different.

Taylor is one math test short of earning her GED and hasn't worked full time since 2006. She joined the program, she says, because of her children, Za'Dayja, 6, and Tyrell, 9, whose names are tattooed on her arm.

Short-term, her goal is to pass the test and find a job. Long-term, she wants to move out of a subsidized, rundown house in Northeast. "When I hit 30, I want to have everything my own," Taylor says - her own house, car and steady income.

She wants her children to be proud of her. Za'Dayja is the best reader in her first-grade class but is showing behavioral problems. Tyrell, who smiles easily, once saw his mother tussle with a woman outside their house; after that, every time she left, he'd ask, "Where you going, Mom? To fight?"

Taylor admits she was a fighter - at school, at clubs. When she was 17, she was stabbed in the head and back during a scuffle. Still, she fought.

She says she was angry at parents who, before going straight, paid more attention to drugs than to her. "When I used to fight, I didn't feel nothing," she says. "I didn't feel no punches, nothing."

In 2008, she was arrested for simple assault and spent less than 24 hours in custody. That's when she decided it was time to change.

Two years later, she has cut way back on clubbing and is hungry for work. On her last day of class, when job assignments are doled out, Taylor will refuse hers because it's in a neighborhood where she had a "beef with some girls." She will turn down the next one as well because it's in telemarketing, a job she has already held. She wants something better now, more than a job - a career.

For graduation, the class picks two speakers - and Taylor is one of them. Less than an hour after she is told of the honor, she starts scribbling a draft, scratching out words and drawing arrows where paragraphs need to be moved.

Her last line: "And now I am dress for success!"

"Let me ask you," Brown says. "Do you think there are more black men in jail or college? How many say jail?"

Across the room, hands rocket up.

"How many say college?"

Three hands rise, hesitantly.

"There are more black men in college than jail," Brown says. "Never forget that."

He tells the class he knows where they come from because he is from those same streets. But he no longer responds to his street name, "Slim." His students may hang out with the same crowd they've always known, but Brown, 39, spends his evenings with professionals, collecting business cards. Once he couldn't imagine wearing a tie; now he owns more than he needs.

Brown's students talk about the American Dream. They read about a crack addict who goes from living on the streets to becoming a lawyer. When the class members discuss how to handle questions in a job interview, they hone in on one topic many of them dread: Have you ever committed a crime? (Some propose to just say yes and move on. Others argue for explaining how they're no longer the same person.)

Project Empowerment Director Charles Jones says the program seeks to arm people, many of whom have never graduated from anything - not college, not vocational school, not high school - with the tools they need to make it in a new environment. Although some question the city's decision to subsidize employment, Jones says it's necessary to ease the hard-core unemployed into the workplace. "Most people find employment through networking with others," he says. "Imagine their network of friends."

Jones dismisses the idea that those who have never worked simply don't want to. He sees graduates of the course wearing their work uniforms all day - not because they have to, but because they're proud of them. He receives 10 letters a week from inmates asking how they can get into the program once they're released.

Brown tells students they must choose: Stay in the jungle, where only two things can happen - get killed or captured. Or change.

"A lot of us fear employment," he tells his class. "A lot of us don't believe we can make it in the world. You got more poor white people in America than poor black people. But you don't know that. All you know is what you see."

Johnny Perkins is running a fever. As soon as he sits down in class, his eyelids start to close, only to bolt open. He never falls asleep in class, but today he can't help it. An infection has formed in the ankle that doctors repaired three years ago and he knows he should go to the hospital.

He also knows that if he misses more than seven hours of class, he will be out of the program. So his mind is set: He will limp and bear the pain until graduation.

If Brown's class were ranked, Perkins, who grew up in Anacostia, probably would be the valedictorian. On the second day, he drew a diagram of a human brain on the board to explain each part's function. Some students stumble when pronouncing words; Perkins corrects the teacher's spelling: "Mr. Brown, 'excel' has one L."

One day, as the class conducts mock job interviews, Brown asks, "Mr. Perkins, what motivates you to do a good job?"

"I want to remain indispensable to you and the organization," he answers.

"I already knew you had something jazzy and fancy to say," Brown joshes. "But it's a top-of-the-line answer."

Several classmates wonder why Perkins is here, why a 55-year-old veteran who boasts of two degrees is sitting in the same room with them. A hint comes when the class discusses the story of the crack addict. Brown asks: What does this story tell you? Perkins is the first to answer:

"That all things are possible. I know from my own experience. I fell from grace and I'm in the process where I have to continue. I'm still in the process of rebuilding myself."

Each day, he wears carefully pressed pants and collared shirts, a look sharpened by wire-rimmed glasses. But each night, he goes to a homeless shelter, where he hopes his belongings, including 10 Bibles, have remained untouched. Everything he uses is communal: shower, bathroom, ironing board.

As Perkins tells it, his downfall came not because he didn't work hard enough, but because he worked too hard. He was a registered nurse for 17 years and at one point had everything he desired: nice cars, designer clothes, a big house - a property in Upper Marlboro that was tied to his name is valued at more than $1 million.

He felt invincible, he says. Until he didn't.

He was working 80 hours a week at George Washington University Hospital, he says, when depression and insomnia set in. Soon he started nodding off at work. He lost his job in 2007. Then, as he tells it, one footing after another fell away: the house, the cars, his ability to find another job.

He ended up homeless and started drinking and using cocaine, a habit he says lasted only months. He began to steal essentials from grocery and convenience stores. He got caught, and now, whenever he applies for a job, a criminal record shows up. There have been times, he says, when he has aced interviews and been introduced to the staff, only to receive a call later saying he would not be hired after all.

That's why he signed up for the program. It promised a job, if not a dream one.

"The Bible says a righteous man falleth seven times and then gets up," says Perkins, who attends church almost every night. "Basically, the philosophy is 'keep getting up.' It's only the loser who stays down."

A class assignment asks students if they believe in the American Dream, and Perkins keeps writing long after other students have put down their pens. The man who sits next to him notices.

"What are you writing?" he jokes. "A book?"

"It can't be answered," Perkins says, "in one or two sentences."

Brown knows not everyone in the class will make it. On the first day, there were 28 students; on the last, 25. After they graduate, a few more will fall out of the program.

"The problem is not getting the job, it's keeping the job," he tells the class. The students have heard him say many times that they need to stop worrying about their rights, about what's owed to them, and start thinking about their duties. "America is built on second chances," he tells them. "But you have to warrant it."

On the first day of class, Brown tells students to write down who they are, who they want to become and how they can get there.

One man who would later drop out writes, "I would like to become a successful person in the computer field and own my own business. I would like to change, because the direction I am going is not where I'd like to be."

Patrice Taylor says: "I used to think life was a party, but I got a wake-up call."

Antoine Moore says: "I would like to become a better man, brother and son. I will get there by assiduously adhering to the blueprint I set for myself. I will get there by planting seeds wherever I go."

The task seems easy enough: pick out a pair of men's dress shoes. But Moore, whose right bicep showcases a jailhouse tattoo inked with fluid from a melted chess piece, looks overwhelmed in Macy's shoe department.

They should be black or brown, he tells himself. They should have laces.

At 32, just months out of prison, Moore has never held a legitimate job, never earned a paycheck, never opened a bank account - never needed professional clothes.

But he's about to graduate from Project Empowerment, and he has been chosen to be one of the commencement speakers. For the first time in his adult life, he needs nice footwear.

He admires a pair of Stacy Adams shoes, but they don't have his size. A Calvin Klein pair looks good, but the price tag says $79. I don't got it like that. He tries on a $49 pair with thick soles, similar to the boots he wore for about 16 years in prison. They feel comfortable. They feel right.

"Whatcha think, Mom?"

"I like them on you," says Joanne Williams, who last shopped for dress clothes with her son when he was an eighth-grade honor student. "They you, that's for sure."

When he dropped out of Banneker, a selective high school in the District, Moore was a ninth-grader whose favorite TV show was "A Different World" because it was set in college, where he desperately wanted to go. "Three words: girls; girls; girls," he writes in an essay about why he quit school. "I wanted their attention and adulation. Where I am from, the only way to get girls was to be the baddest at everything. . . . After a certain age, intelligence is viewed as threatening as opposed to comforting."

Within a year, he was selling drugs. By 16, he was in jail, convicted of second-degree murder. He and three other teenagers beat and robbed a pizza deliveryman, who later died at the hospital.

"I feel bad on a level I can't even explain," Moore says. "When it happened, I didn't know this guy was a father, that he had children." A deep, triangular callus has formed on his forehead, marking the spot that touches the ground when he kneels to pray five times a day. Moore became a Muslim in prison, where he served 15 years and seven months before being released in January. He believes the best way to repent is to help others; his ultimate hope is to find a job that will allow him to do that.

When job assignments are handed out, Moore is directed to interview with a woman who is starting a GED class in Anacostia. He gets the job, but rejects the assignment because it lacks the structure he grew used to in prison. He instead finds a position with an organization filled with people like him - people who messed up and now hope to help steer the next generation toward a better life.

"You are one of the best students I have ever seen," Brown tells Moore just before the graduation ceremony. Project Empowerment tests each student in literacy and math and several fell below the goal of eighth-grade level. Moore's scores were best in both categories, 12th-grade level.

By the time Moore reaches the gym where the ceremony is being held, his classmates have filed into rows of folding chairs. Sprinkled across the bleachers are their relatives, a few carrying Mylar balloons. Moore's mother is among them. After her son went to prison, she was so devastated that she couldn't read the letters he sent home. She'd hand them to his brothers and say, "Don't tell me what they say, just tell me if he needs anything."

This is a first for her as well: She never got to see her son graduate from high school or walk across the stage at college. She watches, determined not to cry as he makes his way to the lectern in his new thick-soled shoes and reads a poem he wrote, titled "American Dream:"

My American Dream can be seen through the wondrous eyes of a child.

A child who looks all around him and is fascinated by what is and what can be.

After pictures have been snapped and balloons handed off, Moore heads to Red Lobster with his mother. She will remain his steady support as he faces a task almost as intimidating as going to prison: navigating freedom.

Patrice Taylor, wearing a pencil skirt that will come in handy for the office job she will soon begin, heads home to her children, wanting more for them than she knew to want just a few weeks earlier. And Johnny Perkins, ankle throbbing, goes to the hospital, where he will remain for weeks as his classmates begin their next, totally unscripted, chapter: a job.

Tomorrow: The crucible of work.

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on December 8, 2010 3:48 PM.

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