After the Uprising, the Mondawmin Career Center gets back to work

City Paper

Two of the primary cries among those protesting police brutality in Baltimore are “no justice, no peace” and “we need jobs.” Justice, though complex, imperfect, and sometimes heartbreaking, is the easy part. Jobs are harder.

“A lot of people have tried. Lot of good-intentioned people have failed for a long, long time . . . but jobs is the key,” Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters at a press conference after lifting the “State of Emergency” on May 6. “We’re going to focus our efforts in that direction.”

To see how city government goes about bringing jobs and economic development to Baltimore’s African-American community, City Paper dropped in on the city’s Northwest Career Center, operated by the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.

As is happens, the career center, a sort of “ground zero” in the city’s efforts to get jobs for young African-American men with criminal records, is located on the third floor of the Mondawmin Mall, which days earlier was “ground zero” for confrontations between young people and police.

Mondawmin Mall opened for business on Monday, May 4 after a week’s closure during the emergency. As did Cinnabon, so too opened the Northwest One-Stop Career Center, at the top of the escalator.

“I was on CNN,” says Anthony Burks. “I was one of the guys trying to stop the looting.”

Sitting at a round table in the large office’s nearly-empty reception area on May 5, Burks launches into his TV-honed statement. There needs to be more resources, he says. “The community is so poverty-stricken that it don’t make no sense.”

Nearby at a desk, a woman is coaching a young man. “You have changed,” she tells him, loudly enough to be heard across the room. “You are spiritual. You know how to pray.”

A small framed photo of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hangs on the wall behind her, much higher than a decorator would have placed it. Also adorning the walls are job opportunity posters and several paper signs advising “gentlemen” to remove their hats while in the office.

Burks wears no hat, but he has a frohawk. He is trying to get training to become a truck driver.

“A lot of men, including myself, that are convicted felons” can’t get regular jobs because of their records. “It’s like you’re 400 years old but you can’t get a job because of something you did when you’re 200 years old.”

Burks’ criminal record dates to the mid-1990s. He got a 10-year sentence for drug-related charges in 1997, when he was 20, and since then his court mentions are all traffic and civil matters.

Released in 2004, Burks found work with a nonprofit that aimed to set juveniles on the right path. He recently left that job because his health was deteriorating due to stress. He asked his boss to lay him off* and is collecting unemployment, he says. “I had to leave it because it was stressing me out,” he says. It was stressing him out because his bosses were hiring college graduates who “couldn’t relate to the kids.” The college graduates would quit, and Burks would then have to do their jobs along with his own.

Fewer resources for youth development are leading directly to there being fewer resources for youth development.

Burks says he hopes a commercial driver’s license will get him a decent living as a truck driver, and he can do youth mentoring on the side.

But getting there will prove a challenge as well.

A case worker tells Burks to call his former employer. The pay stubs he needs to sign up for his program should have been here an hour ago. “I’m giving you a courtesy,” the woman says. Burks gets on his phone and makes the call.

Brice Freeman, spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, says this office also has a “center within a center to help people who are re-entering” society from the prison system. So the west side office is a flagship, but there are five other offices around the city and the whole system has 100,000 visits per year, Freeman says. The office also works with business owners to give them the job applicants with the skills they need. “We are doing our very best to prepare people for jobs,” Freeman says.

This is being done with fewer resources than were available even a decade ago. Freeman says the federal support for job services has been cut in half since the turn of the century. “This office at that time was nearly 90 percent federally funded,” he says. “We now have to rely on state and some foundation support.”

There are fewer people working in this office than there were in 2004, Freeman says. But there are “a lot of different partners now.”

So government gets more complex and hard to manage as the funding falls.

Gerald Grimes is the project manager for this office. He’s worked all over the jobs system for 34 years, he says. The mall’s closure disrupted business minimally, he says.

This office normally handles 50 to 60 new customers a week, Grimes says, and so today is slower than a typical Tuesday. On the Monday orientation there are typically 25 to 30 new people. “I had 11 on Monday when the mall reopened,” he says.

The place has two tracks, one for ex-offenders and one for people without criminal records. Both start with registration and then get an appointment—usually the next Monday—for orientation. There, new customers are given a rundown of services the center offers, such as how to search for work on the computers, and people are slotted into various other classes as needed. The center helps “clear barriers to work,” such as a suspended driver’s license, a common problem among people who come to the center. Grimes shows a form letter people work from to send to a judge asking for outstanding traffic fines to be converted into community service. “Call it sweat equity,” Grimes says. About 12 people each month get their license back this way.

The classes and workshops are about evenly split between direct job-readiness or skills training and other services. There is an “expungement workshop” to help people get criminal records off the easily searchable online database. There are people to help get child-support obligations paid. There are financial literacy workshops, GED classes, and help getting vital documents such as a Social Security card and birth certificate.

Grimes teaches basic life skills too, how to behave in an interview, and even how to dress. Hence the signs about taking off your hat: “Because one of the things we’re trying to get people to understand is that you’re trying to join the workforce, the workforce isn’t trying to join you.”

Grimes says teaching a how-to-dress class taught him a few things. “I used to tell people, wear the best thing you have in your closet,” he says. One woman, hearing that, arrived for her mock interview in a stunning low-cut dress with a short skirt. “It was the best thing she had,” he says. “I could not fault her. So then I started telling people to wear what they wear to church. But you know, a lot of churches now are come-as-you-are.”

Cultural competency is a two-way street, it seems.

“A lot of people want to work, but not as many have the ability to work,” Grimes says.

One of the main skills that applies to almost any job is “customer service skills,” he says. These are the things high school kids pick up in their first part-time job, and what many Baltimore kids miss.

The Youth Services Division of the Office of Employment Development also operates the city’s summer jobs program for youth. Just 5,000 slots are funded right now; Grimes says more than 8,000 kids applied. There are probably another 8,000 or 10,000 kids who could apply.

“Until we are able to pay for every kid who wants a summer job—and we don’t have the funding to do that, which is why we have our Hire One program to encourage private employers to hire one youth,” Grimes says.

“Anyone who was affected by events, come here and let us help you.”

Dwayne Benbow knocks on the door. He came to the office today to thank his mentors here. Two years ago he went through orientation as an ex-offender. Now he has a business card as a publicist for Choo Smith of the Harlem Globetrotters.

“See, that’s how I get paid,” Grimes says as Benbow ducks out. “Did you see how my staff reacted?”

Burks, meanwhile, has been told that the truck-driving school he chose cannot be funded by the city’s career program, which offers up to $3,000 to train or retrain each worker. “I’m  not trying to get them in trouble,” he says in a phone call the next day. “I was informed that there’s no money until the new fiscal year in July.” He says he can’t make it on unemployment until then, and even if he could, the driving school he’d be assigned to, All-State, is in Dundalk, far across town. The school Burks wants to attend is a few blocks from his house and near his daughter’s school.

Grimes is sympathetic, but he says Burks is confused. “What happens is people go to these training providers and they give them their spiel,” he says. But only schools on an approved list (which can show they place more than 68 percent of their students in jobs) can be eligible for city funding. And then they need to bid to get the contract. The company Burks favors has not bid recently, Grimes says.

The good news? Fortis Institute (which is operated by the same company that operates All-State) has an office on the west side as well, Grimes says.

“It’s in our best interest to get people into training,” Grimes says. “We want as many as possible so we can spend down those dollars and get more.”

But there is bad news. The Woodlawn campus does not offer its trucking curriculum.

Burks says the point might be moot because he needs to earn money sooner. “I’m gonna try to find a job at the same time,” he says, “but I don’t want to hurt my chances of going to school.” He says the case worker told him it might depending on how much he earns, but didn’t say how much that is.

“I don’t understand it,” Burks says. “I don’t know. It’s too chaotic.”

* An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Burks had quit the job.

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