D.C.’s Underserved Communities Face, Fight Local Unemployment

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The smiles and laughter of many of the youth inside the first level of a building at the Richardson Dwellings Housing Development  on 54th Street in Ward 7 seem to belie the area’s rough surroundings and data about the Ward, that at first blush would not indicate an abundance of promise and opportunity for those who call it home.

Richardson Dwellings, also known as Clay Terrace, has been beleaguered by violence and unsavory activity; and according to the most recent statistics from D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, unemployment in Ward 7 stands at 19.3 percent.

But these things have apparently not stopped Sasha Bruce Youthwork — a multi-service agency providing job training and shelter, among other life essentials, to District youths ages 12 to 24 – from opening a barbershop “54th & Cutz,” in Richardson Dwellings, along with a “drop-in” center for youth to gather.  The barbershop, a workforce development initiative, is designed to provide youths – primarily African American men ages 16 to 21 – with barbering training, along with other critical jobs’ skills.

“Being young and black going into the different fields, you have to have certain life skills, you have to have, communication skills you have to be able to problem solve, you have to have these things,” said Troy Dorsey, supervisor of the barbershop program.  “So not only do we teach them the skill of barbering, we also give them the other job skills they need in order to make it.”

54th & Cutz is but one of several examples of workforce development initiatives organizations in the District have spearheaded to give unemployed residents exposure to different trades and combat the high unemployment rate in the District. In places like Ward 8 and Ward 5 unemployment is 28.2 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively, according to the city’s Department of Employment Services. For youths, especially, unemployment appears to remain remarkably high in the city – the Employment Policies Institute, for example, has put unemployment for youths in the District ages 16 to 19 at about 50 percent.

Stakeholders remain interested in addressing unemployment  among critical groups, including African-American men, those with criminal backgrounds, and those who are functionally illiterate.

“In the District there are many individuals who have criminal backgrounds that can be a major barrier,” Colleen Paletta, Vice President of Workforce Business Development  at Goodwill of Greater Washington, told Politic365, discussing several barricades to employment experienced by District residents.  “Number two it is just the basic literacy —  there’s statistics that show that about 30% of District residents are functionally illiterate, which means they’re reading and writing at below a sixth grade level .”

The range of workforce development initiatives in D.C. are training residents in a variety of vocations and professions.

Goodwill of Greater Washington for example, trains residents through its 14 retail stores in the D.C. metro area. It has a program called AbilityOne, that trains and employs more than 150 disabled residents, in addition to a pre-apprenticeship program that provides green jobs training, said Paletta.

The Department of Employment Services also provides hospitality, construction, and carpentry training to residents, among other training opportunities.   At a recent job fair sponsored by U.S. Rep. Eleanor Homes Norton, D-District of Columbia, D.C.’s Department of Employment Services Director Lisa Mallory mentioned that the city even planned to offer entrepreneurial training initiatives to unemployed residents, telling attendees at a morning workshop that she realized that “not everybody wants to work for somebody.”

But training opportunities do not seem to invariably translate to automatic jobs.

An attendee of a morning workshop at the job fair, Harold Barnes, 29, of southeast D.C., told Politic365 that he enjoyed the “lecture” at the fair, but was still in want of a job.

“They had pretty good lecture, we always get pretty good lectures, but these jobs don’t actually come through for us.”

Barnes said he was an electrical journeyman and had EPA 608 HVAC and 609 auto certifications, in addition to “some college credits” but had been looking for work for about a year as he was laid off from his previous position.

While residents still seek job training and actual jobs, workforce development organizations are worried that potential cuts to federal and city spending brought on by the national economic situation will impact the extent of services they are able to provide.

“I am horrified and I think that we are very frightened about what this means to people that we know are in a very tough spot to begin with,” Deborah Shore, Executive Director of SashaBruce Youthwork. “When they talk about cutting, what they are talking about cutting is called discretionary spending, which is all the kind of social service work that we do.”

Still, SashaBruce is measuring its success, in part, in terms of the impact it is making in help youth get jobs.

“A lot of how we measure ourselves is jobs that young people get. We have had tremendous success at helping young people get jobs, in part because our training programs are really geared to increasing and teaching the skills that you need to be a good worker, which is what everyone looks for,” said Shore.

And for Shinar Little, Ward 7 resident and a supervisor at SashaBruce’s drop-in center at Clay Terrace, the services his organization provides have been extremely valuable to the local youth, exposing them to educational and job opportunities that they might not otherwise have and “teaching them respect and some true core values.”

“We’re all limited to our experiences and exposure,” said Little.

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