Reality Check: The Myth of the University as the only option for upward mobility?!?!

Devonte is a  17 year old kid who grew up in Northwest Baltimore in the historic Park Heights neighborhood. Park Heights is notorious for having two different worlds located less than a quarter of a mile away from each other. Devonte is from Lower Park Heights, a violent, crime ridden, open air drug market with its share of abandoned houses affectionately called “abandominiums”. On the other side of Northern Parkway an invisible line is drawn where marginalized African Americans with the exception of a few that live in low cost apartments , dare cross. This side of Park Heights is called “Jew Town”. This area boasts about 20 percent of the 95, 000 Jews who reside in the Greater Baltimore Area. On the other side of this dividing line synagogues, community centers, businesses and schools that reflect the strong cultural and  religious beliefs of this community are on display everywhere. Devonte’s Park Heights is different to say the least.  Korean carry outs, liquor stores, under resourced schools,  churches and people living at a frenzied pace under the constant surveillance of police who race up and down  the streets is the stark reality here. In Devonte’s world quality education is an illusory ideal at best and fantasy at worst. Students here are taught by teachers who are clueless about neighborhood kids and the culture of poverty associated with them. Schools are not safe, and  survival of the fittest mentality sets in if one is to attend and go home the same way that he or she enters. Academically, the picture is just as grim. The local high school is inept at preparing kids for college particularly in the areas of math and science. A large portion of the kids in this neighborhood become high school dropouts with the underground economy becoming the seemingly only viable option. Hence, the reason for this blog entry. Kids who grow up in this environment would probably do better if there was an apprenticeship model in secondary education where they could learn a skill that has a good employment outlook such as: welding or  carpentry,  HVAC, plumbing, steamfitting and the like.Students would be actually learning while getting the opportunity to experience workplace culture and use their hands and minds simultaneously. Most of these jobs pay a livable wage and in some cases have union representation. The expectation when an individual comes from impoverished neighborhoods with poor schooling that he or she go to a four year college where their lack of preparation is on display and the financial aid granted by the federal government is exhausted to pay for remedial courses is absurd. Upon entry, a large portion of these kids choose majors that lack the potential for a livable wage and have poor employment options. With the revitalization of the manufacturing industry here in the United States, with an emphasis on automation, and the ever growing fields of computer programming, dental hygienists and other middle skilled jobs that pay a good salary, why not start apprenticeship programs at the high school level? Coupling career and technical education at the high school level along with encouraging more of the student population post high school to enter into vocational fields with better economic opportunities could be a start in leveling the playing field in the future when it comes to economic disparity.This is not suggesting they attend for profit career schools, which are truly a pariah to these communities which will be discussed in detail in the next post.


The Baltimore Uprising: Freddie Gray and Baltimore from a Workforce Perspective+

The last 8 months have been especially hard particularly for the cities of Baltimore, MD and Ferguson, MO. The untimely and catastrophic deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown have caused quite an uproar nationwide. The issues of community policing, poverty, youth engagement, and power, in general, have been discussed at length. As a human services professional here at ground zero (within 5 city blocks) of the civil unrest it has been interesting to say the least to watch this play out. The topics of power, poverty, and the urban poor if nothing else are economic issues. The day after the initial uprising, a discussion involving politicians, faith leaders, local gang members, and community non-profit leaders was held and the discourse followed a familiar tone. The cries of “Something needs to be done, youth need to be heard and the community needs reform”, rang out from all sides of the spectrum. It makes one reflect on an ad that plays often here on local television where there is a character named Captain Obvious who constantly makes declarations that are obvious to everyone. The most intriguing part of the discussion was actually when the least formally educated individual started to talk. A local member of the blood gang waited patiently for his chance to add to the dialogue and what he said was simple, yet profound, and transcended the general conversation. What was his statement? He said and I quote verbatim “I understand what everyone is saying but when all this is over can someone get me a job?” You mean at the end of the day having a chance to use your gifts, skills and abilities coupled with a passion for what you do could actually in some small way change the trajectory of an entire city? You mean that a lot of the issues that we see in inner cities are not necessarily linked to laziness, crime, and under achieving individuals and just maybe these are symptoms and not the root cause? There is a level of dignity and self worth that accompanies gainful employment. We were created to cultivate and subdue and make something of this beautiful earth we were given. Sadly, when that opportunity is blighted or not actualized it creates a vacuum, an angst that perpetuates into a feeling of worthlessness. Maybe gainful employment and a living wage and a tangible investment into the promotion and dignity of all individuals starting with children will be the next Baltimore Uprising. The young man’s phrase can be interpreted another way: Can I contribute? Can I add value? Can I use my gifts? Can I work? Well…Can he? This is why an investment in workforce development is not an option, but a necessity.

Uneducated and Unemployed. How can I compete in the world of work?

It takes work to get work. Being unemployed is not attractive for employers. Business owners want to see a pattern of work for an individual to be considered for employment. What are the options for an individual who lacks higher education, and also has a poor work history? So much of what is coined as the job search starts with introspection and is rooted internally. Most people do not realize their natural gifting and how those gifts can be used to find gainful employment. If an individual pursues their talent, hones in on what they love to do and better understands their personality, they are on the road to gainful employment. Why not find an organization where you can volunteer once you discover the areas you are passionate about? Why not continue your education in fields that are suited for your passion? When interviewing, employers are impressed by individuals who are pursuing the needed skills they do not currently possess.  Is there a business model that could be created that allows you to use the natural gifts and innate passion that you have that is also needed by the market? Where have you previously volunteered? What occupational training do you have? Do you have strong references? If an individual can show outstanding character verified by professional references this can balance some of the other deficits previously mentioned. The hard truth is that the unemployed individual has to be highly motivated and confident to establish momentum. Lastly, one of the most important things is that the prospective employee continues to read and learn and be inspired by their preferred future. When waiting for employment it is easy to become discouraged. An individual must be a driven learner, who has positive upwardly mobile associations (relationships) and a deep conviction that their hard work will pay off. 

Everyone Wants to Work! Dispelling the myth of laziness in African American culture.

For years there has been a myth in mainstream American culture that to some degree goes unchallenged. The myth is that African American people who live below the poverty line do not want to work, and are inherently lazy. This myth has widespread implications for both public policy and those in the non- profit world who work in the fields of human services and workforce development. Though this line of thinking is pervasive it couldn’t be more untrue. Work is about dignity and it is inherent in what it means to be human. People want more than anything to feel useful and to have meaning in the world. One of the most tangible ways in which this is done is through work. In working with the underserved and those who have been incarcerated I’ve found that for most people, the underground economy is a default last ditch alternative rather than a preferred option. Men and women feel better when they are employed, and this sentiment is expressed in the lives of their loved ones. The underground economy is an expression of their despair, and shows a lack of belief in the self and their ability to attain the American dream. Contrary to popular belief folks want a vocation that gives them meaning and hope while providing a living wage. If opportunity knocks and people are awakened to their gifts you’ll find that working is what they desired all along. Psychologist Victor Frankl says that man’s search for meaning is the ultimate pursuit in life. I concur and would expound further by saying that work is an integral part of materializing that meaning.

Gone But Not Forgotten? Have those that “made it” forgotten about those “stuck in the hood?”

Where are the middle class business owners who have achieved some level of entrepreneurial success? Well, we know where they are. The better question is why are they not in under resourced communities? How do second generation African Americans who have achieved some measure of success act as if they have forgotten about those left behind? The evidence is clear that African Americans are splintered as a community because of integration. Due to White Flight, then black middle class flight and the race riots of the sixties the African American community has lost some of the solidarity that it had during the civil rights movement. This is evident, while some blacks are fulfilling the American dream, others are left in the nightmarish residue of racist policies of old. How can you have rich, black, middle and upper class communities with abandoned, poor ostracized communities of people who are their relatives? What does this say about our souls? We know the struggle of previous generations before integration and yet ignore the struggle of abandoned children of this generation. This is tragic to say the least. What are some steps in connecting the dots for the uplifting of all people in the African American community? To start with black business owners should be willing to hire and apprentice young adults in their various fields. In addition those who have “made” it could mentor some kids in less fortunate or impoverished areas. Lastly, those most educated in the African American community should return in some measure and spend money in the African American community possibly providing start up capital to young African American entrepreneurs. A final note, gentrification does not have to come from those who do not have the best interest of the community as a whole in mind. Gentrification could come from those who intentionally relocate so that shalom and empowerment can be seen and everyone can experience”the dream”.


What happens to the thousands of young men who are released from prison into a knowledge and service economy? The majority of them leave prison with the posessions they entered prison with and little more. Most people would agree that they shouldn’t leave prison with wealth or riches however few would argue that these men are destined to repeat their deviance if there isn’t a drastic change that takes place in their circumstances and more importantly in their character. Where does an ex-offender start when he/she leaves the institution? Let’s look at their options. Social Services(DHR) is an option, they can receive government assistance for food (snap), possibly temporary cash assistance, as well as temporary health insurance. Ex-offenders can go to nonprofits for job readiness programs whre they can receive assistance in career development (resume writing, basic interviewing skills). Ex-offenders can go into the job market independently and compete for employment. Lastly, they can go into the underground economy and risk going back to prison. There are 3 things that an ex-offender must have to be successful after reentry. They must have a transendent vision, a plan and  support. The vision must be based on contemplative introspection where they look at their skills, abilities, desires and their personality makeup. The vision must also include a transcendent cause that motivates them so that they can endure hardship. After the internal work is done they will have the focus needed to pursue appropriate employment.   The planning aspect must include flexibility, it must be written, it should include appropriate training, and be visible to the ex-offender at all times. The plan should be time sensitive and realistic. The final thing needed is support. They must have coaching, accountability and encouragement. The source of the support is less important than having the support itself. The ex-offender will leave prison and hear no often, they must be prepared for this and have the stamina to persevere. With vision, a plan and support the ex-offender can reenter society and become a productive citizen.

Quality Workforce Correlates with Stable Families and Community Engagement

Economic growth has always been an indicator of workforce development.  However, it is also a “criterion of social development” (Ciurlau, 2001). This social development fosters the attitude to gain and retain employment. Workforce development can also solve the needs associated with the social-economic development in urban areas. Although it can be costly, if done the right way, workforce development can prove to be economically efficient.

At African-American Memphis, Tennessee based churches, workforce development programs were examined.  The findings not only indicated an awareness of community workforce activities and assets, they also indicated that those that were aware of them participated “heavily in their communities” (Harrison, et. al. 2006). There were also financial indicators outlined that showed families’ stability based upon length of time at an address and income over time.

Giloth’s Learning from the Field: Economic Growth and Workforce Development in the 1990s, highlights best practices that were learned while developing the workforce development field. Not only does the article indicate that those who are sustainably employed have “deep community connections” but they also have faced less challenges in gaining access to resources in the community (2000). New Directions for Youth Development’s Issue editors’ notes by Hynes and Hirsch, drives home the bottom line of workforce development’s effective in urban centers. According to Hynes and Hirsch, having an equipped and “well-trained workforce is necessary for a healthy economy, productive citizens, and strong families” (2012).

This is an integral part of why policy makers need to pay attention to the workforce development, particularly in “underground” communities. Not only do they affect the economy, they also affect the stability of families and communities.


Ciurlau, A. (2011). THE QUALITY OF EMPLOYMENT, FACTOR OF ECONOMIC GROWTH. Annals Of The University Of Craiova, Economic Sciences Series, 137.

Giloth, Robert P. (2000). Learning from the Field: Economic Growth and Workforce Development in the 1990s. Economic Development Quarterly, 14(4), 340-359.

Harrison, H. D., Wubbenhorst, W. H., Waits, M., & Hurt, A. (2006). THE ROLE OF THE BLACK CHURCH IN COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT EFFORTS: A WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT CASE STUDY. Social Work & Christianity, 33(3), 288-305.

Hynes, K. and Hirsch, B. J. (2012), Issue editors’ notes. New Directions for Youth Development, 2012: 1–6.

Prison Culture at Home: The Institutionalization of the African American community.

One of the cataclysmic results of prison industrialization is that the culture of prison is pervasive in African American communities. Although African American women are being incarcerated at alarming rates, this post will focus mainly on African American men.  According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for prison reform, one in every three African American males born today will go to prison in their lifetime. This is staggering to say the least. For Latinos one in every six males will go to prison, and for white males one in every seventeen males will go to prison. This brings me to the purpose of this post. If one third of black men go to prison then what happens when the language, clothing, and the  survival mentality that it takes to make it in prison comes home with these men? If a man has spent 10 years in a correctional facility, what habits has he brought home with him? A twelve year old boy once told me that his friends at his local school could not believe that his father had never been to prison. The same young man through consistent interaction  with his friends had a vast knowledge of prison terms and lingo. For instance, he was able to tell me what “feed up”  was,  what the meal time is referred to in the institution. He told me what a “tier runner”  was and even the difference between prison and jail. Granted, Some of the jail house lingo is being broadcast by means of the media via negative hip hop music. However, one cannot underestimate the effect of having your father absent for a large portion of your life and upon return directly or indirectly bringing prison culture into the home. To some extent this minimizes the horrible effect of prison life on  families and communities. When prison is presented as the norm whether directly or indirectly, and education is seen as a lofty ideal,  then it correlates that more African American males go to prison then get  a Master’s degree. In a knowledge based economy where education is the means for upward mobility, African American males are being socialized more to the prison life and the underground economy than to education and the employment or entrepreneurial sector. Does anyone see the implications of this?  From a generational perspective, this is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken through an emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment rather than incarceration. This  has catastrophic ramifications on the African American workforce as a whole.

Unemployment is the Enemy of Community Building

Unemployment and economical instability of any kind are a problem because not only do they both contribute to the local, national, and global economy, but they also contribute to the deterioration of the urban family and community. Quality of life in a particular community changes based upon its socio-economic status. From a sociological perspective,  the decline of quality of life in urban communities contributes to the suburban (or middle class) flight that many cities experience. This leaves the city powerless as an economic hub. A weakened or non-existent  workforce can cause uneven economic distribution and even greater financial burden on state and federal institutions.

Why do unemployment rates matter?

  1. Mass unemployment can lead to poverty. Poverty is not just a social phenomenon of the poor not having what they need to live a healthy quality of life. It is also a cycle. A part of breaking this cycle can be attributed one’s access to resources and employment.

  2. A city’s potential for business development often determines its economic stability. Unemployment in an urban hub can decrease its economic competitiveness and is not good for healthy business development.

  3. Employment can provide stability and economic success for families and communities. This stability and success fosters socio-economic growth in urban hubs.

Because unemployment manifests in many ways in any community, ways to combat it can be identified ranging from more education to new industries. Any way that it is approached has to be comprehensive. Otherwise, the problem cannot be addressed in a way that will help the community that is in need of the proposed intervention.