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A Philly jobs program lost six to a year of violence. Can it still help young people thrive?

PowerCorpsPHL staff built a memorial grove in honor of those lost. Keeping the rest of its members safe from the epidemics of COVID-19 and gun violence remains a delicate and daunting task.

Kalef Jones, an alumnus of PowerCorpsPHL and a staffer there, visited the PowerCorps Memorial Grove in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, built in remembrance of members who've died due to gun violence.
Kalef Jones, an alumnus of PowerCorpsPHL and a staffer there, visited the PowerCorps Memorial Grove in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, built in remembrance of members who've died due to gun violence.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The sounds of North Philadelphia traffic faded as Michael Greene’s family made their way into Fairmount Park on a recent Saturday, gathering under a tree in a grove as hushed as the eye of a hurricane. They brought photos of Greene, a handful of balloons. As his kids ran around on the grass, his sister, parents, and other relatives played his favorite music, closed their eyes, and remembered.

The site, the newly dedicated PowerCorps Memorial Grove, is both a space for reflection and a reminder of the reality that jobs programs reaching at-risk and justice-system-involved young people are often doing life-or-death work.

The seven-year-old program lost six members in its first six years. “In the past 12 months, we doubled that number, primarily due to the increase in gun violence during the pandemic,” said Julia Hillengas, executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, an AmeriCorps program run by the nonprofit EducationWorks that trains young people to work in fields like solar and green storm-water infrastructure. “We wanted to establish a space where people can come and step away from the stressors — whether it’s the pandemic, violence, or anything else.”

For programs trying to reach this demographic — who are often dealing with housing instability or homelessness, open criminal cases and probation requirements, deep poverty, domestic violence, and trauma — this year has been devastating.

In the past, programs like PowerCorpsPHL and Mural Arts’ Guild apprenticeship have documented extraordinary results: job placement rates upward of 80% (90% for PowerCorps) and recidivism rates as low as 8% (12% for Mural Arts). But they’re now contending with unprecedented obstacles: a pandemic that’s infecting and killing Black people in Pennsylvania at about twice the rate of everyone else; soaring gun violence that has caused more than 370 deaths in Philadelphia; and budget challenges that have sent them scrambling to avoid cuts at a time they believe they should be growing to keep pace with soaring need.

Given its projected $760 million budget shortfall, the city eliminated its Office of Workforce Development. It cut $1 million from PowerCorps’ budget, though this year grantors made up the difference. The Guild program, which Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden had hoped to scale up, instead cut back its slots for the coming year by at least 25%.

“We need to invest in people,” Golden said. “If you don’t make an investment with integrity, you’re not going to get the change you want.”

» READ MORE: ‘Shameful and sickening’: Philly Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, DA Larry Krasner decry the city’s surge in gun violence

In contrast to the prevailing narrative of poor Black communities — and the lived reality for many in a city where one in six young people are disconnected from either education or employment — there’s abundant opportunity. Solar companies are hiring, anticipating industry growth, Hillengas said, while Philadelphia’s storm-water management plan, part of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, ensures lucrative careers for years to come.

But this past spring, instead of teaching urban forestry, building rain gardens, and maintaining trails, she had to pour all her energy into keeping members safe.

First, that meant keeping them home, conducting workshops on Zoom — though for some it was impossible to find a quiet space to log in. Then, just as they thought it might be safe to venture back out, a summer of unrest and violence.

The losses mounted: On March 29, Jhaquil Aguilar, a young man who saw poetry and social justice in environmental restoration. On May 6, Zafir Hall, who grew up in the Blumberg towers, was locked up, and came home committed to bettering his community. On July 3, Curan Cottman, an alumnus of the program known as a community leader, artist, and musician who performed as Ronnie Vega.

» READ MORE: We published the names of Philadelphians killed by guns this year. Their loved ones are helping fill in the blanks. | Helen Ubiñas

Greene, a father of three who found his passion for landscaping while at PowerCorps, also was killed in July. His sister, Michelle Greene, said the Memorial Grove is a fitting tribute. “It’s very heartwarming, because it shows that him and the 11 other [PowerCorps members] that lost their lives are being acknowledged and honored for the contributions they put into the program, as well as the city.”

Other members were swept up in arrests in connection with protests in May and June.

One, Alexander Allen, 29, was arrested days before he was to start an apprenticeship at the Philadelphia Water Department, a coveted post. (When he stopped by a recent PowerCorps’ graduation ceremony, members actually cheered. One screamed: “You got a PENSION! You can never leave that job!”)

Allen said he was only out that night to discourage friends from doing anything they’d regret. “I was just telling them to chill.” He’s still facing serious charges, including what he says are baseless claims he assaulted police.

“It’s crazy out here now, all this violence going on and nobody got answers for it,” he said. “The sad thing about my life: I’m not able to protect my kids the way I want to. I’m still living in the same part of the city, in the heart of North Philadelphia, where a lot of this violence stems from.”

‘I’m more than some criminal’

At the Guild’s workshop, where apprentices were finally permitted to return for limited in-person sessions this summer, teaching artist Nazeer Horner, 22, started class with a crash course in art history, zeroing in on expressionism.

Then, he invited the group to sketch quick self-portraits and present them to the class. One began his remarks by acknowledging, “It’s the dumbest thing ever to get a face tattoo before you go in front of a judge.”

The program is part of Mural Arts’ restorative justice arm, which also includes prolific prison-based mural workshops, and targets young people coming home from prison or on probation. They, too, lost a member this summer, Tahmir Redding, 25, who was fatally shot in the city’s Tioga section.

Will Cooper-Balis, the program manager, conducts intake interviews with each participant. Most are seeking stable work, and a safer place to live.

Jared Cooper, a slight 19-year-old with short locks, spent months trying to secure an apartment and full-time work. At the same time, he had criminal charges looming, leaving his future uncertain.

» READ MORE: Philly’s gun violence has hit startling levels: ‘This is a real pandemic in itself’

“It’s dangerous in Philly: You step outside and say the wrong thing, and someone is going to take your life,” he said as he dabbed at a surrealist painting: grief and acrylic on paper. Even enrolling in the Guild has its perils, he said. “They’ll say: ‘You’re in the Mural Arts program? That’s stupid. That’s soft. That’s corny.’”

He’s hoping, though, it will set him on a better path, perhaps show that he deserves a second chance. “I want the judge to see I’m more than just some African American criminal.”

The Guild — art therapy meets work readiness meets on-the-job training — is among the highest-paying such programs in the city, at $13.75 an hour.

Even so, recruiting was complicated this year, Cooper-Balis said. Some candidates were making more on unemployment than they could working. And expensive and logistically challenging pandemic protocols required that the class be divided in two, alternating on-site work and virtual instruction.

One morning in November, when the Guild was priming a grimy, block-long wall in preparation for beautifying a Kensington underpass, just a half-dozen apprentices remained on site. Many had been successfully placed in jobs. Some had disappeared without explanation.

Dawan Williams, who was overseeing the crew, said he was proud of those who stuck it out. “If I can get the funding to keep these guys full-time, I’ll just do that.”

It’s opening doors for young men like Tyrese Williams, 27, who was released from state prison in August expecting he’d struggle to find a job. Instead, he was recently hired as a traffic flagger — though he worries the monitor around his ankle will limit which assignments he can take. “Now I’ve found there are multiple jobs I can do,” he said.

Holding steady isn’t enough

Pandemic budgeting crisis aside, the city remains committed to these programs, said Maari Porter, deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives. “That focus, especially on young people who have been involved in the criminal justice system and getting them into programs connected to work, remains a priority,” she said, noting that cuts were largely made up through alternative funding sources.

But those on the ground say holding steady isn’t enough.

PowerCorps is set to launch a pipeline program, to hire part-timers who will come on board in between its spring and fall cohorts, catching them as they come home from jail, for instance.

At the same time, those still involved in the justice system are facing significant uncertainty: The probation office has been closed since March, preventing walk-ins and making contact more difficult. The city terminated funding for Youth Violence Reduction Partnership caseworkers from the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network (PAAN), which had provided extra support for many young probationers considered to be at highest risk. And now, because of the court’s COVID-related slowdown, if a member does get detained, it takes weeks instead of days to get a hearing.

PowerCorps’ leaders say they’ve now figured out how to work through the pandemic, with smaller work crews and virtual classes and meetings. It’s more difficult to make emotional connections and build a culture that way, but they’re trying.

In November, a small group gathered near the Memorial Grove for a brief, in-person graduation ceremony. (The whole cohort would meet later, online.) It was a way to silently thank one another for support and guidance.

Hillengas asked members to stand in a circle and close their eyes, while a few of their peers walked by, offering literal and figurative pats on the back.

“Tap someone you grew a friendship with that you didn’t think you would,” she said. “Tap someone who maybe saw something in you that you didn’t see in yourself.”

Isaiah Alamo, a staff member and recent graduate, added: “Tap someone on the shoulder who was annoying in the beginning, but you all really made it through together.”

Suddenly, four people converged on Niara Wilson, who sprawled on the ground in a fit of laughter.

“I was annoying,” agreed Wilson, 24, of Southwest Philadelphia, who later was named “most improved” in the group. “They really worked on me a lot, to mold me and shape me into a different person that can adjust to life.”

Wilson is living in a shelter but has housing lined up, she said. She’s also about to join a program to become a certified nursing assistant and hopes to start work as a nursing aide, assisting with the pandemic response.

“PowerCorps helped me with a lot of encouragement, a lot of lifting up,” she said. “There were a lot of times when I couldn’t even eat, and a lot of times they brought me food. They made sure I was safe. They made sure I was good.”