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A job creation program that really works
YouthBuild Providence offers a productive path out of poverty for at-risk young people

He doesn’t remember the first punch or the first kick, or even the faces of his attackers. After Luis Diaz’s unconscious body was dumped in a lake in western Massachusetts, all he remembers are sounds: his fellow gang members screaming as they dragged him out of the water; his own ragged breathing as he gasped for air. For Diaz, whose face was too swollen after the assault for him to see, the memory will always be nothing more than a soundtrack.

Maybe the rival Latin Kings — angry with him for stealing their drug customers — had decided to teach him a lesson. Maybe some of his own gang brothers had turned against him. Diaz still isn’t sure. Regardless, as he lay in the hospital for three days, blind to the world, he knew then that his life had to change. But after moving to Rhode Island to get away from gang violence, dropping out of Shea High School in Pawtucket, and fathering a child at age 16, it took a program like YouthBuild Providence for Diaz to turn his life around.

Founded in 1996, YouthBuild Providence offers job-skills training and education to youth and young men ages 16-to-24, with the goal of channeling graduates into union jobs in the building trades. YouthBuild reaches out to primarily minority high school dropouts, many who have been incarcerated, and like Diaz, affiliated with gangs. The local organization is part of YouthBuild USA (www.youthbuild.org), a 15-year-old nationwide network of more than 200 programs that first gained federal funding, through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), during the Clinton administration. The program operates in partnership with the Providence Plan, a nonprofit state-community initiative working to enhance the city’s social and economic well-being.

Over the course of 10 months, YouthBuild students earn their GEDs while learning marketable construction skills. In the process, the program aims to empower youths to rebuild their communities. Along with a myriad of other community service efforts, every YouthBuild class constructs affordable housing in the city where it is based.

Before joining YouthBuild, Diaz worked a string of low-paying jobs as a cleaner at the Providence Place Mall, a worker at Boston Market, and a janitor for UNICCO. Today, he has the skills to land a unionized construction job upon graduation from the program. "I was in a dead end," says Diaz, who is now 23. "YouthBuild is the best thing that’s happened to me in years. I know where I’m at and what I want to do. I want to be successful in business, have a house, a place where my kids can play. I can see myself [as] a happier person in the future."

Although not every student graduates, the program seems effective. A 2003 study of 882 YouthBuild graduates (from more than 60 sites) by researchers at Brandeis University and Temple University, for example, showed that 75 percent were working at an average hourly wage of $10, going to school, or training for jobs; 65 percent thought they would live longer; 76 percent were receiving none of three government supports (food stamps, welfare, or unemployment benefits); and 80 percent exhibited none of three negative behaviors (sold marijuana or "hard drugs," been convicted of a felony, or spent time in prison).

On a larger scale, the appeal of this effort can be seen in a simple mathematical comparison. The $11,000 spent per-participant by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is far less than what it takes to keep someone incarcerated for a year at the Rhode Island Training School ($65,000) or the Adult Correctional Institutions ($35,000). By offering a model for lifting vulnerable people out of poverty, YouthBuild offers a viable channel for federal investment in individuals, jobs, and communities. Yet despite increased bipartisan support, YouthBuild still reaches only a very small percentage of the young people who stand to benefit from it.

YouthBuild USA chairwoman Dorothy Stoneman, who established the program in response to the need she saw for good jobs in East Harlem, notes that only about one-quarter of the roughly 1000 communities that have requested funding have been able to receive support. "The investment in poor communities of color is disastrously low," Stoneman says. "There’s a lot of good rhetoric about it, but rhetoric alone is inadequate."


Based in Olneyville, YouthBuild Providence is run out of a converted bakery: a yawning, industrial space divided by narrow wooden partitions into makeshift offices, a computer lab, and a classroom. The motto "As a Community" is stenciled on the walls, along with colorful murals. After class, students linger in the common room, gabbing and laughing before heading out the door. Some stay to play a game of chess in a place that they’ve come to think of as a second home.

As part of its emphasis on community, every YouthBuild USA program helps its students to construct affordable housing, and YouthBuild Providence is no different. Given how the average price of a medium-sized single-family home in Providence (excluding the East Side) has more than doubled since 1999, such efforts are badly needed. The disconnect between home ownership and affordability is greater still in predominantly minority sections like Olneyville, which has the lowest median household income ($17,538) in Providence, and where the percentage of children living in poverty has risen in recent years to 54 percent.

Given such dire social indicators, YouthBuild also offers the promise of a better future for the participants. "Since the economy has become so service-oriented, there are very few well-paying blue-collar jobs left, but construction’s one of them," says David J. Maron, a partner in Providence-based Maron Construction and a member of YouthBuild’s advisory committee. In Rhode Island, he notes, a union carpenter can make $50,000 a year and receive health benefits. "And unlike manufacturing," Maron adds, "construction can’t move away to China."

Between the rise of luxury condos, GTECH’s forthcoming $80 million corporate headquarters, and other elements of the downtown building boom, YouthBuild is equipping its students for entry into an opportunity-rich trade. More than $2 billion in citywide construction is slated to occur over the next four years.

To Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, which coordinates a team of street workers trying to reduce violence in Providence, the opportunities offered by YouthBuild are invaluable. Still, Gross considers the program’s staff even more remarkable. "I have gang members telling me, ‘[YouthBuild] is my second home, I go back there when the day’s over,’ " he recalls. "With YouthBuild, it’s tough love and kids are challenged, but kids know they’re being loved."

At the heart of this effort is Andrew Cortes, 32, the unassuming executive director of YouthBuild Providence, who spent his earliest years doing carpentry for slumlords in Oakland, California. After relocating to Providence in 1999 and taking on work with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Of America, Local 94, Cortes learned about YouthBuild through a friend, and he immediately identified with the program’s mission.

"These are kids society’s just thrown away, discarded — it’s completely ridiculous," he says. A union carpenter since he was 17, Cortes is used to working by the hour with overtime pay. Now, he works six days a week and up to 13 hours a day at YouthBuild. "The need is very much there," he says. "It’s worth it."

With high school dropout rates averaging more than 37 percent in Providence last year, the demand for YouthBuild easily surpasses what the program can offer. Every year, YouthBuild receives nearly 140 applications for 30 openings. Students are referred to the program largely through word-of-mouth: from probation officers, the ACI, the Training School, and, overwhelmingly, friends. Over the years, YouthBuild has built a sound reputation in Olneyville, the South Side, and the West End, communities that the majority of the students in the program call home. "I wish [YouthBuild] could offer more spots," says Gross. "But for programs like YouthBuild, and young people with no skills and tough pasts — there’s very little investment in them."

YouthBuild Providence gets the bulk of its funding through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which this year gave it $350,000. Because of recent uncertainty about federal money, however, the program has made a concerted effort to diversify its funding. The United Way of Rhode Island, for example, recently awarded YouthBuild a $100,000 grant, and this year, for the first time, the Rhode Island Department of Education is supporting it with $60,000 in funding.

Most of the effort’s expenses involve supporting an eight-person staff. The rest goes into student stipends, training, and other programming expenses. On the whole, says Cortes, "It seems like a bargain in terms of effective government spending."

Other local observers feel the same way. Frank Shea, executive director of the nonprofit Olneyville Housing Corporation, who cites YouthBuild’s positive impact in the area, calls the federal reluctance to offer greater support "pennywise and pound foolish. If 10 months in a program like YouthBuild can put youth on the road to good-quality jobs, that’s a solid investment."


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Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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