Most of the people who come to the Civic Works’ Center for Sustainable Careers in East Baltimore are black, and a great majority have criminal records, which keep them locked out of employment. It’s part of a cycle of injustice that the center was created to combat.
“Black residents of Baltimore are five times more likely to be arrested than white residents.”
“Black residents of Baltimore are five times more likely to be arrested than white residents,” says the center’s director, Eli Allen. They also face challenges stemming from being members of a marginalized community.
Allen explains a typical scenario in which people with little disposable income have vehicles that need repair, but they can’t afford to get them fixed. If they are pulled over and get a ticket for the car problem, they still don’t have the money to correct it. When they are stopped repeatedly, they get tickets, fines, interest, and penalties. Eventually, they lose their driver’s license. And if they continue to drive, they are committing a criminal offense.
“There are great disparities in the judicial and economic systems, so we need to create equity,” Allen says. “We help participants navigate these inequities. We need more programs like this.”
The center has social workers and a retention specialist on staff as well as ready access to a number of pro bono lawyers. They help center participants get driver’s licenses, gift cards for gas and buses, and they can even help them get their criminal records expunged.
The center also provides financial planning to help participants manage debt and pay bills on time. It offers them assistance in creating resumes and filing taxes, instruction in preparing for interviews, and even introduction to a men’s store where they can get free suits.
Established in 2003, the center has enrolled more than 1,000 participants in classroom and field training programs, leading to careers that are sustainable in two ways: The men learn skills so they can provide for their families, and they work in solar energy installation, stormwater management, environmental remediation, and home energy efficiency. The program is currently enrolling more than 125 new participants per year in training that lasts two to six months.
The center’s published budget for fiscal year 2019 totaled $4.3 million, which was 13 percent federal funding and 87 percent from foundations, NGOs, and corporations. The federal funds are from the Department of Labor, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Food Stamp Program. Regarding the latter, Allen states, “In 2017, the Food Stamp Program provided $105,000. In 2020, the Food Stamp Program is giving us $1 million.”
Participants are included on the center’s payroll from the first day at minimum wage. After completing initial training, passing tests, and meeting other requirements, they get a construction job among the center’s employer partners, where the average wage is just under $16 per hour.
Allen states that the placement rate is 94 percent, and after two years, the retention rate is 84 percent.
Recently the center announced it would enroll 100 additional participants per year for a new utility infrastructure training program with Baltimore Gas and Electric. The newly added participants will undergo special training lasting seven week, paid for by the utility, so they can replace older equipment to maintain the system’s reliability and safety.
In interviews for this article, participants credit the center with teaching them skills they need to succeed.
“I used to have a nonchalant attitude about being punctual,” says Mac, twenty-eight, who like others quoted in this article, asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy. “When I came to the center, I was half an hour late the first day of training, ten minutes late the second day. But I haven’t been late since my third day here. They made it clear. If I really want to learn to install solar panels, I’ve got to get here on time every day.”
“We all band together. I will be okay, and my family doesn’t need to worry about me anymore.”
Orlando, a fifty-two-year-old convicted felon and former drug user, agrees the center has made a big difference for him. “I realize I’ve got more of my life behind me than ahead of me,” he says. “A friend told me about the center, so I came here and learned that you don’t just get a job but get training for a career. Solar is coming to this city, and I want to be a part of it. I’ll get a Certificate of Completion.”
“There’s also a lot of love here,” Orlando continues. “We all band together. I will be okay, and my family doesn’t need to worry about me anymore.”
The center has an Enrollment Committee comprised of four staff members experienced in social work, human resources, training, and retention. There are four meetings with each applicant as well as skills assessment in which committee members observe how applicants complete a construction project and see the level of comfort applicants have in doing this type of work. In addition, committee members look for construction work or, at least, each applicant’s experience working with his hands.
“We find that very often someone’s criminal record is not very relevant to their succeeding in a career,” Allen states. Instead, committee members listen to the applicant’s commitment to building a career, gauge their interest and ability to reach their goals. About 20 percent of applicants are accepted.
Allen believes there are two reasons the center’s program is replicable across the country. “There are different types of training programs with many similarities to us, and there is major growth in green economy that is part of a national movement,” he says. One way to satisfy that growing need is by employing people who might be overlooked “because of criteria that are not really relevant,” he states. “A criminal record is not an accurate reflection of who these people are.”
The center’s participants say they are happy to be correcting past mistakes, receiving a steady income, learning a trade that can carry them into the future, and working with people who care about them. And they are passionate about finding ways to make positive contributions. This passion would have even more profound benefits if the center’s program was replicated throughout the nation.
“My stepfather passed two years ago, and my mother is living alone, so I want to help her,” Orlando says. “I’m fixing up her old house, doing carpentry, and bringing in people I know for new wiring and plumbing. It’s time for me to take care of my mother like she took care of me. It’s the right thing for me to do.”
Jason, thirty-nine, also has a tale to tell. “My six-year-old son was having trouble in school. I’ve got a psychologist working with him, and every night, I sit down with my boy. I tell him about my day, and he tells me about his day.”
Mac doesn’t have children, but has “stepped up to the plate with my young niece and nephew, and I’m helping raise them,” he says. “Also, I’m very close to a cousin I grew up with, and she has a man in prison who is very special to her.” With tears in his eyes, Mac continues, “I call him often, and I tell him all about the center. He can really help himself if he comes here. As soon as he’s out, I’m bringing him here.”