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YouthBuild drawing blueprints for a second chance at Buffalo’s future

Here is one more reason that there shouldn’t be any excuses for making sure minority construction workers share in Buffalo’s building boom.

Actually, here are lots or reasons – as many reasons as there are enrollees in the YouthBuild program funded by the federal Department of Labor. The program gives a second chance to dropouts pursuing their high school equivalency diploma or other certification, many of whom get interested in the construction trades in the process.

It’s the type of program that converts potentially wasted lives into productive taxpayers. At the same time, by virtue of demographics, it could answer the complaints of those who see very few workers of color participating in the decadelong building boom that is supposed to transform Buffalo while also transforming individual lives and the distressed neighborhoods where the students come from.

YouthBuild – a program of the Service Collaborative of Western New York – already has changed Sean Norfolk.

“I’m learning. I thought I knew everything,” the 19-year-old said as he and Javon Ray, 17, learned through trial and error various ways of finding the angle at which to cut a piece of lumber that needed to fit flush against another piece as they helped rehab a LaSalle Avenue home for Habitat for Humanity.

Norfolk, who earned a round of applause earlier that morning for having just earned his GED diploma, said he couldn’t focus when he was in high school. That’s no longer an issue.

“It’s good to see how far we can go in life if you actually listen and pay attention,” he said, describing his plans to enter the Army and eventually the local painters union after earning his pre-apprenticeship certificate through YouthBuild.

Ray, who was referred to the program by his probation officer after a stint in youth detention, said that he was going through personal and family issues but that the program “made me find myself as a person, realize who I am.”

The word participants use over and over is “family” when describing YouthBuild’s support system, which includes morning kickoff meetings where knowledge coordinator Robin Barker works the room like an emcee, drawing out of students concrete steps they can take to reach their goals and reminding them of small, daily achievements they might have forgotten. It’s the type of subtle reinforcement that can inspire those facing long odds to stay on track. It’s part of a support system that also includes personal accountability combined with individual counseling and case management, leadership development and community service.

But the program also recognizes reality: Without a means of support while turning their lives around, the 16- to 24-year-old participants might feel forced into bad choices. Hence, a stipend that can reach $345 every two weeks, contingent on meeting program objectives.

It’s all part of what Kate Sarata, executive director of the Service Collaborative, calls a “holistic” approach.

The proof that it works is in the numbers. The program cites a graduation rate – remember, it’s working with dropouts – of 79.5 percent since beginning in 2002. Nine out of 10 advance at least two grade levels in their math and reading skills, and all leave with an educational credential like the high school equivalency diploma and/or an occupational credential such as the Home Builders Institute pre-apprenticeship certificate.

“They usually get both,” said Bryan Lawrence, YouthBuild director.

But that record alone would be like the tree falling in the forest. Unless someone hears it – or, in this case, sees it – the impact is limited. Someone needs to recognize the potential of YouthBuild’s graduates, some 30 percent of whom try construction work.

That puts the onus on Buffalo’s unions, most of which failed miserably to meet diversity goals they agreed to in return for a project labor agreement guaranteeing them work on the city’s $1.3 billion schools project.

But some locals now appear to be trying. For instance, Lawrence said the painters union took a couple of graduates from YouthBuild’s last class.

Wesley Schlossin, regional organizer for Painters and Allied Trades District Council 4, said they are trying to forge relationships with programs such as YouthBuild to make the union more reflective of the community and bridge the “disconnect.”

Fingers point in all directions for the lack of diversity on job sites: at unions that feel it’s enough just to say “our doors are open,” at politicians and community groups that complain but do little to help those unions that do reach out, at minority workers who fail to follow all the written and unwritten rules, and at “old boy networks” that protect their turf and create hostile environments for workers of color.

The result is protests at major construction projects underway now and the fact that not everyone is sharing in the prosperity of the building boom. Yet Schlossin said they’ve seen their numbers improve after making a concerted outreach effort over the last three years.

Those with a pre-apprenticeship certificate go right in the union’s apprenticeship program, where they get on-the-job training while starting at about $13 an hour plus benefits and a pay rate that climbs as they rack up more hours, said Mark Weisenburg, Council 4’s incoming director of training.

Granted, there are challenges that can waylay some, including drug tests, transportation to far-flung work sites and the demands of actually being in the field. Still, the union sees the potential.

“We just need to keep growing these relationships,” Weisenburg said.

With its rigorous screening process and comprehensive support system, YouthBuild should be able to help answer the unions’ complaint that “we just can’t find any.”

With its outreach efforts, the painters union provides a template that can help answer the community’s complaint that “they’re just not looking.”

It seems like a two-part formula that could be replicated to help Buffalo build more than just buildings.