Help Wanted

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Emeal Dumas moved with his family to North Minneapolis back in 1968, when he was a boy of 7. As a teenager, he began making some bad choices—drugs, petty crimes, and the rest—and found himself, like many young North Side men, on a fast track into the county’s corrections system.

He spent much of the last decade in and out of prison, fighting drug addiction, and searching for a way out. Then, late last year, his wife encouraged Dumas to check out a new job training program the city had established in collaboration with Hennepin County and a small network of Northside nonprofits. There he found a path to treatment and counseling, and a glimmer of hope.

“The streets were still calling me,” he says. “But something told me to be patient.”

His patience paid off. Today, Dumas has a full-time job at an auto parts recycling company in Fridley and, with the help of the folks at the Northside Jobs Connection (NJC), is studying for his driver’s license. “The program does really work,” he says.

Dumas is one of 79 chronically unemployed participants in the NJC, the city’s latest attempt to come to grips with the deadly mixture of despair, poverty, and violence that has afflicted the North Side for much of the last 40 years.

Drugs, Guns, and Gangs
It’s no secret that the key to defusing the epidemic of violence on the North Side is to rebuild the job-producing capacity of the area’s economy. Currently, too many young people have given up on ever finding meaningful employment and have turned instead to the fast money that comes with drugs, guns, and gangs.

So when a group of young North Siders stormed into City Hall in May of 2004 demanding that the city provide them with decent jobs, officials there paid attention. Chip Wells, head of the city’s employment and training program, met with Mike Wynne of Pillsbury United Communities to talk about new ways to meet this demand. They soon brought Larry McKenzie of Hospitality House into the mix. McKenzie’s organization has a long history of working with gang members and other chronically unemployed people on the North Side, so he designed a pilot project that would recruit, train, and find jobs for 35 people over a six-month period.

Because these were people with significant barriers to employment—limited work histories, criminal records, drug and alcohol problems—Wells was not optimistic. It was, he recalls, a test of sorts. “Even if we couldn’t place them, we could learn why we couldn’t,” he says.

The project opened for business last August with a budget of $30,000 and 35 hopeful candidates. Six months later, 28 of them had found work. “I was surprised how quickly we were able to get the program off the ground,” says McKenzie, whose staff was instrumental in locating and encouraging gang members to enter the program—and in negotiating with gang leaders for their release.
“There are young men out there who are not going to put down $200 a day,” he says of the big money available in the drug trade. “But they want something long-term.”

To get the opportunity to develop marketable skills and take advantage of NJC’s placement services, though, McKenzie says the staff had to carefully gauge the level of interest shown by the recruits. “We had to make sure that the young men were serious about the opportunities we were talking about,” he says.

In February, the results were favorable enough to convince NJC officials to expand the program through 2005 as part of the city’s $1.5 million Close the Gap employment initiative. NJC will work in conjunction with the citywide Neighborhood Employment Network, a consortium of nonprofit job training and placement organizations, to extend services to the 79 people currently in the program—and to the dozens more who could benefit from it.

Success Stories
Late last month, NJC officials and other city and county luminaries gathered at Pillsbury Unity House to celebrate the program’s one-year anniversary. Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, and City Council Member Don Samuels were all on hand to mark the occasion, but on this day, at least, the politicians took a back seat to program participants like Dumas, Debra Gillsmith, Gil Turner, and Rodell Young—folks who had found a path to self-respect and hope as a result of the program’s services and their own diligence.

“We’re doing the easy part,” said NJC executive director Boise Jones, who highlighted the travails of Dumas and the rest. Gillsmith has made the transition from child care worker to administrator, and Turner, who came here with a family of eight and spent months in homeless shelters, is working every day and completing the certification required to get into the construction trade.

Young told of how he followed his stepson to NJC. “He got a job driving for a catering company,” he said. “I saw his paycheck and I was here the next day.”

People want to work, said Dorothy Titus, executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council. She points to the 1,200 local residents who applied to work at the new Cub Foods on West Broadway. But for too long the North Side has been bereft of hope, caught in a “jobs or jail” economic dilemma. “It feels like Virginia in the 1970s,” she said. “There’s a real lack of hope among African Americans.”

And without hope, said Kari Neathery of the West Broadway Area Coalition, there are few long-term solutions to crime. “If we give these people an opportunity, they’re not going to be standing out on Golden Valley Road,” said Neathery of the popular drug-dealing thoroughfare. “Jobs are a way of making communities whole.”