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When Jobs are Needed, Grassroots Groups Spring to Action

Last summer, just hours after the Oakland City Council approved an agreement to turn the former Army Base into a warehouse and shipping hub, promising thousands of new jobs, the telephone at the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy office began ringing.

“We were inundated with calls. We were hearing from people who needed jobs – not today, but yesterday,” said Kate O’Hara, director of the organization’s Revive Oakland campaign, a coalition of groups working on job-creation and redevelopment of the old army base.

The calls were a stark reminder of how desperately living-wage jobs are needed not only in Oakland, but in poor communities across the nation.

Nikki Bas, EBASE executive director, speaks at a rally in Oakland, Calif. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hardy
Nikki Bas, EBASE executive director, speaks at a rally in Oakland, Calif. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hardy

Even as the stock market continues to climb, with the Dow Jones Industrial reaching a record high this week, the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is the same as it was in 2009 when the Great Recession was declared.

Many companies are holding onto profits and still sending jobs overseas.

So while millionaire-industrialists and corporate captains claim that tax breaks for themselves and their companies will create jobs for the nation, grassroots groups are on the ground creating jobs, and calling for public projects to produce public benefits.

The grassroots groups are working with municipal governments, labor unions, faith-based organizations and developers to bring training programs and living wage jobs to communities most likely to be left behind in the economic recovery.

“There is a growing awareness of what can be done locally to shift the way things are going and to get people working,” said O’Hara, director of the Revive Oakland campaign.  “As a community, we are coming up with the solutions and pushing to make those solutions work.”

The efforts can take years, even decades of laying the groundwork.  They involve more meetings than many care to count and the dedication of hundreds of volunteers who tirelessly speak at forums, write letters, and walk their neighborhoods sharing information.

Frustration and setbacks are devastating, but the eventual wins – and jobs – bring changes that ripple through the economy and change the lives of families, organizers say.

In Oakland, that means redeveloping the old Army Base with local labor, then hiring workers for permanent jobs inside the finished facility – eventually employing more than 2,500 people.

In the Texas Rio Grande Valley, it’s keeping federally funded disaster-recovery construction jobs in the community and securing training for those jobs for low-income residents.

In Atlanta, it’s a community organization working with the city to establish a workforce pipeline for the city’s poorest residents, including a requirement that half of all entry-level jobs on public projects go to people on the city’s work registry.

And in Missouri, it was a $500 million highway project, the advocacy efforts of a national faith-based group and local congregations.

Community Organizing Creating Jobs

“We know how to do it, we have done it before,” said Ana Garcia-Ashley, executive director of Gamaliel, a national network of interfaith organizations in 17 states.

In a five-year period, Gamaliel channeled $16.6 billion into education, training and building projects that brought more than 600,000 jobs to poor communities, she said.

Danyeal Crittenden gave up her child care job and enrolled in a construction training program that pays enough to support her family. Photo courtesy of Danyeal Crittenden
Danyeal Crittenden gave up her child care job and enrolled in a construction training program that pays enough to support her family. Photo courtesy of Danyeal Crittenden

It started in 2008 with the highway project now known as the “Missouri Model.” The State Department of Highways set aside $2.5 million of the project budget to train and hire new construction workers.

But the groundwork for the effort was laid years earlier when Gamaliel and other organizations convinced state and federal officials to develop local hiring agreements requiring training and jobs in highway construction.

By the time the Missouri highway project was finished, more than a quarter of the work had been done by low-income minorities and women.  Gamaliel, partnering with congregations and other organizations, has since replicated the formula in dozens of other poor communities. And they aren’t stopping there.

Over the next three years, Garcia-Ashley said Gamaliel plans to fund organizing to create one million jobs in the country’s poorest communities.

One of the workers on the Missouri highway project was Danyeal Crittenden.

Changing the Course of a Family

The St. Louis mom had worked for a decade at a child care center, where she earned $7.35 an hour and had no health care or other benefits.

Determined to get a better-paying job, Crittenden enrolled in a construction apprenticeship program and in a couple of years was working full-time on the highway project. Today she can talk concrete, grading, run a Bobcat, and read blueprints with the best of them.

The hours are long, and the work is hard, but she is paid well, and Crittenden, now 39, said she has never felt prouder.

Garcia-Ashley says creating good jobs and the self-esteem that comes with them has potential to change the course of life for a family today and for generations to come.

“For a low-income mother who is trained in highway construction, her children will be transformed. Her children will value education and careers. And that will impact their children,” Garcia-Ashley said. “The grandchildren of these workers will think of themselves in a different way.”

Crittenden knows it’s true.

“It’s made me a stronger woman. My daughter looks up to me. She says I motivate her to work hard. She goes to Southeast Missouri State. I can afford to pay her tuition.”

Oakland’s Road to Revival

Jo Anne Stamps was also thinking about future generations – her grandchildren and great-grandchildren – when she became involved in her Oakland, Calif., community.

During the recession, unemployment neared 40 percent in some of the poorest neighborhoods of this city of 400,000.

Tired of seeing garbage on the sidewalks and vacant houses that had fallen into foreclosure, the 60-year-old Stamps, began walking her neighborhood and getting to know families.

It quickly became clear to her that the answer to all the other issues confronting her neighborhood was good jobs.  She got involved in planning for the redevelopment of Oakland Army Base.

Stamps became a familiar face and voice at Oakland City Council meetings and a member of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. She traveled to San Francisco with other organizers to meet with the old Army Base developers.

In their towering office building, Stamps glanced out the windows. She thought about her family and neighborhood, about the need for living wage jobs that would provide the opportunity for families to thrive. And she knew she was making a difference.

“I was on top of the world,” Stamps said.

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer. In Oakland, the living wage, set by policy is $11.70 per hour with benefits, or $13.45 per hour if benefits aren’t provided.

Tough Fight, Big Wins in the Rio Grande Valley

Five years ago, Hurricane Dolly tore through the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, flooding the low-lying land with up to 20 inches of rain. In the poorest communities – unincorporated colonias with no drainage systems – houses soaked in floodwater for weeks.

Unemployment in the valley easily tops 10 percent and the average income is about $15,000 a year.

After disasters like Dolly, government recovery money that finally arrives to rebuild homes and businesses inevitably lures big-time contractors from out of state. They swoop in, scoop up contracts, and then bring in their own teams for the recovery work. Local residents in need of jobs are left on the sidelines.

When nearly $125 million in federal disaster recovery funds became available to rebuild the colonias, local community activists and families were determined that the construction jobs would stay in the community – along with training to prepare workers with the necessary skills.

The year-and-a-half effort focused on a rarely enforced section of the Housing and Urban Development contract, known as Section 3, which requires that a certain percent of the jobs stay in the community.

Often 50 or 60 community members showed up at dozens of Council of Governments  meetings, speaking out, and adding their voices to the discussion.

“Those in power don’t want to relinquish that power, but the community was there, standing in front of them, letting them know that the decisions they were making were not good for the community,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Trying to get a seat at the table where the decisions are made takes a long time,” she said.

Valdez-Cox said she remembers one meeting in particular early on in the effort when the Council of Governments was meeting with contractors. The crowd of families from the community walked in.

The look they got said it all: “Who invited you? How did you find out about this meeting?”

All the effort paid off – they made a difference. The jobs and training are arriving this spring.

More than a thousand houses will be built in the Rio Grande Valley in the next two years, and 30 percent of the new jobs will go to low-income families. Training will include apprenticeships in roofing, plumbing, concrete, electrical systems and framing.

In addition, community members will also oversee the rebuilding effort to make sure that employment agreements are upheld.

“These are one-time funds and a one-time opportunity,” said Armando Garza, development director with Proyecto Azteca.  “We want to make sure that the infrastructure that is left behind from this money includes skilled workers who will then have a chance to go on to other jobs.”

Atlanta Stands Up for Jobs

Garza’s determination in the Rio Grande Valley is echoed in Atlanta by Georgia STAND-UP, a partner in the national community benefits movement Partnership for Working Families.

Community efforts led to jobs at the Old Army Base. Photo courtesy of EBASE
Community efforts led to jobs at the Old Army Base. Photo courtesy of EBASE

“We used to ask the city to give us more jobs. Now we are saying, ‘Let’s figure out how to create these jobs ourselves,’” said Deborah Scott, Georgia STAND-UP’s executive director.

In Atlanta, the city council, pressured by grassroots organizations, promised the community that half of all entry jobs in the city that receive public funds will go to residents who signed up for the city’s First Source register – a listing of low-income Atlanta residents.

Atlanta City Council member Joyce Sheperd credited community activists for giving low-income residents an opportunity to gain skills and skilled employment.

“A focus on jobs that excludes families living in the city now is ‘gentrification,’ and that is the wrong approach,” said Sheperd.  “We can’t fix poverty by locking people up and pushing people out. We can fix it with education and good jobs.

On the other side of the country, Kate O’Hara, in Oakland, couldn’t agree more.

“There is a ripple effect,” O’Hara said. “If people have good, stable jobs, all the other issues facing families and the community start to fade away.”

  2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


One Response to "When Jobs are Needed, Grassroots Groups Spring to Action"

  1. Jeanne O'Dea  March 6, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Your article brought tears to my eyes. Why can’t our legislators see the value of making and keeping jobs here?

    Thank you for writing this,


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