The new era of welfare reform is here, but one of its most vexing questions has yet to be answered: how to move the inexperienced and unskilled into the workplace. Little in the history of welfare-to-work programs encourages much optimism on the subject—though not for lack of money or effort. In 1995 alone, the federal government appropriated $20 billion for 163 different programs. The giant carcasses of failed federal programs like CETA, the Manpower Development and Training Act, the Job Corps, and most recently, JOBS, litter the landscape. As urban ethnologist Elijah Anderson has described job training programs, they are little more than “human holding cells.”
That dark background makes the success of Strive, a break-the-mold job readiness program utterly unlike government-funded programs, all the more luminous. With its central office in a part of East Harlem so drug-ridden that it was dubbed “the devil’s playground,” Strive targets an even tougher population than other job readiness programs: 25 percent of its clients are ex-offenders, many have a history of prolonged drug use, some are tentatively housed or even homeless, half are on welfare, and almost all have been victims of the New York City public schools.
But while other programs focus on “hard skills” like computer literacy, word processing, and job search techniques, Strive’s staff is skeptical about such instruction. Instead, convinced that employers want to hire eager, presentable workers and are willing to train them once on the job, Strive staffers concentrate on building what they see as the all-important “soft skills”: not just the familiar problems of initiative and punctuality but a more subtle understanding of the manners and values of an alien mainstream work world.
If such a Pygmalion change in a mere three weeks seems impossible, consider the results. At its 19 sites in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, Strive has put almost 14,000 people, 35 to 40 percent of them men, to work during a five-year period, at the modest cost of $1,500 each. More striking still, where most programs count themselves successful if participants are working after a final three-month follow-up, Strive, whose other defining characteristic is a lifetime commitment to clients, has been able to ensure that close to 80 percent of those placed are still working after two years.
The simple reason for Strive’s success is that the program’s staff, whose truly disadvantaged histories resemble those of their clients, have themselves traveled the gulf between the street culture their clients now inhabit and the office culture they seek to join. Their firsthand view of this gap corresponds closely to the picture that emerges from the pages of sociologist William Julius Wilson’s recent, highly touted book When Work Disappears. In interviews with 179 Cook County firms offering entry-level jobs, Wilson shows that employers—both black and white—often find inner-city workers, particularly males, uncooperative, prickly, undependable, and lacking in initiative. What about lack of job skills, which, according to conventional wisdom, is the primary roadblock to employment? Fewer than 12 percent of the employers interviewed cited it as a major problem.
The staff at Strive are hardly the first to note the difficulty many inner-city residents have adapting to the requirements of the workplace. What makes them unique is their sophisticated grasp of the psychology behind this well-known, if widely denied, problem. Without scorn or pity, they see through the self-defeating postures their clients have adopted, postures that dramatize their indignant sense of racial exclusion and perpetuate their marginalization. These “roles of the stoop and the street,” as one staffer puts it, are familiar and predictable: for some clients it is passivity, for others it is racial blaming, for many it is the strut of “attitude.” By vigorously confronting these almost stereotypical postures and providing support in understanding alternatives, Strive’s staff offer the disadvantaged a more solid bridge to the mainstream work world than the usual approaches of the “don’t-blame-the-victim” social worker, the “fill-in-the-blanks” bureaucrat, and the “sink-or-swim” libertarian.
Some people hear about Strive from friends, neighbors, drug counselors, or parole officers, but the majority find the program through an ad in the Daily News. No matter where they come from, recruits can’t possibly be prepared for what they will witness during the three-hour orientation. Utterly unlike conventional job training, it is stunning theater, a hybrid of comedy club, encounter group, and Republican campaign speech. Rob Carmona, the executive director of the program, who seems equally comfortable in Armani in the corporate dining room or in “homeboy” jeans in the project courtyard, has taken off his suit jacket and paces back and forth in front of the 60 men and women. He launches into the major themes of the program with the barely suppressed urgency that will energize the weeks to come.
“How come not one bodega around here is owned by a Puerto Rican?” he demands. “Not one. They used to be all Puerto Rican. Now the Puerto Ricans are too proud to work in a bodega, and so they’re all owned by Dominicans. These people come from places where, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. . . . More important in life than intelligence is emotional maturity. And I’m tellin’ it like it is: people of color have lost it!” Some in the audience watch suspiciously; others nod their heads and exclaim quietly, “Tell it!” or “It’s the truth!”
Carmona does not let go for a full half hour. “When I was on drugs in the sixties, I would always blame it on whitey. Your building smells? I got news for you: the people pissin’ in hallways are not some white guys from New Jersey.” Later he challenges a woman who is radiating hostility, one of the few people older than 30 in the group: “I can’t believe you’ve taken this attitude in front of 18-year-olds. What kind of model are you? That’s why our community is in so much trouble.”
While this cold shower of personal-responsibility talk is the mainstay of the program, no one at Strive is naive about the disadvantages burdening many clients. Anyone needing advice about child care or housing, or help negotiating with city agencies, will get it from Strive personnel. Still, clients will be warned repeatedly: “I’m sorry for your problems. But you cannot bring them to work.” If the staff seems insensitive, as some have accused, that’s because they see their clients not as damaged victims but as mature adults who, with a bit of help, can find a way to cope. And as adults they can be told the truth. “The world is changing out there,” Carmona almost shouts. “Wake up! Come July 1, no one is going to come up to you and say, ‘Luis, gee, before we cut you off welfare, do you have everything you need?’ Ain’t nothing sensitive about it. That’s reality!”
Nor is the staff Pollyannish about racism. The associate director and trainer at Strive’s West Harlem site, Steve Berlack, was plucked out of his South Bronx home at 14 to become a scholarship student at Andover, where he experienced precisely the sort of culture shock he trains his clients to negotiate. He warns them that they’ll find people in the mainstream world who believe African–Americans are not as capable as whites or other minorities. But the proper response, he tells them, is not to become hostile or make excuses. As Rob Carmona tells the group, if anyone experiences what seems to be unjust treatment on the job, the correct response is to “sit back, suck it in, and call us. Don’t quit your job. You can’t tell your kids there’s no milk in the refrigerator because the world is racist.” One young man in the group I followed will be told to tone down the “vibes which say ‘angry black man.’” All will be encouraged repeatedly to see themselves through the eyes of employers. “It is your job to make yourself liked,” Carmona pronounces.
According to these trainers, the real problem isn’t discrimination but “attitude,” the quasi-defensive, quasi-aggressive posture their clients have adopted to anticipate discrimination. Shelby Steele has called this double-edged self-presentation “the bite of the underdog.” Yes, occasionally you will meet with racists and racism, is the Strive message, but don’t spend all your energy waiting for it—even looking for it. As Berlack points out to his charges: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you—and 90 percent how you react.” Carmona offers the story of driving his wife’s new Jeep in his suburban neighborhood and being approached by a policeman. “Oh, shit—excuse my English—he sees me here, a black man in my homeboy clothes in a shiny new car in Teaneck. I’m thinkin’: ‘Here it comes, here it comes.’ And you know what he says? He says, ‘Nice car. Is that the new Toyota Rav?’” He sums up: “We make assumptions about what’s gonna come at us. Whether we like or not, we got attitude.”
Strive’s focus on “attitude” cuts to the deepest truths about inner-city joblessness. At its crudest, the welfare debate has sounded like an argument between those who believe that poor minorities are lazy and don’t want to work and those who think they really want to work but simply can’t find jobs. Strive’s experience casts doubt on both positions. As many close observers of ghetto life like William Julius Wilson and Elijah Anderson have remarked, inner-city residents at least state a belief in the importance of hard work and personal initiative. In fact, the people who come to Strive are obsessed with finding jobs and are tearfully grateful to the staff when they do so—the office is filled with mushy thank-you notes, stuffed animals, balloons, and other gifts of appreciation.
Still, Wilson’s theory—that though inner-city people want jobs, the only kind of work for which they are qualified has “disappeared”—is also at odds with Strive’s experience. The main disjunction Strive’s staff members see is that between the values of the street and those of the mainstream work world. Socialized to the norms of street honor, their clients are imprisoned in failure by a reluctance to accept the alien atmosphere and petty humiliations inevitable at almost any workplace. It would not surprise Strive’s staff to learn from urban ethnologist Phillipe Bourgois, who studied the crack subculture on the very blocks around Strive’s East Harlem site, that when some of his subjects were fired from legitimate jobs, they would treat their return to the street “as a triumph of free will and resistance.” As the opposite face of the same coin, many successful Strive participants have had the experience of Zakeina, one former welfare mother I spoke with, whose friend warned her to quit the program because she had begun “acting white” and “putting on airs.”
During the orientation, Berlack, who has the comic timing and talent for mimicry of Eddie Murphy, uses his experience in the army to drive home the theme of “attitude.” Suddenly and unexpectedly, he screams hysterically to a young woman whom he has been teasing in the front of the room: “Duck!” She flinches in shocked surprise. In the riff that follows, he mimics a stereotypic black street tough. He ambles forward in what Tom Wolfe has called the “pimp roll” and says in a heavy accent: “‘Who you tellin’ to duck? Ain’t nobody goin’ to tell me what to do. I don’t duck for no one.’ And you know what happens to that guy?” Berlack has returned to his usual Andover-smooth English with just a hint of a Southern accent. “He’s dead meat, because there’s a bullet flying by, and he ‘don’t take no orders from no one.’”
During the three weeks of the workshop, the seriousness underlying this comedy grows increasingly clear. Early on, prospective participants are warned that they are being tested: “Strive is not a democracy. Adhere to our rules or leave.” Some will; by Monday the 60 people at Friday’s orientation have dwindled to 40.
But merely showing up is not enough. Day after day, staffers will challenge those who need it to recognize the depth of their resistance to authority and to repress its subtle symptoms—bored facial expressions, smirks, slouching, and almost unconscious clucks of disgust. At one session Gloria, a usually quiet 23-year-old, complains that the group was not given enough instruction to complete the day’s assignment. At first one wonders if the trainers are being too harsh when they prod her. “Did you ask yourself, what is your role in this?” they badger. “Did you show some initiative? Did you ask us to clarify?” But then trainer Frank Horton calls attention to the way Gloria is sitting. She is leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed over her chest—just the kind of subtle gesture of “you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do” defiance bound to irritate a supervisor on the job.
At another session a woman argues about the size of her earrings: “earrings no larger than a quarter” is one of Strive’s many pieces of advice for job interviews. She takes out a quarter to make her point. A long, seemingly trivial discussion ensues, but by the end of it the rest of the group has joined the trainer to disagree with her. “This wasn’t just about earrings,” a trainer tells me later. “It’s about teamwork and learning to accept authority. This woman told us she has lost three jobs because she couldn’t get along with her supervisors. If we don’t break her down, she’ll lose the next one too. She needs to know that, and so do the others.” And as if on cue, one man, challenged after failing to complete an assignment from the trainers because he had “personal business,” stalks out during the first week. “I don’t kiss ass, I get ass!” he blusters, demonstrating the truth of Horton’s insight that while most of Strive’s ghetto participants value the “expensive commodity” of street pride, it is especially treasured by men.
Pride and the prickliness it causes in the face of criticism and instruction are not the only self-defeating qualities in the repertory of Strive’s minority clients. The staff is on the watch for other sorts of self-damaging behavior. As assistant trainer Joelle James explains after Michelle, a giggly, prattling 18-year-old, goes crying to Horton when her silliness is confronted: “Although we deal with about 40 people every month, they’re the same people with different faces. There are patterns. For instance, Michelle is immature, undisciplined. She is used to crying to get her way, particularly with men. We’ve seen her before.”
Trainers have also seen plenty of “my-life-is-a-mess-but-it’s-not-my-fault” victim playing. Because Strive is determined to inspire a sense of their clients’ power to control their own lives, they question any excuses for past failure, no matter how seemingly justified. As one trainer explains: “We tell them, ‘Your job as an employee is to make yourself indispensable. If there are layoffs, you shouldn’t be the one. You have to do more than the job.’” Says manager of job development Daniel Jusino, whose voice, even once in his office, never falls below a shout: “If they complain about the government, we say, ‘Did you vote?’ If the building smells, we say, ‘What are you doing about it?’ If they say, ‘I couldn’t work, I’m a mother’”—he puffs out his chest in prideful imitation—“we’ll say, ‘What kind of mother are you, when you can’t pay the rent?’”
Shyness is another familiar pattern in the Strive cast of clients, some of whom are so quiet they seem to have closed the door and pulled their egos in with them. Everyone is required not only to speak to a video camera for five full minutes in the first week but to participate actively in all parts of the workshop. When a young woman averts her head coyly as she stands up to answer a question, Horton imitates her. “I don’t need the pose,” he tells her. At another session, Berlack calls forward a good-looking, lanky 18-year-old named Corey. “Y’all know Corey,” he says, gently mimicking the way the boy, hands in pockets, looks down at his scuffling feet. “He stands around the projects with the other guys, and the girls come over, and, gosh, they think he’s so sweet.” The women in the group, myself included, burst out laughing. Now here’s a real familiar character.
Embarrassing as this encounter was for Corey, it is actually a key test: will the young man react with anger or yet more passivity, or will he begin to shed his defensive armor? Because Strive depends on the satisfaction of its pool of employers, its job developers cannot risk recommending people who do not live up to their standards of maturity and responsibility. Though they accept almost all comers, the success of their business requires weeding out the intractably hostile, immature, and withdrawn. Typically, after the initial 35 percent falloff following the three-hour orientation, about 6 percent more leave during the three-week workshop; in the one group I watched, the 21 starters dwindled to 16 by the last week.
Corey will be one of those who do not make it. His story offers an abstract of the strengths and limitations of Strive’s unyielding approach. In the third week the clients, who have gradually come to understand that their own futures are at stake in the reputation of the organization, are asked whether he should graduate. He has failed to participate, and even when they beg him to speak up, he can only mutter, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” They reluctantly, even tearfully, conclude that he shouldn’t graduate, though they remind him that he can come back and try again. Strive’s attitude toward the Coreys, the Michelles, and the “I don’t kiss ass” blusterers of this world is not that they are hopeless failures, but only that they are unready for the character transformation asked of them.
Another, more familiar character the staff watches out for is the addict. At every workshop at least half the participants have been drug or alcohol abusers; any current addicts are referred to rehabilitation programs. Strive is extremely strict about even casual drug use. “Don’t think you can smoke a joint on the weekend and get away with it,” they warn their clients in a tough but necessary rule. Almost all of Strive’s employers test for drugs, and some go so far as to take hair samples for a more reliable reading. The organization has been able to help its employer pool avoid the results of one Chicago boss quoted by William Julius Wilson, who estimates he has had to disqualify 30 percent of his inner-city black hires after drug screening.
On the surface, the second and third weeks of Strive’s program resemble more traditional job training. The participants work to complete their résumés and to polish up interview skills. When I arrive for the big day of the mock interview, the transformation of the group from the initial week is striking. Gone are the short skirts, baggy pants, flashy jewelry, and dreadlocks, along with the slouching, the yawning, and the crossed arms. Now the women are wearing blouses and jackets, knee-length skirts, simple gold chains and small earrings, stockings and heels; the men, dark pants and jackets with white shirts and understated ties. (Strive keeps a room of “gently used” clothing for those unable to afford appropriate interview wear.) Everyone is sitting straight up, the women with legs crossed at the ankles, their hands in their laps.
Yet underlying the professional surface is a palpable air of anxiety. In part, it is the anticipation of venturing alone into an unfamiliar, even exotic, new land. But it is also the anxiety of “racial vulnerability” described so exquisitely by Shelby Steele in The Content of Our Character. Stripped of self-justifying inertia and the mask of “attitude,” presenting themselves as individuals rather than as members of a victimized group, the 16 participants left in the room have nothing to protect them from their underlying fear of failure, a fear, as Steele sees it, fueled by the historical myth of their inferiority.
Mona, a 29-year-old who, like the others, has had eight days to prepare for her interview, has just shaken hands with the job developers posing as employers and is now shifting uneasily in her seat. When asked why she thinks she should get the job, she awkwardly stalls for time. “That’s a good question,” she stammers, but then her hands fly to her face and she shakes her head. “I had it. I had it,” she whimpers. Her nervousness might touch an outsider, but Jusino is not interested in “feeling-land,” as he calls it. He barks a series of questions at the young woman: “What’s your date of birth? What’s your Social Security number? What’s your phone number? How come you weren’t nervous when you answered those questions? Because you’ve been answering them your whole life. When you say things a thousand times, you’re not nervous. Practice. Repetition, people: that’s the key to preparing for the interview.”
This preparation for the journey from uptown to downtown, small in actual miles but immense in psychological distance, clearly works. A random sampling of 20 employers by NYU found that 90 percent of them remarked on the confidence displayed during the interview, as well as the general motivation and good attitude of Strive graduates. Flo Robinson, personnel recruiter for Mt. Sinai Hospital, is not unusual. “Their résumés are complete, and they follow up on every part of the application without complaining. If you ask me, they often seem better prepared than people with master’s degrees.”
Strive’s funders, the largest of which is the Clark Foundation, range from the left-wing Aaron Diamond Foundation to the conservative Smith Richardson Foundation. But the organization doesn’t take government money, believing that the strings attached to it strangle just those qualities that led to Strive’s commendation by the Government Accounting Office in 1996 as one of six job training programs in the U.S. that work. For instance, says Rob Carmona, because of how the government pays its job training providers, “If a person drops out, you don’t get paid. It’s your goal to keep that person at all costs, so you make excuses for him every day, even if you know he’s going out and smoking a joint during lunch.” One 35-year-old woman confirmed this picture during a lunch break at Strive: “I’ve been to other job training programs, and they’re not strict enough. They just smile nice at you.”
This contrast with other programs helps put Strive’s sometimes abrasive toughness in a different light. If, unlike many programs, it demands a great deal of emotional endurance from its participants, it is also unlike those programs in giving much support in return. Remember that Strive’s commitment is for life. “We don’t see the loss of the first job as a failure but as a developmental tool,” says Carmona. Horton elaborates: “Some of our people get their first paychecks and they’re high. Then their demons start to whisper in their ear. ‘Hey, this isn’t much money; what am I working so hard for?’ They get insubordinate and get fired, or the employer calls us. We send them back to the workshop to get recooked.” But clients don’t need to fail in order to receive more help from Strive. They can come back to practice on computers—the office is open on Saturdays—to get help in finding a new job, to plan the next stage in their careers.
Strive has recently instituted a new program for higher-level job training, but its staff makes no apologies for their basic “there-is-no-better-training-for-work-than-work” philosophy. Given the background of their clientele, they encourage a hard-nosed realism about their immediate opportunities. Jusino tells the group in the middle of the first week: “There are lots of programs out there that’ll sell you dreams: you can be an astronaut or something. We don’t sell you dreams. I guarantee you, if you follow the program, we’ll get you a job making more than you are making now. That’s all.
Irving Brown, who has hired more than 50 Strive graduates over the past year for his company, Choice Courier, confirms the success of this lesson. “Strive people understand what’s expected of them, and you don’t have to reinvent them. They understand that this is a job to give them discipline and basic skills, which they can translate into a more meaningful job in the future. They know they’re captains of their own fate. Of the people I’ve hired, I’d say 75 percent are still here after a year, and the others have gone on to better positions.”
In his final book, sociologist Christopher Lasch argued for an “ethos of respect” to supplant what he saw as the prevailing “ethos of compassion” toward the poor. Underlying the prodding, teasing, and confrontation, it is just this kind of respect that Strive displays toward its clients. Insisting on realism, plainspokenness, and clear, impersonal standards of conduct, its staff members neither patronize nor condescend, for they truly believe in the capacities of their clients. Lasch went on in the same book to call compassion, at least in its contemporary American form, “the human face of contempt,” and the Strive approach helps explain the truth of this harsh aphorism. Rather than merely pitying the poor as victims and thereby reinforcing their helplessness, Strive instead believes in their competence and appeals to their ability to climb atop their miserable circumstances and see new possibilities. It’s a tough climb, but for those willing and able to make it, it works wonders.