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The Untimely Death of a Green-Collar Job Trainee—and One Graduate's Triumph

Do green-collar job training programs really work? I followed East Bay Green Job Corps trainees for a year to find out.

| Thu May 12, 2011 8:45 AM EDT
Family photo: Lawrence Albert "Jahon" Craig Gadlin with his partner, Latina Cash, and son, Jahon Jr.

Lawrence Albert "Jahon" Craig Gadlin, a 23-year-old father in Richmond, California, was outside repairing a car with friends on May 13, 2010, when a red minivan drove past and fired dozens of bullets, killing him and two others. I sat in a pew at Gadlin's memorial service with his classmates from the East Bay Green Job Corps, 15 young women and men I'd been following for a few months. Mourners sang and reached for God as a young man helped Gadlin's mother take slow, heavy steps to face us all. When Stephanie Guillory could speak, she talked about how her son had wanted to take good care of his new family. "Mom! I got a job," he'd called to tell her a month before his death. "It's about time, boy. I'm very proud of you," she recalled saying, voice quavering.

caption: credit

In February of 2009, the Obama administration gave out two-year, stimulus-funded grants of $435 million for hundreds of "green collar" job-training programs across the country. The intent of the grants was to help the people most impacted by the recession—young people from low-income communities and laid-off blue-collar workers—gain skills and jobs in the emerging fields of renewable energy. Last year, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds without a high school diploma was 33 percent—the highest since 1947. I decided then to follow the story of one green-collar job-training class in Richmond. Many of the trainees I met were single parents or high school dropouts who couldn't get jobs, and some had lost faith in their ability to control their future.

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As I drove Gadlin's classmate, 20-year-old Ali Thompson, home from the memorial service, he told me that he'd gone to three funerals in the past two years: one for his brother, one for his uncle, and one for a close friend. Before Thompson's brother was shot in New Orleans, he'd made Thompson promise not to follow his path. So when Andrew Hanauer of the Workforce Collaborative came to the homeless shelter where Thompson was staying in 2009 to talk about openings with the East Bay Green Job Corps, Thompson jumped at the chance to change his life.

I first met Thompson a year ago, his third week into the green-jobs training program. He was frozen by stage fright and sitting in a classroom with 16 other students, gripping a rolled-up piece of yellow paper in his right hand. His then-classmate Gadlin, dressed in a black hoodie and a black do-rag, walked slowly past him and planted himself firmly in front of the dry-erase board, then read in an even-keeled, confident voice:

caption: creditJahon Gadlin's family photos from the memorial-service program; Jahon as a child in the upper right corner.I am a man
I am somebody you won't understand
I am somebody who wants the upper hand
I am who I am ...
I am one who takes charge
I am a leader
I am a person who goes through struggles
I am a person who sees the wrong I do
and wants to make it right
I am a person who makes bad decisions
But deserves a good life
I am not perfect
I am a soldier in God's army
I am a loving father
I am not a bad person
I am a person who was once misguided
but now is on the right track
I am Jahon Gadlin
and PROUD to say that

For many students, this was the first time they had spoken formally in public. Teacher Tamera Currington smiled at Gadlin and turned to the class. "I know what you all think. 'Tamera, why are we reading poems at a green jobs class?' Well, when I interviewed you for this program, you all had a long list of your weaknesses. When I asked you about your strengths, you had nothing. That's a problem. You need to know something positive about yourself to propel you forward in life." She added: Next week all students would be making "green house calls." "Before you go into people's homes, you'll need to learn how to stand straight, look into people's eyes with a smile, and shake their hand with confidence."

Reading poems was part of the "Good Presentation Skills" and confidence-building session. It followed two weeks of "Environmental Literacy," in which Currington explained how climate change impacts neighborhoods like Richmond. A handmade chart on the wall read, "Fall seven times, stand up eight." Another handwritten sign read, "Global energy consumption by fuel type." Both were part of the training.

During the lunch break that day, as often happened, students got into a heated discussion about the challenges of living in tough neighborhoods like Richmond. One student had been wanting to get something off his chest to Currington: Someone had spit into his friend's food, a fight broke out, guns came out of men's pockets. No one got killed, but both men are now in prison. "In a situation like that, how can I not react? I'd be less of a man if I didn't," he challenged.

"Free people learn to forgive," Currington said. "Remember how when we talked about the environment, we talked about how you are connected to 10 people? And those 10 are connected to others? Everything has consequences."

Gadlin, who had stayed out of the lunch discussion that day, jumped in. "I know, but if I don't stand up for myself, they'll keep coming back and taking advantage of my weaknesses," he said. "Take yourself out of the bad situation," Currington offered. "But I love where I'm from. I don't want to move," he responded.

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