Environmental remediation and personal rehabilitation went hand-in-hand last night, when nearly a dozen men and women graduated from a special training program in lead abatement, asbestos removal, hazardous-waste management and other “green jobs” skills.
Many of last night’s graduates have served time in prison and regard the Metro Newark Brownfields Careers Training Program as the break they needed to begin new, productive lives.
“This gives people a chance to give back to the community and be productive where they live,” said John Martin, a spokesman for the US Environmental Protection Agency, which helped fund the careers training program.
The program was run in Newark by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a group working to address social and economic imbalances between the inner-cities and the rest of the nation and which partnered with the EPA.
Among the people the justice institute serves are ex-offenders, who are often frustrated in their attempts to find gainful employment. Sometimes, the problem is the employers themselves, many of whom are not inclined to consider someone who has to check “yes” when asked on job applications if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.
“It’s hard, very hard,” said Charles Williams, 39, one of the graduates yesterday at the commencement ceremony, which was held at the Paul Robeson Center on the Rutgers-Newark campus. “It’s like double jeopardy -- you did your time" but it's still difficult to find work, Williams said.
Williams, who served 11 years for drug offenses, has certainly overcome -- along with the oportunites now opened up to him with his training, he has also found work at Anheuser-Busch, the Prudential Arena and plans to apply for a third job with a major soft-drink manufacturer.
Williams’s story is not unique: according to the justice institute’s Albert Williams, the job placement rate for past graduates is as good as it could possibly be, 100 percent.
The need for the skill set mastered by yesterday’s grads is certainly there: according to Lisa Feldt, a deputy administrator with the EPA who was among the commencement speakers, 700 properties totalling 34,000 acres have been remediated nationwide since 1998, when the EPA began to partner with local groups to train residents.
Another speaker, Tracey Syphax, is perhaps the embodiment of what yesterday’s graduation is all about.
Born, raised and still living in Trenton, Syphax spent his early years like many of yesterday’s graduates -- enmeshed in a life of crime. A former drug dealer and user who first experimented when he was 14, Syphax had an epiphany when he was released from prison in the early 1990s. He got a job as a laborer and worked his way up until, just a few years later, he was “eyeing the boss.”
He went on to found two multimillion-dollar businesses and has also launched a career as a motivational speaker. He credited the vocational training he received after graduating high school with providing him the skills he needed to at first survive, and then to thrive. He was also inspired by 1995’s Million Man March , the Washington, DC rally called by Louis Farrakhan.
“If you couldn’t find a job your charge would be to go back to your community and create a job,” he said.