“Job Corps saved my life — I was a knucklehead.” So says Johnnie Burns, assistant director in the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
He’s in charge of the Contract Compliance Unit, supervising six people whose work ensures that, in employment contracting, there is city ordinance compliance with affirmative action, civil rights and non-discrimination policies. “The city is a firm believer in compliance and backs the efforts of this office,” he says.
It’s a big responsibility and a long way from the tough neighborhood in Milwaukee where Burns grew up during the 1980s. His mom was there, but not there for him, and he actually lived with a family not far from her. “I was running the streets, and then I ran from the streets,” says Burns. “It was a scary life.” His older brother had gone to Job Corps, and he influenced Johnnie to try it.
All at once, young Johnnie was far from those streets, living at Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps in a quiet neighborhood in St Paul. He admits that he was in shock as he went from total freedom to lots of structure. He went from living in a community that was 95 percent Black to Blacks and Whites living together, sharing dorm rooms and meals, classes and sports.
“I saw something I hadn’t seen before — it was diversity. I had teachers who really cared as they kept the pressure on. I liked living in the dorms; I had my own space and people who cared about me.
“There was one residential advisor, Clyde Fraser — well, I wouldn’t have made it without him. I got sent home once, and Clyde had a little talk with me about coming back to do it right or not to bother to come back. Hard to say why that is caring, but it is. He believed that I could do it before I did.
“I came back, got my high school diploma, got involved with the student government and ended up as its president. I completed my training in office occupations. We did lots of good deeds out in the community. I could feel it; I was part of something bigger than I was, and over the two years I was there that feeling grew.”
“My only regret is that I didn’t pursue the college opportunity, but I wanted to get out in the world and make some money.”
Burns worked odd jobs, finally getting a job with MN Department of Transportation (MnDOT) as an emergency temp. He worked his way up from a part-time temp to permanent temp to a full-time job with benefits. He got a two-year degree in applied management and was promoted.
He got married and had two children, and he stayed at DOT for more than 13 years until the DOT in Missouri offered him an opportunity to use his expertise in the Federal Title VI (civil rights) programs.
It didn’t work out. He came back to Minnesota, but his old job was gone. “To go from being the expert resource to unemployed is humbling,” he recalls. His old clerical skills helped him work his way back in to the work world, and now he’s almost through with his degree in criminal justice in addition to his position with the City
“What have I learned?” Johnnie said. “Pursue education until you get it done. Be honest with people. Stay humble and don’t burn bridges; no matter how much you know, there’s always further to go.”
Johnnie Burns is not a knucklehead.
This article was provided by the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps.