LIFT-ing the Black employment rate

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

“There are so many [employment] barriers that each community can face that nobody is really addressing anymore,” said LIFT Chair Tonya Draughn.

Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Center Executive Director Nietta Presley said, “We have to begin to take action. You can’t have a wholesome community when most of your members are MIA.”
“A large amount of bills” proposed by the Republican-dominated legislature “are intentionally targeting…communities of color,” said State Rep. Rena Moran.

A group of concerned citizens say it’s time to stop talking and start doing something about the existing high unemployment rate among Blacks locally. Leading Individuals and Families Together to End Poverty (LIFT), which began in 2005, is a group of “community inspired individuals” in St. Paul that regularly meet and hold classes on how to advocate for themselves and the community.

“All together we have over 120 members who have gone through the training,” states LIFT Chair Tonya Draughn, who has been a member since 2006. She is among the “20 to 50 people who are real active” in the group.

LIFT held three events that kicked off its jobs campaign: an April 29 community forum, a job fair held on April 30, and its third annual “Day on the Hill” May 2 at the State Capitol, where group members and others told state lawmakers to take action on three specific pieces of legislation before the 2011 Minnesota Legislature closes at the end of this month:

• House Bill 372 by State Representative Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), which would fund workforce development programs for adjudicated youth reentering the community and at risk youth.

• SF 1328 by Senator John Marty, which would reestablish the Minnesota Emergency Employment Development (MEED) jobs program, double the Working Family Tax Credit for low income workers in Minnesota and provide access to affordable child care.

• The Minnesota Hiring Advantage Bill (HF 1448), which would create a larger, potentially more qualified pool of applicants by evaluating potential employees on all of their skills and qualifications, rather than just their past.

“If we can get this passed, that is our goal and our dream,” admits Draughn.

The April 29 panel discussion in St. Paul was originally planned to discuss three main areas: employment opportunities barriers, benefits of job training programs for long term employment and self-employment and entrepreneurship for community members, she reported.

“There are so many barriers that each community can face that nobody is really addressing anymore,” Draughn explained. “If you are going to be training a whole host of members to be employed, and those jobs are going to be gone in the future, then what is the point for the training? We need to make sure that our community members are trained for those jobs for the future, and definitely make sure that there is a future [for] the training.”

Self-employment and entrepreneurship should include “supporting each other and supporting our community by bringing back those dollars into the community and spending those dollars in the community,” added Draughn.

Moran was one of the eight panelists, and told the audience that her bill “didn’t get a hearing” in this year’s session. She disclosed that many of her fellow state lawmakers see the community” as those people always wanting something.

“I think they need to see the other part of St. Paul. That families are working to achieving great things and working hard,” surmised the first-term lawmaker. “But there are sometimes barriers that are in place that keeps us from achieving in a place where we want to go. I have seen a budget created by a [political] party, a budget that reflects their values. I have seen policies being produced that reflect what they value.”

Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Center Executive Director Nietta Presley advised the sparse but interactive audience, “We have to begin to take action. You can’t have a wholesome community when most of your members are MIA.” She added that businesses “have to be intentional” in creating jobs in the community.

“Our young men have been excluded from getting skills to be entry-level employees,” added Bob Lewis of Urban Cities Construction and Training. “Retraining our community is the best thing we can do.”

City of St. Paul Government Relations Director Wendy Underwood told the forum that the city’s youth job program is among several city-wide programs in danger due to the state legislature’s proposed budget cuts. These jobs “are not the sexiest, but it trains them [for future employment],” she pointed out.

“There is an estimated 30,000 public and private jobs that could be lost by the budget being put together right now,” Underwood told the MSR after the forum.

After a young male audience member complained that there are too many low-paying jobs, “There is no job that [is] beneath you if you are working toward a goal,” said Promise Neighborhood Project Director Hamilton Bell.

“We had a very good audience and very engaged,” Moran said afterwards. “I think they came with a purpose to listen and learn, and also to share.”

A founding member of LIFT, the St. Paul legislator told the MSR that there are “a large amount of bills” proposed by the Republican-dominated legislature “that are intentionally targeting the African American community and communities of color. They are targeting St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth.”

“A 65 percent cut” to the state’s human rights department, which would affect key areas such as compliance monitoring, is expected as well, Moran explained.

Presley added that she was impressed that instead of the panelists just speaking to the audience, the forum “took on a broader theme” that also looked at education, personal responsibility and parental involvement as well as jobs. “I think there is an action mindset that was very evident” at the forum, she noted. “We are tired of meeting, and we do need some action.”

“I feel that [the forum] is the beginning of a great change,” believes Sharina Mudd, customer relations director for OBAAT Construction, a Minneapolis-based home and business remodeling firm.

“We could have gone on for hours,” surmised Draughn after last week’s panel discussion. She adds that LIFT plans to release soon a “report card” on local job training organizations “so that we can see why some are very successful and some not as successful.

“This is just a starting point for us,” she declared.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.