Making Civics Work

Jim Myers
November 1, 1999

At eight o’clock each weekday morning, 50 young men and women in bright red shirts start flailing their arms and touching their toes in the War Memorial Plaza across from City Hall. Their jumping-jack effort is deliberately eye-catching: It puts Civic Works, Baltimore’s youth services corps, in the public eye and into the daily consciousness of the those at City Hall who can support the agency’s mission of career training and community improvement.

“One, it’s a good way to start the day. It gets people revved up,” says Executive Director Dana Stein. “And two, it’s good for visibility it promotes Civic Works.”

Those who pass may not know what this AmeriCorps-funded program does; they may rarely venture into the neighborhoods where Civic Works community improvement teams do much of their work. But they know there’s a youth effort in the city that begins the day with calisthenics.
“Oh, you’re the group that does that,” people often tell Stein.

It’s what those youths do after their morning grunts that won Civic Works recognition in September as one of eight agencies honored by PEPNet (Promising and Effective Practices Network), a project of the National Youth Employment Coalition. Civic Works has become a model in how to blend youth development, job training and community service.

The agency trains 17-to-25-year-olds from urban Baltimore for jobs or college readiness while putting them to work rebuilding neighborhoods. Civic Works teams clear and landscape empty lots, board up vacant buildings and rehabilitate homes.

With major funding from AmeriCorps, Civic Works has grown from a 1993 grant of $450,000 (from the Commission on National and Community Service) for four youth service teams to an annual budget of $3.3 million and 200 “corps members” divided into 30 full and part-time teams. Civic Works has expanded its activities to include environmental projects outside the city and a tutoring and mentoring program at 17 Baltimore Police Athletic League (PAL) centers.

The 41year-old Stein, who left a Washington, D.C., career in international trade law in 1992 to co-found and direct Civic Works, admits he didn’t invent the wheel he just made it fit here in his home town. He got the public exercise idea, for instance, from City Year, a Boston-based youth corps that began doing calisthenics in front of Boston City Hall in 1988.

“Dana spent four years pulling his program together — he studied youth corps programs and built Civic Works on the shoulders of successful corps,” says Kathleen Selz, president of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC). “He is a very, very savvy executive director.”

Hill of Dreams

Civic Works has won admirers by tackling two of the city’s major concerns: decaying neighborhoods and troubled youth. In parts of Baltimore, unemployment among minority youth reaches 35 to 40 percent, even as the economy soars elsewhere in the region.

It also helps the successful aura of Civic Works that its co-founder was Kennedy scion Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, now lieutenant governor of Maryland and (according to polls) a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. Kennedy Townsend attends meetings as a member of the Civic Works board, and her official biography lists the launching of Civic Works as an accomplishment.

Civic Works also landed a highly visible site for its headquarters: the hilltop 19th century Clifton Mansion in northeast Baltimore, once the summer home of the city’s great benefactor, Johns Hopkins. Civic Works pays $1 a year in rent.

The mansion is full of optimism; Civic Works staff and corps members seem to have a spirited rapport. “I know that I’m making a difference,” says Bret Sage, a 31-year-old ex-Marine who supervises a Civic Works environmental team that’s about to plant 3,200 trees on a Baltimore County farm that’s being turned into soccer and baseball fields.

Under AmeriCorps, full-time corps members receive an $8,730 annual living allowance, along with GED, SAT or college prep instruction. Those completing 11 months of service are eligible for the $4,725 AmeriCorps educational awards, which can be used at any accredited school.

Education is paramount: of the 200 current corps members, 100 are in the PAL tutoring program that requires them to complete at least two college semesters. On the community service teams, 70 are high school graduates (some are taking college classes) while 30 are working on their GEDs.

Many Civic Works corps members describe their educational and career goals with an enthusiasm that’s not often heard in the neighborhoods where the youth teams do much of their work. At a housing rehab project on West Lombard Street, where the youths are finishing work on two row houses, corps member Bryant Dearing, 22, talks of plans to pursue a college degree in computer science. Tiara Johns, 21, describes a home rehab business she and her fiance would like to run.

Civic Works staff members seek smaller triumphs. Project director John Ceikot describes typical corps member recruits as “not sure how to approach this stage of their lives. ... If they apply themselves, if they develop their work habits if they show up and demonstrate they can be trusted that makes them desirable future employees.”

A Financial Sacrifice

Civic Works also requires corps members to follow the basic rules of a job: those who are regularly late or don’t show up at all are dropped. Five from a recruiting class of 63 were recently cut during a three-week orientation.

“Some of our youth just aren’t there yet they’re not ready for Civic Works,” says Karen Sitnick, an assistant director specializing in youth services in city’s Office of Employment Development.

And despite the traditionally high unemployment in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, the current healthy economy has produced more jobs and a recruitment challenge for Civic Works. Some would-be corps members opt for bigger paychecks over the long-term benefits of AmeriCorps service.
The Civic Works’ staff faces a similar choice, balancing the rewards of youth work against higher salaries available elsewhere. This dilemma especially applies to team supervisors: they are the critical figures on the youth service teams, providing expertise for the tasks the teams undertake. They are the day-to-day teachers, counselors, bosses and in some cases career role models in the Civic Works system.

With pay of just $21,000 plus benefits, many team supervisors have clearly chosen making a difference over making more money. John Penny, supervisor of a home-rehab team, has years of experience as a union carpenter; he’s the one on the team who actually knows how to gut and rehab a house. Penny, 40, says he initially took the Civic Works job as a rest from the traveling involved in union carpentry. “I thought this would be a good in-between job,” he says. “I never expected to do it for five years. But now I absolutely love it.”

A Funding Puzzle

Civic Works’ funding package resembles a 500-piece puzzle. Its main strategy is finding ideas and funding for projects that youth service teams can carry out. “Civic Works is one of the most entrepreneurial corps programs in reaching out and finding creative funding,” says Selz of the NASCC.

Civic Works’ latest annual report lists 37 corporations, foundations or government agencies as “funders,” 55 individual contributors, and 20 companies that made in-kind contributions. Most of the money 75 percent comes from federal programs, Stein says. Last year AmeriCorps provided $1.2 million, while HUD community development block grants brought in $1.1 million.

The key is the funding partnerships: each Civic Works team involves a partnership between AmeriCorps and a sponsor who wants work done.
On Penny’s rehab team, corps members are supported by AmeriCorps, while the supervisor’s salary comes from federal block grant funds that went to the community development corporation, Southwest Visions. The corporation will sell the rehabbed homes to low-income families.

Another team turned a two-acre lot in northwest Baltimore into a park under a partnership with the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. That department also sponsors a Civic Works quick response team that boards up fire-damaged houses. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City sponsors two landscaping teams that work at public housing sites under a program designed to employ public housing residents. The Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management sponsors Sage’s environmental team.

A new creative partnership: the U.S. Department of Agriculture is sponsoring a gleaning team that will harvest crops like corn or potatoes missed by mechanized methods and deliver the food to area food banks.
The formula doesn’t always work; two Civic Works projects were abandoned. It was surprisingly hard to keep a 10-member team dedicated to home repairs for seniors busy enough. And a construction work team designed to compete on the open market lost money, because it was difficult to bid competitively, meet deadlines and still have time for educational programs.

Tracking Grads

Civic Works is beginning to monitor the post-AmeriCorps experience of graduates more aggressively under a NASCC-sponsored Corps to Careers program that began last year, featuring bi-weekly sessions on job readiness. Much of the evidence of post-graduate successes is anecdotal, and Civic Works has been quick to hire talented former corps members like Natasia McMillian, 27, who directs the PAL program. Three other former corps members, Sean Thames, Cynthia Morton and James Harrison, are team supervisors.

Kate O’Sullivan, PEPNet director for programs, says this is a good sign: “One of the hallmarks of the PEPNet successes are the positive relations between adults and young people. At Civic Works, you have small groups of young people working with a leader, and you have young people who have moved up to become leaders.”

A study of one PAL team by Innovation Network, a D.C.-based evaluator of nonprofits, found that participants’ grades in math and language arts rose consistently, with the most notable successes among students with previously failing grades. (The program gets grant support from America Reads, an AmeriCorps offshoot.)

Other corps members describe their experience in terms that are hard to measure. Abdus-Samu Muhammad, 21, part of Sage’s environmental team, describes shaking President Clinton’s hand at an AmeriCorps event in College Park, Md. “I never thought I’d be shaking the president’s hand,” he says.

New corps member Tirrell Shanks, 21, speaks of having a four-year-old son, and says that Civic Works has given him a new sense of possibilities. “I’ve spent too much of [my son’s] life locked up,” he says. “I’ve got to do better.”

Resources

Dana Stein

Executive Director

Civic Works

2701 St. Lo Drive

Baltimore, MD 21213

(410) 366-8533

Kathleen Selz

President

National Association of Service and Conservation Corps

666 11th Street, NW, Ste. 1000

Washington, DC 20001

(202) 737-6272

www.nascc.org

Kate O’Sullivan

Director for Programs

PEPNet

1836 Jefferson Place NW

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 659-1064

www.nyec.org


Myers, Jim. "Making Civics Work: Youth Job Training, Service and Creative Funding Clean Up Baltimore." Youth Today, November 1999, p. 46.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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