Maxine Waters' 'Project Build' : Job Training Program Goes Right to the Housing Projects for People

Times Staff Writer

After she lost her job as a hospital supply clerk a year ago, 32-year-old Harriet Bristol looked in vain for a clerical job to help support her husband and two children.

"I was at a low point," she said. "I had been turned down for five jobs, even though I was taking typing classes."

One morning in November, on her way to the training center where she was studying, Bristol saw a flyer advertising a four-day employment program. She was impressed by its offer to connect participants with jobs, and by its operators bringing the program to the place where she lives, the Jordan Downs housing project.

Bristol called the training center, told them she wasn't coming to class and enrolled herself in Project Build, the brainchild of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

"It meant a lot to me that Waters was willing to come out and take time to help us get employed," Bristol said. "I had to take advantage of the program because of that. I was so inspired by her that I knew I would get a job."

Medical Transcriber Job

As a result of her first interview after completing the program, Bristol will soon be working as a medical transcriber for Business Services in Lynwood.

Job searches aren't always this successful or simple. But through Project Build, the only job training program that goes directly to the unemployed living in the state's large urban housing projects, people are learning to help themselves find jobs.

The program was launched at Jordan Downs in November, then moved on this month to Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts, where it holds a final session Monday. The seminar resumes Jan. 10 at Hacienda Village, completing its first circuit and returning to Jordan Downs later in January to begin a second round.

Twenty of the 86 people who completed the project at Jordan Downs were placed in jobs by the beginning of December. Another 30 are in some type of training program and 25 are studying for their high school equivalency diploma. The rest are in follow-up sessions with job counselors.

Unemployment High

Complete statistics are unavailable for the program at Nickerson, the city's largest housing project, where more than 1,500 of the 4,000 residents are unemployed, Waters said. At Imperial Courts and Hacienda Village, the unemployment rate is as high as 50 percent.

"Something needs to be done, especially here in the projects where the need is so great," said Waters, who has been personally conducting the four-day seminars, making them her top commitment. "These people need to be taught to help themselves."

The seminars include instruction on such things as how to fill out job applications, what to expect in interviews and how to provide for child care. On the fourth day, employers Unocal, Pacific Bell and Charles Drew Postgraduate Medical School come to the projects to interview the participants.

"We are not a job referral service. We connect people with jobs," said Waters, who enlisted the aid of job experts in the community to formulate the workshops' content. Students are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, up to a class capacity of about 100. The only graduation requirement is that they attend all four sessions, and Waters strictly enforces that rule.

From Waters' Visits

The idea for the program came from her visits to the projects, Waters said, explaining that she was constantly approached by unemployed residents asking how they could get jobs. It struck her, she said, that the program should come to them.

"Until Project Build came along, I didn't even bother looking for a job," said Gladys Ard, a 29-year-old mother who has been supporting her family of three with welfare for two years. She completed the Nickerson program and is now a clerk typist at Drew Medical School.

"I thought (employers) would have a bad attitude about hiring welfare recipients like me. I needed somebody else to say to me 'You can do it if you try' because I wasn't trying," Ard said.

Participants get large doses of motivation during the project, from bright, fluorescent-colored banners with such upbeat sayings as "Yes, I can" to pep talks given by Waters and guests like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the "graduation ceremony" at Nickerson Gardens.

'At Your Skills'

"At the end of the seminars, I felt as though I could get a job," said Diane Walters, a Nickerson resident. "I always thought employers looked at how you look and where you came from instead of at your skills. But Project Build taught me that wasn't true."

The 30-year-old mother of three, who last held a job six months ago as a clerk in the tax collector's office, has already been offered a construction job building the Century Freeway and is waiting for calls from two companies with clerical positions open. Cathy Richards, 29, has been taking computer programming classes at Southwest College, but enlisted in Project Build for "attitude polishing."

"It's time for me to grow up," said Richards, who has been unemployed since June, 1981. "I can't make mistakes anymore. I came here to learn how to be more responsible."

The state Employment Development Department provided the $250,000 budget for the project, which is expected to run out with the end of the third round of seminars in July.

30% Rate Expected

June Hampton, a department special projects manager, said the state expects 30 percent of all people who complete the workshops to get work or to be placed with training and development programs.

Waters expected Nickerson, known for its high crime rate, gang activity and violence, to be her biggest challenge. But enthusiasm for the program was high, and she had to turn away dozens of interested people until the project returns in February.

"Newspaper reports say bad things (about the housing projects) and it gets so you believe it," she said to the crowd during the seminar's first day. "You can't get defensive about it. You've got to determine what this community is."

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