Conservation Corps: Work for the Mind, Too

Times Staff Writer

The word of the week was destiny.

"The 49ers had a destiny to win," said Sam Wilson, 21, writing the word in huge block letters so fellow members of the San Francisco Conservation Corps could read it on the blackboard at the corps' Ft. Mason headquarters. "But did they win?"

Other corps members wrote the word in their native language: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Samoan. As they piled into vans bound for 10 work sites around the city, their conversation focused on the theme of the week's reading, "Who/What Controls Your Destiny?"

Death and Destiny

By the morning work break, the 95 uniformed corps members, 18 to 26 years old, paused from bus graffiti removal, playground construction, installation of irrigation systems and other muscle-expanding endeavors to contemplate "Appointment in Samarra," the Somerset Maugham epigraph on death and destiny in the John O'Hara novel of the same name.

At the Hunters Point Boys Club, the nine-person work crew immediately plunged into an animated discussion.

"You can't run away from your fate," said Tony Biancalana, 22. "It's going to happen one way or another."

"My destiny?" said former Mission District gang leader Jesus Guerrero, 18. "I can shape it into what I want it to be. But like I say, if I get hit by a car, there's nothing I can do about it."

Across town, there was confusion and an uncomfortable silence as crew members read the passage sentence by sentence at the MUNI bus site. Finally, work supervisor Lonnie Ford used the stentorian tones of his actor's training to break the silence that followed the reading.

"I'd like to ask a question," he announced. "Does anybody know what this means?"

Puzzlement, reflection, inquisitiveness, rank boredom: The diverse reactions were exactly what corps director Robert J. Burkhardt Jr. had in mind when he began 1988 by adding the reading segment to the 5-year-old program designed to provide work skills for a population known euphemistically as "youth at risk." At least 50% of those enrolled in the corps program are high school dropouts; many are immigrants who speak no English.

The Reasons Behind Them

"Some are here because they want to plant trees," Burkhardt said, "some because their grandmother threw them out of the house, some because they're dodging the law. They didn't come here to be educated."

But Burkhardt, who as deputy director of the California Conservations Corps instituted a mandatory writing unit in that manual labor program, was adamant that "we're not just working the biceps here, it's the cerebral muscles as well."

Education, Burkhardt said, need not be stagnant or classroom-bound. On the contrary, he said, integrating readings from Brecht, Thoreau, Emerson, African folk tales, the Bible, wherever to illustrate such concepts as "What is correct behavior?" "What is racism?" "What is truth" or "How do you handle fear" into the workplace affords a "liberating form of education."

"It only has to take 10 minutes a day," Burkhardt said of the "Socratic to the extreme" readings and discussions he incorporates into daily work breaks. "I think it's a kind of worker education that can be used all over.

Looking at Production

"My contention is that this will increase productivity."

Work, Burkhardt said, will increase and improve in proportion to "the unity that this kind of group effort builds, as these co-workers come to trust each other more, as they become co-inquirers into the world."

Atop a windy work site in the city's heavily minority Hunters Point district, for example, the reading swiftly evolved into an elegy to corps member Angel Orellana, a 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, who died Christmas Eve.

"We don't know if we're going to die of cancer tomorrow, and there's nothing we can do about it," Tony Biancalana said after he had read the Maugham passage aloud.

"But there are some things we can do to speed it: drugs and alcohol, for instance," work supervisor Ginny Jordan said.

"I'm just wondering," Jordan said, "did anyone think to say, 'Hey, Angel, I really like you,' while he was still alive?"

She looked around at the crew that was taking time out from installing a fence and building a walkway and patio at the local boys' club that would withstand heavy rains.

"It's something we can all do, you know," she said, "We can say to each other, 'Gee, you're doing a great job.' You can say it to each other. It doesn't just have to come from a supervisor."

Later, as her crew grabbed heavy equipment and returned to their work stations, Jordan said that the new reading component had received mixed responses from corps members. Many were wary enough of the required journal-writing that Burkhardt demanded the last time he threw in an educational monkey wrench. Now, Jordan said, they were being asked to include the word of the week and their reactions to the reading of the week in their journal entries as well.

"The motivation maybe didn't come from them right off," Jordan said. "But that's OK. That's true of the whole program. Some people get it, some people don't."

Benefit Is the Process

As to whether the educational limitations of so many of these young people would allow them to "get" something as subtle as Maugham's conversation with death, Jordan was unconcerned. The benefit, Jordan said, comes from the process itself.

"I think if you're reading, you're reading," she said.

But over at the MUNI bus site, 22-year-old corps member Clarence Robinson, donning thick rubber gloves as he started the day's graffiti removal, suggested the weekly reading would only be helpful "if you take it seriously."

"Some parts of it are a waste of a time," Jeremiah Willis, 24, said. "To me, it really doesn't make any difference if they ask us to do this on the job. You don't think about it while you're brushing your teeth or anything."

"Look, we have them eight, 10 hours a day," work supervisor Ford said as he heard his crew members expressing their opinions. "Then they go back home, back to all the things that serve to distract them there."

Within the local conservation corps, as in any of the 60 or so similar youth service programs nationwide, "this is a kind of sanctuary from all the things that are just doing teen-agers and young people in," Ford said. "This is a way to do something constructive with some very freaked-out energies.

"The hardest occupation in America today," said Ford with a wry smile, "is 'teen-ager.' "

Offering minimum wage at best, national youth service programs "deal with an age group that is formative in developing its attitude toward work, and therefore toward life," said Ford, a veteran actor from the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

As for the readings, Ford said, "this is work. This reading is work. It's through work that we become educated."

"Reading is difficult for these kids," work supervisor Bobby Castillo said at Alice Griffith Park. "Some didn't want to read. They felt real stupid because they couldn't read."

In the Maugham passage, several of Castillo's crew members stumbled over the verb jostle. To illustrate his definition, Castillo playfully shoved a co-worker.

All-Male Crew

"Sometimes," Castillo said while his crew ignored a fierce wind to install an irrigation system, "it gets kind of heavy." After his female crew leader resigned not long ago to return to college, Castillo found himself running one of the corps' few all-male work teams. With the addition of the weekly readings, former gang member Castillo and his crew found themselves sharing highly personal experiences in the unusual setting of a trench at the base of a hill filled with public housing structures.

"There's a lot of talk about prison," said Castillo, who served 14 years for manslaughter and armed bank robbery convictions, "a lot of talk about life in the streets."

"Bobby, he makes us read a lot," said ex-gang leader Jesus Guerrero, 19. Guerrero, his arms covered with tattoos and deep scars from gang warfare, said he had come to respect Castillo and the corps' attempt to blend education and manual labor.

"It gives me more experience of myself," Guerrero said.

"I feel like I can open up," Darvel Parks, 23, said. "It makes you think more."

Castillo, for his part, was eager to talk more about the word of the week.

"It was my destiny not to go to jail, but I went," Castillo said.

Suddenly, Darvel Parks had a clear vision of how the reading and the word applied to the crew in general, and to his life in particular.

"Our destiny is to serve the community," Parks said. He looked at the play area he and his crew had landscaped, the trees they had planted, the irrigation system they were installing. "I'm giving something back. I didn't get to have all these things when I was a kid."

Then Parks brightened as he thought about the meritocracy of the conservation corps.

"My destiny," he said, "is to make crew leader."

It was exactly the kind of connection Burkhardt was hoping for.

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