Harlem STRIVE grads build grit as well as resumés

July 2015; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, covering the East Harlem/Community Board 11 beat.

Like many of her peers, East Harlem resident Reniesha McKenzie, 23, has struggled with more than just finding a job. Just five weeks ago, her confidence was painfully low, she said.  She thought she could never have a career.

Since then, McKenzie has enrolled in a job training program at STRIVE, an employment center founded in 1984 by two New York bankers, Sam Hartwell and Tom Rodman, and an East Harlem resident and social worker, Rob Carmona. STRIVE’s mission is to encourage a culture of employed and empowered residents, using what its organizers call a “tough love, no excuses approach to job readiness.” Besides job placement and skills development, the center offers group workshops to improve fatherhood and co-ed parenting, along with support groups for women and youths, where participants meet regularly to discuss everyday problems and how to cope with them.

“We learn a lot about ourselves. We start with the heart, with us. My confidence level is up here now,” said McKenzie as she gestured high. She first heard about STRIVE through her church. On this day she sat forward excitedly as she discussed her plan to get her master’s degree in social work and to pursue a career as a marriage counselor.

STRIVE’s doors are open to anyone seeking help, unemployed or not. The idea is to help people look beyond just landing a job. STRIVE’s instructors encourage participants to set their sites on a long-lasting career. Those who apply and are accepted into training programs must first go through a three to five week course called “Attitudinal and Job Readiness training,” referred to as “core.” The organization estimates a 70 percent success rate from training participants: people who find and keep jobs during a two-year follow-up period.

In 2012, the New York City Food Policy Center reported that East Harlem ranked 13 poorest of New York’s 59 community districts, and 44 percent of East Harlem’s children lived in poverty. A 2012 study put out by the NYC Coalition and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative reported that 38 percent of residents in the East Harlem area live below the poverty line and only 13 percent of those over age 25 hold a college degree.

“It’s the difference between a job and a career,” Latisha Smith, director of training at STRIVE, explained. Earlier in the day, she said this phrase repeatedly to a group participating in a pilot program with Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.

The program offers 18- to 24-year-old participants a condensed, one-week version of STRIVE’s core training before starting them on a summer internship. The interns receive a weekly $100 stipend for going door-to-door, verifying addresses for zip codes in East Harlem and the South Bronx. The information will be recorded on mobile phones and tablets, and used as data by MAPSCorps, a Chicago-based nonprofit that documents community health issues such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease.

Moya Brown, Coordinator of Health Education at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, addressed the interns. “What are you guys interested in? What are you passionate about?” Aside from learning professional skills, the program encourages participants to get to know their community in a new way, and to engage in positive, goal-oriented activities. In one core training classroom, students stood up and introduced themselves to the class when addressing the room, every time.

In a STRIVE classroom, wearing unprofessional attire or being late warrants a fine. Hands in pockets cost a student $.25 per hand. Rajiyah Smalls was told to add a quarter to the penalty jar when instructor Darnell Hill spied her nodded off during his presentation. Smalls, 26, lives in a shelter with her two children. She says she wants to be an actress.

“You really never know what a person has been through when they come here. People are abused, molested,” Smith said. “We teach that you need to be right with yourself before you can be successful at work.” 

Image courtesy of CBS News. A STRIVE participant practices a strong handshake with instructor Darnell Hill.  

Image courtesy of CBS News. A STRIVE participant practices a strong handshake with instructor Darnell Hill.