By Doniphan Blair
Civicorps may have a prosaic name, which it adopted seven years ago from an even more modest appellation—East Bay Conservation Corps—but don’t let that fool you. Indeed, CC has been performing stellar service in the East Bay for 30 years and it is continuing to grow.
Indeed, it has new programs and projects, including the recent purchase of a building in West Oakland.
Using a dynamic mix of schooling and service, and public and private enterprise, Civicorps helps young adults finish high school and go to college while providing them with paying jobs. Given this entrepreneurial angle, they are able to fund a lot more than if they relied on the state, a magic formula which really warrants promulgation elsewhere. CC has served some 50,000 students over the last three decades, with a student population of around 120 at any given time.
“About 30% of our folks have had court involvement—we have all these 30 percents,” Civicorps Executive Director
Michele Moore, Alan Lessick and Margot Prado Lederer, Director of West Oakland Works, in the Civicorps school’s lush lobby, in a warehouse on Myrtle. photo:
D. Blair Alan Lessik explained to me, when I met with him and his Development Director, Michele Valenti Moore, last month.
“About 30% came out of the foster care system and 30% have families, already have kids.”
Also, about “70% are minority, about 75% of which are African American,” added Moore. “They are the ‘One Percent’ of Oakland, one percent economically and of the possibilities in their lives.”
Ironically, Moore and Lessik stand in stark contrast to whom we might imagine would be running a place like Civicorps in West Oakland. Lessick is mild-mannered and slightly-rumpled while the well-coifed Moore happens to be very short. But they use their plain-spoken and heart-felt approach as part of their appeal, notably to emphasize their commitment.
“If you can show up—and keep your pants up while you are here,” said Lessick, quietly but with emphasis. “Dress correctly and pay attention to teachers and supervisors, abide by the basic set of rules, we will do EVERYTHING we can to support you.”
Another method they find effective is the portfolio system. “It is not that you take this course, this course, this course. There is a series of things you have to do,” explained Lessick. They include both research papers and the arts, ranging from painting and music to two annual student performances of Shakespeare.
After three months of classes, students switch to studying only eight hours a week with the remaining 32 hours for job training and then work, mostly in environmental services as the old Conservation Corps name suggests. Indeed, they are the young people in orange vests you see working on the roads across the region. CC has contracts with CalTrans, East Bay Mud, the Regional Parks and the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Walnut Creek.
“They are out today in the rain and mud,” noted Lessick, glancing out at the grey skies, “Learning the basics: to show up, follow my crew leader, do the work I am supposed to do, be respectful, and get along with each other.”
The latter can pose problems due to lingering neighbor or gang affiliations. Occasionally, there are fights, generally verbal, but they are dealt with immediately and diffused by staff.
When they are working—which is rated community service by AmeriCorps—the students earn scholarship money in addition to their wages. Last year, that totaled over $200,000, two to five thousand for the average student.
The work ranges from landscaping and road cleanup to planting, removing invasive species, trail building and mucking around in creeks and swamps, which they do for Alameda Flood Control. CC also does garbage pickup and runs a complete recycling service out of a warehouse in East Oakland.
“Folks start sorting on the line—which I did for a day, a disgusting job,” Lessick noted. “Then they move to warehousing, operating a front-loader, a bobcat [a small bulldozer/dumptruck hybrid], getting hard skills and earning certificates,” which go on their resumes. One of the most coveted is a Class B truck driver’s license.
“After obtaining my diploma,” remarked Eddie, a youth quoted in CC’s tasteful new brochure, “I began working as a route driver in the recycling department. The fast-paced atmosphere and zero tolerance for unprofessionalism really made a huge impact on me.”
“Everyone once in a while I hear the stories, especially about the young women learning to use a chain saw—I don’t know how to use a chain saw,” said Lessick, laughing.
“We have internships with the City of Oakland but we are also working with private companies to set up internships in the administration, warehousing, maintenance. Our recycling program on San Leandro near the Coliseum has 24 interns. All of these interns will have the opportunity to interview for a job afterwards.”
Students deep in study at the Civicorps school. Photo: D. Blair
“The other part is the service aspect: everyone is providing service to their neighborhood, to the greater Oakland. Part of our graduation requirement is democratic participation, understanding how the city works. We are a charter school and, when we were getting our charter renewed, we had our students speak on behalf of the school. We recently met with the city council and had some [students] speak.”
“A person usually takes a year and half to go through the program but there is no such thing as an average person. We have people who went through high school but didn’t graduate. On the other end, we had a woman who was a functioning illiterate when she showed up.”
“Due to all the crazy factors in her family, they never figured out that she was supposed to go to school. Eventually, she herself decided she wanted to but she had never been and the school system couldn’t figure out what to do with her.”
“She had never been to school until she was 16,” elaborated Moore. “She just graduated in December. She took two, maybe two and half years, but that is still amazing.”
“Obviously a very bright young woman who was just waiting and sucked it all up,” concluded Lessik. While this particular woman was an extreme case, Lessick and his staff find a significant number of students suffer from learning disabilities which manifest as behavior in high school.
“The schools are seeing these [bad] behaviors and kicking kids out, even though the students are written up as having a learning disability. We understand it is a learning disability, so we work with it.”
“We meet you where you are at,” emphasized Moore.
“We are the only accredited high school for 18-23 year olds in the East Bay. We do a high school diploma—we don’t do GED. We have a graduation up to 80%. Given that these are all kids who have dropped out, that is phenomenal,” continued Lessik.
“But a high school diploma no longer goes anywhere, so we have made an a additional commitment. One year after graduation, we are expecting to see 70% of our folks in college, in a career or job training.”
“To do that, we had to revamp our program. Now, when they come in to orientation, they meet with a college counselor and career counselor. From day one we say, ‘Your job is to get to college or career.'”
“You have a future,” chimed in Moore. After graduation, staff accompany their “folks,” as Lessick likes to call them, through the registration process, usually at the local community colleges of Peralta, Merritt or Laney.
“It can be rather daunting, ” Moore said. “Many of these kids have not left West Oakland. We go with them and help with that transition. When they come, from day one, we are planning a future. Alan [Lessick] asks this question at orientation: [it turns out] most of them think they are going to be dead by the age of 25.”
“One young man alone has been to six funerals since October,” she said, nodding gravely. “To get them to think, ‘I can dream,’ ‘I have a goal’—that is huge!”
Until recently, CC consisted of only its school, at 101 Myrtle, not far from Jack London Square but a good walk from a BART station; its recycling facility on San Leandro; and its work center on 7th Street. But they received a state grant a few years ago and were able to buy the Cable Bore Building, at 1425 5th Street, close to West Oakland BART, with another grant coming last year to cover renovations.
The new building tripled their space. In addition to rooms for job training, morning calisthenics, tools and more, there will be locker rooms—a welcome relief since the old building had only one small bathroom.
“We also want to do some demonstration projects, solar, water recapture, landscaping,” said Lessick. “We already reached out to the neighbors and did some landscaping for them. Our long-term goal is to take down the old building and have a school and job training center in the same place. But that requires a capital campaign.”
“The thing I love about my job,” said Lessick, waxing a tad metaphysical, “I get to see people transforming their lives every day. It is not a pretty sight. It’s difficult and there is lot of stuff along the way.”
“There are several different reasons people don’t make it through high school. A lot of it has to do with the violence that is in the neighborhoods, the trauma that comes from the violence, and dealing with all the other stressors. That brings about addiction and mental health issues.”
“Our guarantee is: We will work on any problems that you come to us with, or that emerge, as long as you are willing to work with us and are committed to going through the school and work program,” he concluded.
“Our ultimate product is our people,” added Moore, “A person who has gone on to a family-sustaining career, that is our product.”
Read more from the original publisher, West Oakland Works.