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Cover Story: Community Male Empowerment Project works to find jobs in trades for youth

Wed, Jun 22, 2011

Suzanne Hanney and Katie Hills
Editor-In-Chief and Contributor

“We have to leave a legacy for our kids,” says Melvin Bailey, executive director of the Community Male Empowerment Project (CMEP). “What are you going to leave, the block? Here son, I’ve had this block my whole life, and now you can have it too. That’s crazy.”

Bailey focuses on creating jobs, particularly for ex-offenders and at-risk youth. It is a goal he has had since the 1990s, when he took jobless men to city hall to advocate.

“I come from a broken home, a single mother and five siblings,” Bailey said. “Dad was not around and there was no supervision, so guess who was teaching us? The streets. Guys found the wrong way to go – all negative – and when you went to jail it was a badge of honor. Eventually you fell into the same mentality because there was no opportunity. We want to be among working class folks so we can take care of our families.”

Founded in 2002, the goal of non-profit CMEP is to tackle the problems that persist in inner-city neighborhoods: high crime rates, gang involvement, lack of education and unemployment. The organization offers its services to the entire community, but it tries to target ex-offenders and at-risk youth. One program that combines education with prevention is the mentoring by Johnnie McGowan, or “Mr. J,” as the kids call him.

McGowan mentors 30 children, in first through eighth grade, at Dvorak School in North Lawndale. The program focuses on at-risk youth, but there are some kids who simply look to Mr. J as a father figure. McGowan claims there are at least 15 other boys who want to join his program, and it is easy to see why; while the program meets three days a week, McGowan goes to check on his mentees every day. He also uses his own money to reward the kids with trips to the movies and even the barber shop.

Hard work brings rewards

Even though McGowan encourages fun, he also acknowledges that it takes hard work to be rewarded. That these kids are willing to work in order to be part of the program is evident in their grades. All of them have seen improvements in their grades, many from Fs to Bs, he said.
McGowan also follows his mentees from grammar school through college, to ensure their continued success. Having graduated from the University of Arkansas, McGowan is a model of the type of success and impact these children can achieve by being educated, and also by giving back to the community.

Another initiative of CMEP is to provide local residents with gainful opportunity.

A natural networker, Bailey said he was finding people jobs before he realized it was a business, before he began partnering with public and private construction firms for jobs in the trades, particularly for ex-offenders and at-risk youth.

With the support of Ald. Emma Mitts (37th ward) the city-council approved an ordinance in April of this year to donate Chicago city vehicles to CMEP in order to clean up trash and tow abandoned cars in the neighborhood.

As a participant in the Wells Fargo and Chase Bank donated property program, CMEP has been able to acquire and dispose of more than 15 real estate owned (REO) properties in East and West Garfield Park, Austin, Auburn Gresham, Lawndale and North Lawndale.

Within the 28th ward, Bailey has rehabbed six units in three two-flat properties as part of the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The NSP program for vacant and foreclosed properties is administered by nonprofit Mercy Portfolio Services.

CMEP’s first two NSP homes were at 3352 W. Walnut and 3412 W. Walnut, and the third is at 327 N. Central Park Drive, across the street from the Garfield Park Conservatory. One house had already sold as of February, when more than 20 youths were involved with the program.
The Walnut properties were close to the site of a 2009 liquor store shooting that left several people injured. Bailey said the police watch commander credits CMEP construction with a lack of recent shootings since then. A young man who lived next door to the Central Park project, however, died tragically the night before he was to begin work there.

“You see how much I talk, I go to every door and they tell me, ‘It’s rough,’” Bailey said. “I say ‘Hold on, we’ll find you some employment.’”
The youths’ first jobs are with Touch N Go Cleaning, picking up garbage from major streets and vacant lots at $8 an hour. Once they prove to be reliable, Bailey will apprentice them to tradesmen from among the subcontractors on the project: carpenters, painters, roofers, plumbers.

Bailey tells the young people that it is no different for him; his reputation precedes him in his business relationships.

“Do you think they say ‘Oh, look, there’s Melvin?” Bailey said of the aldermen and lawyers when they first met him. He works with Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd ward), Ald. Michael Chandler (24th ward), Ald. Jason Irvin (28th ward), and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th ward) as well as the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and the law firms of McDermott Will & Emery LLP. Mayer Brown LLP facilitated acquisitions of donated property.

“I tell people I come from a broken home, I had some trouble with the law. If I can do it, you can do it. You have to come out of street clothes and wear business attire and speak business language to get the job done.”

Building a network of employers

Just as he has met people on the street or gone door-to-door for workers, Bailey has built up a network of potential employers in the trades over the years.

Robert Roberson, for example, had a broken femur from an auto accident in which he said the other driver ran a red light. Lacking benefits, he was being treated at Cook County Hospital. He needed a light job and he chose painting and drywall because he saw it as a way to create beauty.

Bailey found a subcontractor who sponsored Roberson through trade school. Starting in 2002, Roberson went to classes one day and worked four (with benefits) over a four-year apprenticeship.

“I completed it and now I do anything [Melvin] asks,” Roberson said. “Once you start getting a check you want to do something with your family, be something, give back. My momma had 17 kids and Daddy was in Arkansas but I knew him. I took care of her kids; that was my job. I do the same for my kids so they can do the same for their kids. My son is a general contractor and does the same for his family.”
Roberson has his own business, called “I Paint for You,” which employs four people and did the PCC Medical Center, Aldi grocery store and Donald Drew senior citizen center last year. He wears his painters’ clothes all the time to set the stage for jobs, such as the time he met the lady coming out of Home Depot with gallons of paint — but no painter. He also volunteers at Bethel Housing.

Leonard Cathey is a general contractor who worked on the nearby West Side Wal-Mart and who met Bailey several years ago when he was a precinct captain in the 37th and 24th wards. His son, Fabian, first met Bailey cleaning up the streets near one of their projects and approached him independently.

“I didn’t know he and my father knew each other,” Fabian said. “When me and my wife went to the office and I told my father, it was like peanut butter and jelly.”

CMEP is good, Leonard Cathey said, because whether male or female, kids can start as laborers and follow various tradesmen: electrician, plumber, carpenter, roofer. He has books they can read. And if he sees they are serious after six months, he offers them an apprenticeship.

The foreclosure program is also helping to allow people to buy houses at a cheaper price to remain in the community, Cathey said. Mercy Portfolio set prices of $150,000 to $170,000 for the Central Park property, for example, and five prospective buyers all qualified, Bailey said.

Always seeking more buildings

Don Jennings, who has worked with Bailey for 15 years, notes that this rehab, across the street from the Garfield Park Conservatory, employs “a couple dozen” people alone. “That’s why we need more financing so we can have multiple projects at once. Then there are more jobs to help feed [more] families,” he said.

Expansion is a definite dream for everyone involved with CMEP, but Jennings notes the impact that the organization has already been able to make in the West Side community. “Melvin has been very pivotal in the community, very pivotal.”

Jennings says this is because “[CMEP] stays positive, busy and legal,” sending a message of hope to the community during hard economic times. He credits Bailey’s networking for getting 16 people jobs on the new CVS that broke ground at Madison and Kedzie last November, with completion scheduled for late this year.

Fathers inspiring sons

Bailey was also the one to recommend that Jennings start his own company when odd end jobs weren’t sufficient for him. “[Melvin] told me that if there weren’t any jobs for me, I should make jobs for myself. I never knew I could run my own company,” Jennings said. In fact, Jennings has run multiple companies since 1996, including real estate, security and transportation companies.

After having his first son at 21, Jennings always knew he wanted to make sure his son went further than he did, especially in college. Jennings says his 14-year-old son can’t wait to get his business license at 18, so that he can follow his dad’s path. No matter what, Jennings says “I’ll feel okay because my son has the right mentality for life.”

This mentality, Jennings believes, has only been reinforced by the positivity promoted by CMEP. He now works on the REO properties through NSP with Bailey to spread their outreach.

Melvin Conway established a furniture store as an outgrowth of a business cleaning out properties and he also owns a mortgage company and a construction company. He has been helping Bailey rehab buildings because he is “doing good in the community.”

As with Jennings, Conway says the work has also positively affected his own family. Conway has three grown girls, as well as a 2-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter.

“It benefits my family because it gives me something positive to do and it puts food on the table.” He notes that many other men in CMEP, including those working on NSP projects, are fathers too. “The program started with fathers. Any man is working to feed their families. We just need to get up, work, and spend time with our kids. I get up, go to work, and try to get home to see my kids before they go to bed.”

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2 Responses to “

Cover Story: Community Male Empowerment Project works to find jobs in trades for youth

  1. Great post. Setting up a blog is the easy part. Making it interesting so people will visit is the hard part. These are good tips. I would also recommend reading other blogs, observing how they’re set up, and making comments on occasion.

  2. Carolyn Young says:

    The organization Community Male Empowerment lives up to it’s name. Young men are receiving life skills that will impact their lives forever. “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, Teach a man how to fish,he will be fed a lifetime”. Not only are they being “fed” physically and mentally, but additionally, spiritually. THANK YOU,all for your dedication to excellence and the uplifting and preservation of mankind.

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