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Giving Newark Residents the Tools They Need to Turn Around Their Lives

'Financial opportunity centers’ teach financial literacy and computer technology, and offer job placement help after job training

valerie roper
Valerie Roper wiped away tears when she talked about the difference the center staff has made in her life.

Job training is not enough to help Newark residents regain their economic footing in the wake of the Great Recession, said city officials, nonprofit groups, and major corporations as they inaugurated two "financial opportunity centers."

Created through the Newark chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the new centers aim to follow a model established in cities across the country. Their task is providing job training, financial literacy, computer technology, access to banking and credit and, ultimately, job-placement services under one roof.

A training program "is nothing without jobs at the end of it, without employers at the end of it" said Richard Rohrman, chief executive officer of the New Community Corp., which is running one center while the Urban League of Essex County runs the other.

Even as the Great Recession fades in other parts of the nation, Newark-area residents face continuing unemployment, foreclosures, and limited access to services like banking that other communities take for granted, said Rhonda Lewis, executive director of the Great Newark LISC.

She and other officials cited a raft of Census statistics:

  • 22.7 percent of local residents own their homes, compared to 65.2 percent for New Jersey and 64.5 percent for the nation despite a decade of declines.

  • Just 12.7 percent of Newarkers have a bachelor's degree, while 29.2 percent did not finish high school.

  • Some 38 percent of local households have annual income under $25,000.

  • Nationally, white families average nine times more "wealth," assets, than African-American families.

  • About 4.2 percent of local homes were in foreclosure in December, according to the real-estate analytics firm CoreLogic. That's less than New Jersey's overall rate, but well above the 1.2 percent for the nation.

"Economic inequality in the United States is at its highest level in nearly a century, disproportionately affecting communities of color," said Vivian Cox Fraser, president and CEO of the Urban League of Essex County.

"There's a lot going on in the city, we see the cranes downtown," said Craig Drinkard, chairman of the local advisory board. "But we are cognizant that we need to help people in our communities, in our neighborhoods."

Some program participants have provided happy stories of their success. Others offered vivid examples of how short the fall can be from a normal life to economic crisis, and why advice and training are needed.

sabrena graham
Sabrena Graham

When Sabrena Graham lost her job as a massage therapist in August, she assumed she would quickly land another. The mother of four said she has always taken care of them and paid her bills. She did not want to ask for help, "like beggars on the corners."

"That's not who I am, I take pride," Graham said.

But by last month, she admitted she was falling behind financially and came into the center. Counselors quickly connected her to food and transportation assistance, balancing her finances. Now, she dreams of starting her own business.

"I'm still working on it, but I feel like I'm in a better place," she said.

Valerie Roper wiped away tears as she talked about the difference the center staff has made in her life during the same few months.

A one-time volunteer for the Urban League, Roper went on to obtain a sociology degree and significant college debt. She got pregnant and gave birth to a son in August. While her boyfriend helped with some costs, "he can't do much, he's struggling, too," she said. Worse, her parents are barely hanging on to their home. They fell behind on their mortgage and have been unable to negotiate a new deal.

"They're been notified the foreclosure is coming soon, so we're looking for someplace to live," Roper said.

Talking to center staff about all this "was embarrassing, but I knew it was important to let them know my circumstances," she said. Some of her problems were simply inexperience and unfamiliarity with finances and available services, and counselors were able to make immediate improvements, she said.

"With their help, I was able to settle $8,000 in debt for $1,700," Roper said. "They connected me with SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Aid Program for low-income families) and parental aid."

And finally, impressed by her diligence, the Urban League hired her. With that income, and a budget plan, she has lined up an apartment for April 1.

maxwell kukubor
Maxwell Kukubor

Other participants have found the training and job placement programs have eased fraught transitions. Maxwell Kukubor followed his father from Ghana two years ago after finishing his schooling. After learning of the training program from a friend, he completed his certification as a mechanic. Then, the placement program kicked in, finding him a job at Autoland,.

But Kukubor is far from done with the training. "I want to be able to do anything on a car," he said.

Patrick Parris came from Guyana as a child in 1970. His hardworking parents kept him on the straight and narrow. "I don't smoke. I seldom drink. 'Don't be drinking the drugs,' my Momma would say."

patrick parris
Patrick Parris

Parris sold insurance for many years. But he lost his driver's license in 2006 and could no longer make house calls. With a friend, he went to New Community Corp.'s workforce retention program.

"I said, 'I need a job,'" Parris said. "And the woman sitting up front said, 'We don't give out jobs, we help you get jobs. What do you do?'"

"And my friend said, 'He's a really good cook.'"

As it happened, NCC's culinary arts program was accepting students, "and that's the only thing I wanted to do. I don't build things, I'm not a carpenter. I don't know about cars, so automotive mechanic wasn't right for me."

The program not only taught him, but connected him to an internship at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center under "great chefs, where I really could increase my skills." Since then, Parris has continued to land jobs and brush up on skills like resume writing through the program. He is working one job in the kitchen of a convalescent home and is seeking to add a second.

"I'm going to stay with this for the rest of my life," Parris said.

For now, though, the centers have a two-year funding commitment from backers led by the locally based Nicholson Foundation, joined by the Prudential Foundation, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Capital One, and Synchrony Financial.

The centers have some significant benchmarks to meet, said Rodney Brutton, director of workforce development at NCC. They include a 75 percent job placement rate for program participants, and having 60 percent open a bank account, which many local residents lack.

That should be easy, since NCC already operates a credit union with less onerous deposit requirements than most conventional banks. Improving credit scores and increasing account balances can be a slow task for the working poor, Brutton said, but promised nobody will be left behind.

"We're going to keep working with each student until they hit their benchmarks," he said.

With such challenges in mind, Lewis said LISC hopes to open two more centers in an area including East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City, and Orange.

"As a funder... this is opportunity for us," said Charlie Venti, Nicholson's executive director. His board responded to the track record of the participating nonprofits "of being able to engage these issues here in Newark," he said.

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