A message to Fenty and Gray: It's all about jobs

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By Roger Gench and Anthony Minter
Sunday, July 25, 2010

For several months, the focus of the District's mayoral campaign, and much of the media coverage of it, has been on the contrasting personal styles of the front-runners, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. We in the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) think it's time for the campaign and the candidates to focus on the issues instead. As an organization, WIN does not endorse candidates, but we do our best to hold those who run for office accountable to the people on the issues that affect their lives.

And this fall's election can be summed up in one issue: jobs. WIN leaders have held hundreds of listening sessions throughout the city, in church basements, recreation centers, food pantries and public housing sites. Over and over we have heard from unemployed and underemployed residents who need and want to work. We have heard from people who have applied for job after job and been turned away. We have heard from people who have gone through training program after training program, only to find no job at the end of all the training.

These stories reflect a national jobs crisis that is threatening the fabric of our communities. In 2009, Ward 8 had a 28 percent unemployment rate. This is tragic and unconscionable. Another painful example: WIN's young adult leaders from the Parkview neighborhood in Northwest. For the past nine months, these young men have spent countless hours organizing for improvements to their neighborhood recreation center. They knocked on doors, attended leadership training sessions, met with city officials and held rallies. Most of them are unemployed, despite each applying for positions at more than 20 businesses. When they are not volunteering, they spend their days submitting résumés.

Jobs are the No. 1 issue because the absence of good-paying jobs affects every other issue. It has a detrimental impact on families, crippling health, marital life and the nurturing environment that children need. It affects school performance, dropout rates and crime. Virtually everything we value in our communities hinges on jobs that pay a living wage, sustain families and enable people to create lives for themselves.

At WIN, our listening sessions prompted us to channel our organizing efforts into creating job opportunities, starting with a weatherization demonstration project that will retrofit homes to maximize energy efficiency. Our hope is that the creation of residential weatherization jobs will be just the beginning and that we can also organize for job opportunities in commercial-building energy retrofits and public infrastructure projects, among other areas.

In fact, our weatherization pilot should be a blueprint for how the winner of the election responds to the jobs crisis. Why did we start with weatherization? As a "green" occupation, weatherization is part of a growth industry. Weatherization jobs can put D.C. residents to work after two weeks of training. And weatherization creates opportunities for well-paid ($13 to $25 an hour, with benefits), meaningful work that adds value to homes.

The city has been our partner in this, but there is much more that can be done. We start in early September with a $3 million, D.C.-financed pilot program focused on weatherizing approximately 500 low- and moderate-income homes and employing 50 residents, but we believe that 2,000 to 4,000 low-income homes can be weatherized each year, offering employment to 700 out-of-work D.C. residents. The city can use its market leverage, political will and legal authority to compel businesses that provide construction and other services to the District to create thousands of jobs for unemployed and underemployed D.C. residents.

On Monday, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Northwest, WIN members will gather for a candidates' accountability night, and we will ask both Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray to commit to building on our jobs initiative, which the people of the District have asked for and so desperately need. And we will ask them what else they plan to do to get city residents back to work. We will not be asking them about their personalities. The people of the District deserve more from their elected officials than personal style. Creating jobs is the right place to start.

The Rev. Anthony Minter is pastor of First Rock Baptist Church. The Rev. Roger Gench is pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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