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Job-training program aims to empower the District's hardest to employ

The goal: Take participants from the only Washington they've known, where unemployment is chronic, and show them a city they've watched from afar, where women wear practical heels and men match their belts to their wingtips.

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By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 12:04 AM

It's a Monday morning and Rodney Brown's 28 students shuffle into a lime-colored room at the Department of Employment Services on H Street NE. Several arrive late. Many wear clothes made for lounging, not impressing.

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"I see some of you wearing tennis shoes," says Brown, his 6-foot frame tidy in gray slacks and a tie. "You come in here tomorrow with them and I'm going to have to send you out."

He is just getting started. Around him, shirts are untucked. Belts bear blinged-out buckles. Pants sit low - too low.

"How you going to get on Air Force One with your pants down to here?" Brown says, hitting the sides of his thighs. "If you know you don't wear size 40, why you buy size 40?"

"And sisters," he says, "we know you like to look sexy, but . . ."

This is Project Empowerment, the District's most expensive job-training program, aimed at one of its most desperate populations. The goal: Take participants from the only Washington they've known, where unemployment is chronic, and show them a city they've watched from afar, where women wear practical heels and men match their belts to their wingtips.

Of more than 800 participants the program serves each year, nearly all are African American, 80 percent have criminal records and many have never held a full-time job.

The $11 million-a-year project, begun in 2001 as a welfare-to-work endeavor, has become so popular on the District's roughest streets that no advertising or recruiting is necessary. About 7,000 names linger on a waiting list. Those who receive the call will earn $6.69 an hour (after taxes) while they attend a three-week class. If they graduate, they will get a six-month subsidized stint at a workplace that has agreed to take a chance on them. And if that goes well, they may finally land a prize that too few people around them have won: steady employment.

But first, they must pass a soul-scraping test: a class like Rodney Brown's on what it takes to make it in the other Washington.

Among the students that first day are three people facing very different barriers to employment. In the back row sits Antoine "Ali" Moore, who went to prison as a teenager and came out an adult. Tucked in the middle row is Patrice Taylor, a single mother of two known to throw a punch. Front row center is Johnny Perkins, who is trying to start over at 55, when most men are thinking about retirement. For six months, The Washington Post followed the three through setbacks and triumphs to see if what they learned in Brown's class would be enough.

"None of you in here were slaves," Brown shouts that first day. "None of you in here were killed for reading a book. We have people who come here from another country, don't know the language or nothing, and they learn the system better than us. At one time, we were second-class citizens. Now we're third-class."

And then he tells his students: "If I'm hard on you, it's because I love you and want to see you succeed."


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