After graduating from Project Empowerment, three students test the job waters

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.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 7:42 PM

Patrice Taylor has spent her past few birthdays in court. At 25, she faced an assault charge after she punched a man in the face at a club. At 26, she was at the courthouse for a custody hearing that split her family. This year, she expects to spend her 27th there, too, fighting charges that she violated a civil protection order.

For most of Taylor's life, the legal system - with its "snobby" lawyers and "crooked" cops - has been a scary force with the ability to ruin your day or wreck your future. But now, two weeks after graduating from the Project Empowerment job-training program, Taylor is walking into the nerve center of that institution, a marble-walled building at Judiciary Square, passionately hoping for a chance to work for the same system she believes hasn't worked for her.

"Tell me about yourself," says Gale Rivers, a petite, kind-eyed woman whose desk is watched over by a poster of Barack Obama and the slogan "Change happened."

Taylor has arrived at the city's legal office from the District's most expensive job-training program, a last chance for some of Washington's most difficult unemployment cases. Rivers has seen a series of recruits from Project Empowerment and knows that some of them work as though their futures are on the line, showing up on time even during snowstorms. But others blithely dismiss her advice, such as how not to tuck in a dress shirt: one flap hidden and the other hanging out in defiance.

"When can you start?" Rivers asks Taylor.

"Today," she says, parroting what she learned in class.

By 2 p.m., Taylor is scanning documents, one after another, until the end of the day.

This past spring, 28 students entered Rodney Brown's class at Project Empowerment; 25 made it to graduation.

For three weeks, the students - many with criminal records and some who have never held a steady job - focused on basics that much of working America takes for granted: how to dress for the office, how to talk to a supervisor and how to get along with co-workers, especially those they don't like.

The goal: to ensure they can land - and keep - a job in a world of work that has, for the most part, passed them by.

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