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BUILD, its unpaid customer service training for an appreciative cohort, and a graduation ceremony featuring some "Occupy Central Brooklyn" rhetoric

In the spring of 2000, activists including ACORN, the WEP Workers Organizing Committee, and the Rev. Al Sharpton marched against low-wage jobs at the Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Center mall and Regal Cinemas in Brooklyn, as described in William DiFazio’s 2005 book Ordinary Poverty.

The low end of the retail wage scale usually doesn't pay living wages. So it’s notable that Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) recently began to focus on unpaid customer service training--involving classroom sessions and unpaid internships--to position people for hospitality and retail jobs.

After all, BUILD--which had no track record in job training but is led by people with records of community service--was established with the expectation of high-paying construction jobs at the Atlantic Yards project.

The CBA mandated that BUILD offer pre-apprentice construction job training, funded by Forest City Ratner, with the implication that it begin shortly after the CBA was signed in 2005.

That finally happened last year; today, some who went through training have filed suit saying it's a sham. At the least, as I explain, Forest City is now emphasizing that the program--promised as training "Community residents for construction jobs within the Arena and Project"--aims "to help new workers "develop the kinds of skills that they can use beyond this project."

Making the most of it

Meanwhile, in an economically polarized city, BUILD has been trying to make the most of more modest offerings.

On November 8, BUILD held an elaborate graduation ceremony in Crown Heights for the first seven-week round of customer service training. Some 13 of the 25 participants attended, along with family members, community members, and those in the second round of training. There will be three more groups of 25 students; more than 350 people have expressed interest in the program, a sign of the endemic unemployment in New York.

The graduates received certificates not just from BUILD but also from Rep. Ed Towns. They were given buttons (above) with the BUILD logo that proclaimed “Proud Customer Service Training Graduate: In Service to the Community and Beyond.”

The training program, which included free MetroCards to cover participants' travel, represents a modest expenditure by Forest City Ratner compared to its spending, say, on lobbying and public relations, or even the sum, up to $100,000 annually, that the developer has failed to allocate to the CBA-promised Independent Compliance Monitor.

There was no one at St. Teresa of Avila Church to suggest that the developer could be doing much more, or that BUILD in signing the CBA could have extracted a greater community commitment.

Still, it should be noted that the program was embraced and appreciated by the applicants at the ceremony, who felt it would give them a boost. They had the time, willingness, and fortitude to go through unpaid training to learn some “soft skills” and job readiness that some more advantaged youth pick up more easily.

(In the photo above, with the 13 graduates who attended, Chief Operating Officer Marie Louis and Chief Executive Officer James Caldwell are at right. Instructor Malik Heckstall is wearing the bow tie. Photo by BUILD's Lance Woodward.)

The ceremony was saluted not only by a Towns rep but also two District Leaders and one City Council Member, Darlene Mealy. That suggests not merely the program’s significance but also the power that Forest City Ratner maintains and the respect that BUILD's Caldwell, longtime President of the 77th Precinct Community Council, retains.

BUILD’s promotion for the training program, below, suggested the possibility for work "in the retail and hospitality industries, both in, and around, the Arena," and pictured the arena. But participants told me they had been clearly informed that, while they might have a better shot at arena jobs, they were not guaranteed.


BUILD’s mission

BUILD, spurred by then-Assemblyman Roger Green, was organized to help with job training, funded steadily by Forest City Ratner and later some city funds channeled through the city-funded, union-run Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), as well as the Workforce Development Corporation.

BUILD occupies a significant storyline in the documentary film Battle for Brooklyn, first at public rallies in support of the project, then a press conference based on BUILD's erroneous claims, in IRS documents, that it expected $5 million from Forest City Ratner in its initial two years.

Actually, it's been more than $1 million since 2005. Though the film can leave the impression that BUILD was being paid by Forest City beginning in 2004, BUILD officials say they did not get paid by Forest City until 2005, after the CBA was signed. That said, BUILD leaders for a few months in 2005 lied that they were unpaid.

BUILD has been invoked by Forest City Ratner as evidence of its community commitment. “Last year, BUILD provided more than 1,200 local residents with job training or some type of employment support,” Forest City Ratner executive MaryAnne Gilmartin wrote in a February 2010 New York Observer op-ed.

Not coincidentally, BUILD officials have vigorously advocated for the project at public hearings and brought numerous supporters and members.

BUILD's offerings

BUILD offers general job counseling--job search, applications, practice interviews--at its Forest City Ratner-provided offices at 485 Hudson Avenue, just off Fulton Street as Downtown Brooklyn intersects with Fort Greene. As of this past summer, it had helped more than 350 people get work, including at Forest City’s malls, as well as in other relatively low-skilled jobs.

According to a message from Caldwell (right) that's part of a postcard advertising a BUILD fundraiser being held tomorrow:
One of our biggest and most prideful achievements to date is the more than 400 New Yorkers, from all boroughs, we've helped in finding, maintaining and accelerating in gainful employment.
It's not completely clear from that phrasing whether 400 people got jobs, or the total involves some who already had jobs and were assisted in other ways.

The main funder outside Forest City Ratner seems pleased. BUILD “has either met or exceeded goals in most contractual categories,” the Consortium for Worker Education's Glenda Williams told me this summer. “Participation in JtBO [Jobs to Build On] was not limited to the most experienced providers. Those nascent entities –such as BUILD... had displayed unique capacities within their constituent communities. Also, BUILD was to be--at that time--connected with the jobs generating Atlantic Yards CBA, that the organization could build additional capacities to fill longer-term employment needs of local residents.”

The ceremony

Caldwell, an Army veteran and former auto salesman, has concentrated in more recent years on community service, rebuilding the precinct council, some of whose members serve on BUILD’s board. And Caldwell’s circle has also served, at least according to some reports, as a political base.

So while it may seem unusual for a civic group to recruit a community affairs police officer to sing the national anthem at their ceremony and to help serve lunch, in Caldwell’s view, that fell under the rubric of community affairs.

Religion infuses BUILD’s mission and the rhetoric of Caldwell and Louis and, indeed, the program began and ended with a prayer.

 “First and foremost, I want to thank God for the opportunity to stand before all of you today,” Louis said as she took the podium, as detailed in the video below. “What got many folks excited [about Atlantic Yards] was the whole of idea of a CBA... so folks from the community could connect with opportunities that come with a huge project.”

 Of Forest City Ratner, she said, “We thank God for their progressiveness and forward thinking in working with the community.”

 “One of the best ways to bring on Mr. C.”--as Louis calls him--”is to invoke one of his favorite scriptures, and that’s Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before all, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Louis and Caldwell on video

Caldwell takes the stage

“Down at BUILD, we have a Harriet Tubman state of mind, we believe that you should always go back to try to help somebody else,” declared Caldwell, his accent still reflecting his South Carolina boyhood.

Caldwell’s comfortable defending the project. He talks about a reverend who brought people to support the project. “Why would they support the project? Because they know our community needs what? Jobs. They put that above everything... If a person can provide for his family, it will make our community safe.”

“Also, and I still stand by my statement that I made seven or eight years ago, that Bruce Ratner is like an angel sent from God,” Caldwell continued. “Now why would I say that? I said that for many reasons. The fact that we were able to take young peoples from our communities that don’t never get a chance to leave their block half the time, down to Dorney Park. Take seniors to upstate, where they can get a bang out of their dollar. How did we do all that? We did that by working with Forest City Ratner Companies. And we’re just so pleased to have them.”

If Caldwell isn't doing much of a cost-benefit analysis, it recalls a statement made by then-Daily News columnist Errol Louis that, even if a project seems like a sweet deal for the developer, it may be worth doing if it helps locally: “where I live, in Kings County, if somebody wants to bring a billion-dollar deal there, with way too much paid per job, in my neighborhood, where there’s a lot of unemployment, personally, I would say, ‘You know what? I’ll take that.’”

And Caldwell, unlike experts on CBAs, finds no problem with community groups dependent on a developer. He’s proud. “Because the funding they provide to us is why we can do what we do,” he said. “We really do have a legitimate seat at the table.” And, I’d point out, an incentive to support the project in a way an established job-training group might not have done.

How often, Caldwell asked, “do big developers invite you to be a seat at the table? They don’t. They take all the resources of the community and just disappear. Not in this case. How often can you go to a training class at [Forest City's] MetroTech, at the tenth floor, with that beautiful view? How often can we do that in our community? How often? Not too often. But most people’s don’t give a hoot about us. They don’t. But this particular developer, I don’t care what the critics say about them. I know, that they have stood by us.”

And then Caldwell linked Forest City’s desperate search for investors in the New Jersey Nets and Atlantic Yards--”had to go to on a plane to go Russia, go here, go there”--to the need for the young adults from the ‘hood, participating in the ceremony, to persevere.

“He said, ‘I’m not giving up,’” Caldwell said, indicating Ratner. “I think you all heard me say yesterday, ‘Everybody can give up on you, as long as you don’t give up on yourself.’”

He got hearty applause.

In keeping with the theme, BUILD is holding an event tomorrow night, the BUILD Resiliency Awards & Fundraiser, "honoring individuals in the community who came upon the wall of adversity and plowed through," as indicated in the graphic at left.

Forest City’s Marshall

In introducing Forest City Ratner executive Jane Marshall, the developer’s only rep at the event, Caldwell saluted her as “someone who stood by us, in depressing times.” (BUILD, of course, also stood by Forest City.)

He did, somewhat obliquely, allow for a shift in emphasis, one manifested by the lawsuit that's emerged today. “We know it’s tough to get union jobs,” Caldwell said, so BUILD and Forest City, “we made an adjustments... Sometimes you got to change your flight plan. Storm might be too rough ahead of you.”

Taking the podium, Marshall saluted BUILD for “formulating a strategy that really anticipates the potential of employment opportunities in the borough of Brooklyn but also because the arena’s about to open.”

At the arena, she said, there will be “hundreds of full and part-time job opportunities that depend on the basic tenets of human interaction.. face to face human interaction, remembering faces, being nice, learning the ins and outs of the venue.”

So, “under the leadership of Mr. Caldwell and Marie Louis, BUILD has focused its job training effort on an employment sector that not only seizes opportunity," she said, "but is a sector with growth potential.”

Council Member Mealy

There is a feeling of grievance, expressed by Borough President Marty Markowitz and others, that the Atlantic Yards opposition--relatively small in the political world--takes up a lot of space. Caldwell shares that sense of embattlement

“When we first started, support from the political world really wasn’t there for us,” suggested Caldwell in introducing Council Member Darlene Mealy, omitting the fact that BUILD was launched by veteran Assemblyman Roger Green and that the project was launched with support from the state's two key officials, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Mike Bloomberg. (Mealy has helped fund BUILD and was one of the two Brooklyn Council Members at the March 2010 arena groundbreaking.)

Mealy, comfortable with the audience, asserted. “As everyone was saying no no no to the stadium, I was saying yes yes yes... I was saying jobs, not jail... and the Nets stadium are jobs, that we need in our community, are there not?”

“Yes,” responded the audience. (How many jobs for "our community"? Unclear.)

Mealy moved toward a modified call-and-response, emphasizing the importance of self-discipline and the toxic influence of associates who disdain such commitments.

“When you hang out at night, are you ready to get up and go back to work?” she asked.

“Yes,” came the response.

“When your friends say, no, stay home today, are you gonna still stay home or are you gonna work?”

“Work,” came the response.

“And then your friends are gonna wanna hang out?”

“Let ‘em hang,” responded a voice from the audience, gaining assent.

“People may think it’s just a small job but it’s an opportunity for your big job,” Mealy suggested. “You have something now on your resume.”

“Are you really ready to sacrifice,” she asked, getting assent.

And then Mealy brought up an aspect of confrontational street culture, one that youths from tougher neighborhoods often encounter: “Sometimes, we know, we can really tell somebody off... sometimes, you have to bite your tongue and let that slide, because I know where I want to go.”

Later, one of the instructors, Malik Heckstall, explained, “We asked every person to make an internal change,” advice that it takes self-discipline to go to work and to stay motivated at a job may, at best,  be a stepping stone.

Other officials

In her turn at the podium, Gail Muhammad, a staffer for Rep. Ed Towns, noted that the hotel business was growing in the borough. “I’m hoping that this means that we have a lot of people in this audience that will be working and welcoming people to the great city of Brooklyn," she said.

“The Congressman fully supports the project, he has come out and met with the class,” Muhammad said. “He has twisted arms when need be, and we will continue to do so.”

Olanike Alabi, female District Leader in the 57th Assembly District saluted “BUILD and Forest City Ratner for investing in you. Now more than ever we need men and women who understand and are adequately trained in hospitality and customer service.”

Male District Leader Walter Mosley, widely seen as a potential candidate for his friend Hakeem Jeffries’ Assembly seat should Jeffries, as expected, run for Congress, was effusive. Mosley is the son of Marilyn Mosley, president of the political club Progressive Association for Political Action (PAPA).

“I want to congratulate you for taking the major step of being trained to put yourself in the best possible position to get a job,” Mosley said. He recalled talking about a CBA in 2004: “Mr. Caldwell and Marie and a few others really stood the test of time.. They’re still standing, still fighting.. and these are the fruits of their efforts... On behalf of myself and Assemblyman Jeffries, I want to commend the graduates.”

“Occupy Central Brooklyn”

And Mosley suggested a contrast with Occupy Wall Street. “With all due respect to what’s happening on Wall Street, what’s happening in Washington, DC, we are blessed that we have a group like BUILD, a company like Forest City Ratner, who did not ignore the necessity to occupy Central Brooklyn, to make sure places like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bed-Stuy, and Ocean Hill, Brownsville, people who live in those communities have an opportunity to make a difference... I've got to occupy Central Brooklyn. We've got to make sure that people in Central Brooklyn are working.”

“Training is what’s critical,” Mosley posited. “The job is the outcome of the training. You could not get that job without the training.”

Then he segued to language infused by the church: “To the young men, continue to do what you’re doing, because ultimately it’s the man that serves as the backbone of the family, the woman is the conscience, the man is the backbone, and without that backbone, we cannot stand.”

After affirmative response from the audience, Mosley thanked the group, again saying he was speaking on behalf of Jeffries.

Caldwell commended Mosley. “When all the politicians were against us, this young man stood up,” Caldwell declared. “One of the things about BUILD: we appreciate peoples that are loyal. We will not forget what Walter did for us.”

And, in what was likely a nod to Mosley’s political ambitions, Caldwell urged, “Don’t forget this young man.”

The graduates

I spoke with a few of the graduates. Gershome Johnson, a 29-year-old from Fort Greene/Bed-Stuy, said he had experience doing building maintenance and working for cleaning companies, but was currently out of work and studying for his GED.

He said he’d learned how to dress business casual and some business jargon, but most importantly, he learned to have a positive attitude. “It became like a family to me.” And Johnson said his internship, at a local supermarket, was paid--unlike most--and seemed likely to result in a permanent job.

Maleika Bady, 26, of Brownsville, said she’d had worked as a cashier and in sales, and was in a GED program. In class, she’d learned how to “make the customer feel welcome” and “presenting yourself in a professional way... being on time is the number one.”

Instructors Heckstall and Daisy James and, she said, “were like a big brother and big sister. They told you how it is: it’s never personal, it’s always business.” Bady, who said she learned from her internship working in a flower shop, said she'd just gotten seasonal work in retail.

Lufthansey Josa, 22, Flatbush, had contacted the Atlantic Yards development seeking a construction job, but was sent to BUILD. A high school graduate who’s done newspaper distribution and also pursues acting and music gigs, he said of the training, “even though some of it was scripted, some of it was coming deeply from the heart.” Josa, who appreciated the opportunity to intern at a clothing company, said he thought the training would bolster his resume.

Was there an expectation they’d get jobs when the arena opens? The students said they felt they had a leg up, but were not counting on it. “The first thing Mr. Heckstall told us, if you’re here for a job at the stadium, leave now," Josa related. "They’re just giving you the tools to be better prepared.”

Learning the soft skills

Josa said he’d learned from Heckstall to defuse confrontations. “Before, mind you, I’m from Brooklyn”--a mindset, he elaborated, forged by exposure to harsh conditions--”if somebody ever were to try to disrespect me in any way,” it would escalate. “After taking this class, I see there’s more to resolving the situation than making it bigger... you can easily talk your way out of situations.”

“Job retention is something we definitely spent time on,” Heckstall observed. “Obviously you can build the hard skills,” he added, but it was important to stress “the soft skills, servicing the internal customer, the demanding boss, the unmotivated co-worker, a lot of the negative paradigms that people more or less fall into sync with.”

Left behind

After the ceremony, I asked Caldwell what BUILD learned after the first round. “What I’m learning is that our peoples--peoples that are less educated, they’re underserved, are so behind,” he said, with a touch of mournfulness. “Because they’ve been out of employment, or never had employment... they just don’t really understand employment. They don’t understand the society, getting up on time to go to work, how to keep a job.”

He wasn't speaking of anyone specifically; those chosen for the training were selected from a larger group, after assessment interviews. And he said the training left him optimistic, given that the cohort gained skills during the seven-week session. “When we teach our peoples, they get it,” said Caldwell, who often invokes the value of his Army experience. “But unfortunately, there’s not enough training.”

What did he blame for the situation, I asked: family? the school system? popular culture?

“Because they’ve been forgotten,” Caldwell replied a bit mournfully. “That’s the biggest part. Back in the '60s, civil rights, we was right at the top. Over the years, we’ve just been taken for granted. A tragedy happening like that lady killed in Brownsville, that’s when we come back into the forefront. Unfortunately, in the city of New York, we’re forgotten.”

The slow policy response

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, belatedly confirming the Caldwell's overall analysis, on 8/4/11 announced the "Young Men’s Initiative, the nation’s boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men."

Then again, as the Village Voice reported, Bloomberg was also busy putting such young men in jail for minor violations, such as marijuana possession. In September, the police department adjusted that policy. But the issue of improper stop-and-frisk actions remains to be addressed, as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recently pointed out.

And Bloomberg, of course, was much more ready to put at least $171,5 million in city money (before adding housing subsidies) into Atlantic Yards. Some of that, it might be said, is trickling down.


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