Rubinger Fellow Juanita Woods is a community development practitioner and city council member in Monroe, LA who specializes in helping people skill up to take on living-wage jobs with local employers. She spoke with LISC about her fellowship project to provide apprenticeships for young people, the challenges of wealth-building in historically underserved communities, and the inspiration she gets from empowering youth on their life journeys.
Juanita Woods is director of programs and participant services for the Workforce Institute of Northeast Louisiana’s NOVA program, a “job intermediary” in Monroe, Louisiana. Woods connects local employers with people in search of quality jobs that offer benefits and a career path, and prepares job seekers with training employment counseling. She is also a member of Monroe’s city council and a seasoned activist in her rural area, and has dedicated her professional and personal life to creating economic opportunity for people in her community.
What inspired you to create an apprenticeship program for youth in your community?
There are a few answers to this question. First, I work for a nonprofit that addresses the workforce needs of individuals age 18 to infinity by connecting them to living wage employment. But there is a critical portion of the population that is underserved—younger people age 16 to 21. Basically, no one is working with them and addressing their issues, and they are the most vulnerable and prone to getting into trouble.
One of the real drivers for me was seeing a rash of crime in our city which, in most instances, involved our youth. About 25 percent of the population in Ouachita Parish and Monroe is under the age of 18. There are plenty of things to do in Monroe, but not an abundance of things that youth can do without financial resources. This includes going to the swimming pool, playing sports, cheerleading, dance or piano lessons—the list goes on. The City of Monroe has done a good job providing summer employment for youth, but they are limited based on funding.
Generational poverty is at an all-time high in Monroe, Ouachita Parish and Northeast Louisiana. So it was my goal to select a group of youth that had grown up in this environment and expose them to another way of life. To help them to understand that they have options and there are alternative ways to making money. To show them that all money is not “good money” and that “fast money” comes with a price. I wanted to introduce them to people in the community who were doing well, who they could identify with and relate to, and who would be willing to take them under their wings. It was also my goal to work on their socialization and educational skills.
I knew the City of Monroe as a whole would benefit from an apprenticeship program like this, too. You take youth who would not otherwise be doing anything productive or rewarding and give them a position with a local employer. You offer positive reinforcement in the form of money and praise.
According to the most recent census figures, 45 percent of people 18 and under in Monroe are living below the poverty line.
That’s right. So you can imagine the need. I’m at the Housing Authority every day and I hear people’s stories and their stories about their children. People have become very complacent, and because of that, youth and children do not know any other way of life. Generational poverty is something that is accepted and that people around here kind of expect. I want to help break that cycle in our area, and it has to start with the children.
You’ve created other youth development programs before through your work with the Housing Authority. You’ve said that one challenge was convincing residents that the program wasn’t going to be exploitative. How do you address that?
The key to change is trust. As a society, we have lost our trust in people and in government. This community is no different. People here are oftentimes on the receiving end of quick fixes, knee-jerk kinds of responses to issues they’re facing. Something happens and everybody rushes in, but as soon as it’s over, they’re off to the next issue. This has made people apprehensive about opening up and sharing their struggles. I was not challenged with the trust factor because I’ve been working in the community for over 11 years. I have become a fixture in my community. Maintaining consistency was my recipe for success.
How has the apprenticeship program unfolded over the past months?
It's had its share of challenges. First, there was the trust factor with the students we were trying to engage in the program. They were apprehensive. Even though their parents knew me, the young people initially had a fear of the unknown, of what the expectations were. So the selection process took longer than we expected, but we eventually got a great group.
The next hurdle was the mentor selection process. We looked for mentors in businesses that the youth had expressed an interest in. But one business owner didn’t want to take on anyone he didn’t know personally without a background check. Another was concerned about the age of the mentee. Still, we worked through all that.
Finally, a major barrier we encountered was when, after all the placements were solidified and the work started, the construction and paint contracting companies we were working with experienced very slow to no business for a period of time. We had to find other work sites for their apprentices.
So we put the mentees in a work detail with the maintenance department at their housing development. The goal was to maintain consistency for the apprentices. We also arranged for them to do community service work, like neighborhood cleanups. I think that helped them develop a sense of ownership: “You’re responsible for your surroundings. You may not be working on your apprenticeship job, but you’re working in the community and developing skills and knowledge that matters.” Another group worked at our rec center. So they were consistently engaged and receiving their stipend during that downswing.
Once we got past those hurdles, the apprenticeship program was a major success. We were able to address kids’ educational issues and we had an 80 percent completion rate. One mentee graduated high school. Five have rejoined the educational mainstream, will graduate high school in May and are planning to enroll in either a four-year college or community college. And two are working toward getting their high school equivalency.
As you point out, there’s a lot that’s hard to control—like the economy’s effect on your mentors’ companies. What kinds of changes, systems change or otherwise, do you think could help create more opportunity for young people?
I would like to see more organizations in our area take responsibility for becoming involved with our youth. Sort of like a big brother/big sister relationship. There are plenty of cultural organizations, especially fraternities and sororities, that could take on a more active role and serve as role models for our youth today. I’d also like to see the City take a more active role in looking for grants/dollars to employ and engage our youth.
In spite of the challenges, do you think the apprenticeship project is replicable?
Absolutely. We know what it takes. The original goal was to pair the apprentices with mentors they could identify with. That proved to be successful. Now, I want to expand the conversation to include some larger-scale employers in town as potential mentors. This is appealing because some of them have multimillion-dollar payrolls and very stable workforce.
How has the fellowship supported you as a community leader in Monroe?
More than anything, it’s given us an opportunity to provide an incentive to underserved youth, to give them an opportunity to be self-sufficient and to contribute to their family’s household expenses—and that has given them a sense of independence. In addition to the work and skills-building experience, we had the opportunity to expose them to places that some had never gone before. We introduced them to restaurants and foods they had only read about or seen on TV. They were in awe—they had no idea some of these things existed here. Part of the reason we do this is because public transportation doesn’t run to every area of town, so if you don’t have a car, it might as well be on the other side of the world.
The Rubinger Fellowship has also helped us get closer to the parents in the community. If they see we play a positive role in their children’s lives, they’re more likely to say, “this is real. Maybe I can work with you, too.”
What has been the most satisfying part of your experience as a Fellow?
It’s being able to follow and encourage these youth on their educational and career paths. We’re not to the point where they all have their GEDs yet, but we can see them getting engaged. A lot of them are now looking into careers they didn’t even know existed before. Some of them have been inspired just by visiting me at my office and seeing the people who work there. I tell them, “I work in this environment; you can work in an environment like this, too.” We have one young lady who is doing her apprenticeship at a flower shop and wants to become a nurse. We’re going to make sure she’s able to graduate high school with her class next May, and we’ll follow her to make sure she gets what she needs to pursue nursing. That’s the best reward.
They come from all corners of the country, and all share a deep commitment to helping their communities thrive. Meet the 2019 Fellows.