As urban areas across the nation experience renewal and transformation, Camden, N.J., is at the beginning of its renaissance.
The city — once known as America’s most dangerous — has been experiencing dramatic decreases in gun crime and violence, namely an 80 percent reduction in homicides during the first three months of 2017. That’s good news for Camden, which has also become a testing ground for tech nonprofits that want to help beleaguered youth find their way out of neighborhoods riddled with gang violence and into well-paying tech jobs.
But for Camden’s young residents, an increase in opportunity might not necessarily mean a better economic future.
“We had seen too many times in Camden, programs that had trained young people the same way, the same old skills, the same old methodology. Our young people needed something different,” says Dan Rhoton, executive director for Hopeworks ‘N Camden. “Our young people needed training, they needed healing, so that they could get a career that not only gave them a pathway to the future, but offered them sustainable opportunities now.”
Other nonprofits work to get minority students or young girls interested in tech jobs, but Rhoton says that the biggest challenge most of those organizations face isn’t getting kids interested — it’s that they don’t address the trauma that comes along with poverty or exposure to violence.
By using therapy as a means to address deep issues that can affect work ethic and personal integrity, Hopeworks has been successful in providing a steady stream of quality graduates that are career-focused and mentally prepared for work.
“Our young people have been hurt. Their legs have been broken, and yet we put them at the starting line with everyone else and tell them to run,” says Rhoton. “When they struggle, when they fall over, what too many programs do is they say, ‘Try harder,’ or they say, ‘You’re not motivated.’ If my leg is broken, motivation is not the issue — healing is.”
Hopeworks began 17 years ago under the guidance of three faith-based community leaders that “looked out on the streets and saw young people with no dreams, saw young people with no opportunities,” says Rhoton. The program was meant to address some of the biggest challenges in Camden at the time: getting teens from the tough streets of one of America’s most challenging and economically poor cities into more fulfilling careers in tech.
With a background working at detention centers and bringing education to those formerly incarcerated, Rhoton came to Hopeworks in 2012. At the time, the organization was experiencing problems, namely that it was only seeing a 10 percent success rate.
“We were bad at our job,” he says, adding that the low success rate was the catalyst for Hopeworks to focus on personal issues, such as abuse or neglect that can hamper a student’s ability to learn. “We decided that a 10 percent, or 20 percent, 30 percent success rate wasn’t okay.”
“Yes, young people need to learn technology, but if you can help them deal with what’s happened to them, then you can help them show up on time, you can make sure they’re ready for work,” Rhoton says. “It’s harder, it’s longer.”
Brandon Rodriguez, a 19-year-old student intern for Hopeworks and lifelong Camden resident, says that when he joined the organization, he was only looking for a gig learning graphic design.
“When you come into Hopeworks, you have this pre-conceived notion that you’re coming here for an internship, or you’re coming here to just talk to someone. You don’t think you’re gonna get as much as you get.” he says. “I’ve only been here for less than a week, about five days now, but the opportunities started flying my way.”
Student-turned-mentor Frankie Matas graduated in 2013. Today he works with incoming Hopeworks students.
“Everybody learns different. If some people need to show them a different way, I help them in that aspect,” he says. “Hopeworks noticed that about me, and that’s what got me to become the first youth trainer. It helped me become a better leader.”
That aspect of youth training and leadership is key, says Rhoton.
“It’d be one thing if someone who looked like me was teaching you how to code, but if it’s someone who, just a few weeks ago, was standing on the corner with you, that’s a powerful message about who can do it, and how you can do it,” says Rhoton.
To that extent, Hopeworks has been successful since Rhoton came on board. The program has seen a 300 percent increase in students going into college and employs nearly 50 students each year after graduation to work within their studios, which take in $600,000 in annual revenue designing websites, among other things. Other participants land part-time and full-time jobs in the tech market, says Rhoton.
“What we wanna do is we wanna make sure we change the equation,” says Rhoton. “So that our young people are not only able to change their lives, but they’re able to change lives in the next generation, as well.
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the Tech Impact Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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