There is nothing that matters more to me than the safety and security of our students.
I officially took over as national director of Job Corps in November, 2014 and was tasked with modernizing and reforming the Labor Department’s single largest program. I’ve been preparing for the job for a long time – ever since my own adolescence, when I was a participant in a Labor Department-funded job training program known as the Neighborhood Youth Corps in New York. It was turning point in my life, opening my eyes to what I could achieve with the right encouragement and support – something that was sadly lacking in my home life.
Nearly all of today’s Job Corps students will identify with at least one part of my story: the decision to take control of our own lives and rewrite the narrative that had been written for us, seizing the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to rise up from our pasts.
Job Corps students do this in extraordinary ways.
The most recent example: Youth2Youth: Partners4Peace
. “Y2Y,” as they call it, is a violence-prevention initiative completely created by and led by Job Corps students nationwide. The students’ vision for the initiative is to create a space where peers can come together to talk about violence and aggression in our communities, empower one another to prevent violence, share stories, and talk about solutions
Wanting to see how the initiative is being put into practice, I traveled to Long Beach, Calif. and Detroit to participate in Y2Y activities and talk to the leaders of this movement, known as Y2Y Ambassadors, about their plans.
I met Ruffian Hall, Jr., from South Central Los Angeles, for the first time last year in Washington, D.C., where he presented me with a book of essays by his fellow students about how much Job Corps means to them. It is the kind of gesture that exemplifies his thoughtfulness, his commitment to service, and his talent for lifting up the voices of others. I met him again Monday in Long Beach, where – along with his fellow Y2Y Ambassadors – he led presentations of the anti-violence activities the students have organized. “Y2Y is important,” he told me “because it’s doing something about violence and negativity to promote better behavior, and it can help us all grow as people.”
Since two violent incidents shocked our community in recent months, Job Corps is working with operators, safety experts, and the student community to ensure that we protect all students and that they feel safe and secure while pursuing their studies. The Department has provided guidance to federal staff and contractors on student safety, held new training sessions with the entire Job Corps community and deployed teams to centers (both announced and unannounced) to assess the situation, review applicable policies and procedures, and meet with management, staff and students.
But the coming together of the student community to lend their support through Y2Y is indispensable… and inspiring. Administrators can reform policies and procedures, but only students can spark a movement. And that’s what they’re doing. Brittany Hibbs, an Y2Y Ambassador in Detroit, told me, “Just because you have experienced violence in your life does not mean you cannot stand up and make a change. Your actions alone can make a difference in the world.”
That is the type of commitment – the type of leadership
– that will help us ensure that every Job Corps student has access to a safe learning environment, and reverberate throughout the communities beyond.
Lenita Jacobs-Simmons is the national director of Job Corps.