August 19, 2010 by Community Journal — The Running Rebels has garnered national accolades for its work in eradicating violence in public schools.
By earning the trust and respect of behaviorally at risk students in the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Running Rebels has been able to successfully stem violence in the schools, while serving as mentors and academic coaches to thousands of junior and high school students.
The group’s portfolio took on a much broader reach this past year as it expanded its endeavors beyond the schoolhouse door to influence young adults that have slipped through the societal cracks.
The Rebels latest venture involves a unique training program through which participants are exposed to a variety of vocational trade skills and directed toward entry-level “green collar” jobs.
As with its school anti-violence initiative, Running Rebels staff also mentor and coach participants, providing them with social and cultural foundations.
The Running Rebels’ “project based job training program” incorporated a continuing educational emphasis with its basic carpentry skills component, introducing participants to potential trades that hopefully will propel them to career employment opportunities.
The Running Rebels pilot project was one of nearly 50 innovative initiatives benefiting from a $5 million U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration grant that targeted the seven county regions that make up Southeastern Wisconsin.
The federal WIRED (Workforce Innovation and Regional Economic Development) grant was awarded to the collaborative workforce alliance known as “Milwaukee 7” and focused on innovative training and educational projects that could supplement the ever changing employment needs of the region.
The Milwaukee 7 was created five years ago to promote economic development and employment throughout Southeastern Wisconsin.
For the WIRED project, the Milwaukee 7 collaborated with area workforce investments boards, schools and the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
A screening committee representing the Milwaukee 7 service area sorted through hundreds of applications before selecting nearly 50 distinctive proposals, each of which advanced the WIRED goal of offering outcomes that can be adopted and duplicated by other partnerships.
Some of the grants went to educational institutions, while others were earmarked for research and job readiness projects.
In each case, the chosen projects met criteria that supported future educational, economic development and employment possibilities for the seven county regions.
Local business consultant Wallace White served as a member of the selection panel.
During the course of the evaluation period, White entertained dozens of applicants providing some of the most innovative and far reaching projects.
He said his primary focus was to maintain an eye toward future regional workforce and educational needs in the areas of technology and economic development. His other focus was on establishing linkages for regional cooperation and occupational diversity.
“The process was very unique and far reaching,” he said in retrospect. “The funding enabled (entities) to think out of the box, while anticipating the future needs for a well trained workforce.”
Wallace said the educational initiatives were equally significant, allowing high school and college students to preview occupational pathways.
Funded educational initiatives included curriculum development and fresh water technologies. One project focused on professional development of staff to more ‘effectively deliver career education.’
While many of the projects focused on future career paths like green technology, eco-science and renewable energy, traditional vocations were not ignored.
Uniquely, several grants were awarded to organizations focusing on those traditional skills sets as bridges for former prison inmates and others with criminal records.
The Running Rebels pilot project was one of several that dealt specifically with reintegration, providing hope and opportunities for individuals with troubled pasts.
Rebel’s president Victor Barnett said his “project based training program” provided hands-on skills to 28 participants who otherwise would probably be swallowed up in a culture of poverty and criminality.
Barnett said his project opened the door for a larger initiative he’s calling “Pipeline to Promise.”
The participants actually had the opportunity to work on a carpentry project (remodeling a banquet hall), and were encouraged to enhance their educations and engage in civic projects as well. They were paid while in the program.
“We provided soft skills over the course of the project, coupled with educational pathways that will open the doors for individuals,” Barnett explained.
“There are a lot of young brothers out here who want to leave the streets, to assume traditional roles as fathers and breadwinners. They just need an opportunity and the skills to make the transition.”
Barnett said it was a telling sign that many of the participants took up carpentry and home improvement as their pathway to the trades, since “some of them used to vandalize these houses: now they are fixing them up, and seeing the value of rebuilding our community.”
Barnett said he was filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment as many of the participants used the program as a springboard for enrollment in MATC.
Several set their sights on enrolling in BIG STEP, a trades training program that serves as a gateway to trades internships.
“The project truly turned out to be a ‘Pipeline to Promise.’” Barnett exclaimed proudly.
“We were working with former gang members, drug dealers who have turned their lives around and are on the verge of becoming contributing members of society, good citizens, husbands and fathers.
“All they needed was a pipeline and because of this program (WIRED), we were able to provide it.”
The one deficit of the program is that it’s a short-term pilot.
“We learned a lot, and saw an avenue through which we can help change our community. Now, our focus turns to finding permanent funding to continue this project.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to have participated in WIRED. I wish they would have used stimulus money to continue the program, but we’ll hopefully find a source of funding to keep this going. That’s what the program goal envisioned.”
With the nation in a recession and philanthropic organizations cutting back, White shared Barnett’s regret that the WIRED project was not a permanent catalyst for jobs creation and technological exploration.
The project holds significant promise, he said, both as a precursor for employment possibilities and as a catalyst for regional cooperation. Hopefully, local political observers will lobby for a reauthorization of the project.