Finding Their Voices, and Speaking Up: Part 1.
The National Transitional Jobs Network and ACCESS Discuss Michigan Earn + Learn’s Visit to Washington, D.C.
Interview transcribed by Caitlin Schnur, Workforce Policy and Research Fellow, National Transitional Jobs Network
On September 19, the Earn + Learn Southeast Michigan region’s Participant Advisory Council (PAC) boarded a plane headed to Washington, D.C. With the support of a travel scholarship from the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN), and with the NTJN’s D.C.-savvy Melissa Young to guide the way, the PAC members had an eventful and exciting week in D.C. that included a day-long visit to the Hill to talk to members of Congress about just how important it is for them to champion Transitional Jobs programs like Michigan Earn + Learn.
Launched in 2011, Michigan Earn + Learn is a statewide initiative that helps low-income, at-risk individuals who are disconnected from employment and education, including many young minority males; returning citizens; and chronically unemployed individuals reenter and succeed in the labor market. Earn + Learn participants gain work experience (and earn a paycheck!) via a Transitional Job while also pursuing education or job training to help them advance in the workplace.
Melissa Young, the NTJN’s Associate Director, and Rabih Bazzi, a job developer at one of Earn + Learn’s partner organizations, ACCESS, spoke about their experience in D.C. and the importance of having constituents speak directly to their elected officials.
Melissa: Hi, Rabih! It’s great to speak with you about our recent trip to Washington, D.C., with the Michigan Earn + Learn Participant Advisory Council (PAC). What were your general impressions of our time in D.C.?
Rabih: D.C. was beautiful! It was exciting to be able to step into a slice of our government. In Detroit, we always get the government’s “trickle down” effect, and so it was amazing to see where the government’s “water source” is, so to speak. The trip to D.C. taught me something about how things are run on the federal level and that I’m not necessarily powerless to change the system—I have a voice, and so do Earn + Learn’s clients. I think that when we stepped into meetings on the Hill there was some nervousness, but when the elected officials sat down with us, the clients started to tell their stories and didn’t shy away from doing so – it was like, ‘This is my story, and you’re gonna hear it!’
Melissa: I completely agree – and I saw that in some of the meetings, the elected officials were starting to understand issues related to chronic unemployment and poverty differently as a result of hearing those stories. What are your thoughts on involving people directly impacted by these issues in the policy process?
Rabih: It’s very rare for people at the top end of the policymaking process to see who is actually affected by their work. That was probably the most powerful thing about the trip for me – I felt that the clients were really represented. I can relay 1,000 client stories, but it’s so much more impactful to hear someone talk about their time in prison and how it affected them and drove them to better other people’s lives. It’s uplifting and very empowering, and it makes someone more than just a one-page report about his or her criminal history. I’m not sure at first that the clients realized how important it was for congressional representatives to meet with us—when they realized that these officials were coming down from the Hill to talk with us, they were very impressed!
Melissa: Right—I was blown away that members of the Michigan Delegation were speaking to us for 60 minutes! It was amazing. What advice would you give to other transitional jobs programs that might be skeptical about going up to the Hill or bringing their participants to the Hill?
Rabih: There should be no apprehension about it! As service providers and administrators, we are narrators and storytellers – but we are telling our clients’ stories. When clients share firsthand about living on the streets, spending years in prison, and maintaining a positive attitude throughout…well, there’s no stronger effect that could have on someone, including members of Congress. I could lobby and discuss best practices all day, but elected officials very rarely get to meet with constituents at the far end of the policy pipeline. It’s important for members of Congress to remember that the bills and papers going across their desks are impacting the lives of individuals who are waking up and thinking, ‘How am I going to get to work? How am I going to feed my kids?’
Melissa: We work across the country to solicit new NTJN members, who pay annual dues. We used money from those membership dues to take Michigan Earn + Learn to the Hill. Can you speak to why you think NTJN membership is important?
Rabih: Every company has a lobby, but very rarely do constituents have a voice like this. This is how democracy works—you get to tell your officials what you think needs to be done in your community. I think it’s great that there are NTJN members from around the country who see and recognize just how important it is for constituents to be able to tell the government, ‘This is important; this impacts me.’
Melissa: Coming away from D.C., what do you think the Michigan Delegation needs to do to support Michigan Earn +Learn in the future? What would you like to tell them?
Rabih: I would tell them that no one grows up following the ‘perfect’ path in life – you know, going to high school, going to college, getting a job – without a support network. That’s why programs like Earn + Learn are so important. So many people lack a support network, and that lack of support can turn a simple situation like ‘My car ran out of gas,’ into, ‘I can’t get to work, and now I’m going to lose my job.’ We need programs that can help bridge life’s unavoidable obstacles. And we need to remember that if someone drops out of school at age 19, they’re not a wash for the rest of their lives. They are still going to be alive, and they’re going to need to be able to feed and clothe themselves. Many people have a short-term or long-term disconnection from school or employment, and it’s incumbent on us that they’re not written off as a result. They cannot be written off – that’s not how life works.
Melissa: Rabih, do you have any final thoughts on this whole trip?
Rabih: What I took away from this trip is that I’m a part of a much bigger picture. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day aspects of your job, so it was humbling to go to D.C. and see that that’s where this all starts. The policy process starts as ideas from individuals like us coming and telling our elected officials, ‘Hey! I have a problem!’ Even if we don’t like the process and even if we want things done today or tomorrow that are going to take 18 months, it’s inspiring to know that we can fly to D.C. with our clients, walk into our government, and talk to our members of Congress. It’s a reminder that our democracy doesn’t work perfectly, but it works!
To learn more about the Michigan Earn +Learn program, visit: http://www.earnandlearn.org/
To learn more about ACCESS, visit: http://www.accesscommunity.org/