By Doniphan Blair

Civicorps may have a prosaic name, which it adopted seven years ago from an even more modest appellation—East Bay Conservation Corps—but don’t let that fool you. Indeed, CC has been performing stellar service in the East Bay for 30 years and it is continuing to grow.

Indeed, it has new programs and projects, including the recent purchase of a building in West Oakland.

Using a dynamic mix of schooling and service, and public and private enterprise, Civicorps helps young adults finish high school and go to college while providing them with paying jobs. Given this entrepreneurial angle, they are able to fund a lot more than if they relied on the state, a magic formula which really warrants promulgation elsewhere. CC has served some 50,000 students over the last three decades, with a student population of around 120 at any given time.

“About 30% of our folks have had court involvement—we have all these 30 percents,” Civicorps Executive Director D. Blair Alan Lessik explained to me, when I met with him and his Development Director, Michele Valenti Moore, last month.

“About 30% came out of the foster care system and 30% have families, already have kids.”

Also, about “70% are minority, about 75% of which are African American,” added Moore. “They are the ‘One Percent’ of Oakland, one percent economically and of the possibilities in their lives.”

Ironically, Moore and Lessik stand in stark contrast to whom we might imagine would be running a place like Civicorps in West Oakland. Lessick is mild-mannered and slightly-rumpled while the well-coifed Moore happens to be very short. But they use their plain-spoken and heart-felt approach as part of their appeal, notably to emphasize their commitment.

“If you can show up—and keep your pants up while you are here,” said Lessick, quietly but with emphasis. “Dress correctly and pay attention to teachers and supervisors, abide by the basic set of rules, we will do EVERYTHING we can to support you.”

Another method they find effective is the portfolio system. “It is not that you take this course, this course, this course. There is a series of things you have to do,” explained Lessick.  They include both research papers and the arts, ranging from painting and music to two annual student performances of Shakespeare.

After three months of classes, students switch to studying only eight hours a week with the remaining 32 hours for job training and then work, mostly in environmental services as the old Conservation Corps name suggests. Indeed, they are the young people in orange vests you see working on the roads across the region. CC has contracts with CalTrans, East Bay Mud, the Regional Parks and the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Walnut Creek.

“They are out today in the rain and mud,” noted Lessick, glancing out at the grey skies, “Learning the basics: to show up, follow my crew leader, do the work I am supposed to do, be respectful, and get along with each other.”

The latter can pose problems due to lingering neighbor or gang affiliations. Occasionally, there are fights, generally verbal, but they are dealt with immediately and diffused by staff.

When they are working—which is rated community service by AmeriCorps—the students earn scholarship money in addition to their wages. Last year, that totaled over $200,000, two to five thousand for the average student.

The work ranges from landscaping and road cleanup to planting, removing invasive species, trail building and mucking around in creeks and swamps, which they do for Alameda Flood Control. CC also does garbage pickup and runs a complete recycling service out of a warehouse in East Oakland.

“Folks start sorting on the line—which I did for a day, a disgusting job,” Lessick noted. “Then they move to warehousing, operating a front-loader, a bobcat [a small bulldozer/dumptruck hybrid], getting hard skills and earning certificates,” which go on their resumes. One of the most coveted is a Class B truck driver’s license.

“After obtaining my diploma,” remarked Eddie, a youth quoted in CC’s tasteful new brochure, “I began working as a route driver in the recycling department. The fast-paced atmosphere and zero tolerance for unprofessionalism really made a huge impact on me.”

“Everyone once in a while I hear the stories, especially about the young women learning to use a chain saw—I don’t know how to use a chain saw,” said Lessick, laughing.

“We have internships with the City of Oakland but we are also working with private companies to set up internships in the administration, warehousing, maintenance. Our recycling program on San Leandro near the Coliseum has 24 interns. All of these interns will have the opportunity to interview for a job afterwards.”

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