Connecting state and local government leaders

Building a Program to Help Young Men Find Work in St. Louis

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Connecting state and local government leaders

2018 NAVIGATOR AWARD WINNER: Michael P. McMillan, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis president and CEO

This is the ninth in a series of 10 profiles on the 2018 Route Fifty Navigator Award winners, who were announced at a ceremony earlier this month in Los Angeles.

After a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, local residents took to the streets to protest the incident and policing in general in the majority-black city.

For the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, the protests raised a pointed question: what could the non-profit organization do to help a community in crisis? Michael P. McMillan, the group’s president and CEO, recalled that he and staff members went to talk to people in Ferguson to ask them what they wanted to see.  

“Literally every single man that we talked to said, ‘I need a job. I need a way to take care of myself and my family. What can you do to help me?’” McMillan said, noting that many knew that the non-profit with a history of working in the African-American community ran employment programs.

But when the Urban League staff took a fresh look at their clients at that time, they noticed that at least 70 percent in a given year were women, McMillan said. So, they decided to start a program that is geared toward young men, talking to businesses that work with the non-profit about raising the money to create Save Our Sons, a program aimed at helping men who need assistance finding work, including many who struggle in part because they have criminal records.

“We want to make sure these individuals did not get caught up in situation where they would end up back in the criminal justice system in any way,” McMillan said.

The end result was a four-week program that is targeted at helping young men learn how to get a job, keep that job and get promoted. The Urban League, which started the initiative in Ferguson but has since expanded with a second center in north St. Louis, also keeps in touch with clients over the following year to make sure they are doing well, McMillan said.

Because the program is relatively short, it is focused largely on the “soft skills” associated with obtaining a job. But for people who need more training for a specific career, such as being an electrician, the Urban League helps them get into those programs, McMillan said.

The Urban League is working with 100 employers to help participants find jobs, with around 500 men graduating from the program, McMillan said.

Part of the effort, which started in January 2015, was also to reach out to businesses to talk to them about hiring people with criminal records. Many were open to the idea, McMillan said.

“I think that everything that happened in Ferguson, to the citizens of St. Louis, they were eye openers,” he said. “People began to see the situation a different way.”

Laura Maggi is the Managing Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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