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HOPE Project brings D.C. natives out of poverty, into IT jobs

Signing up for a class at a HOPE Project info session

The HOPE Project, also called "the Harvard of the hood," takes DC residents working minimum-wage jobs and trains them for careers in IT.
Marcus Powell flew home to D.C. during his first spring break of college to find his mother sick and financially unable to send him back to the University of Arkansas.

He was adrift, a 19-year-old whose career aspirations entailed little more than getting “discovered” as a famous rapper.

Then he met Raymond Bell.

“He reached out to me… He said, ‘What do you want to be?’” says Powell, who’s now 21 and an IT specialist for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer in D.C.

Powell is one of about 100 D.C. residents who have found not only work but also a sense of purpose, a living wage and a sense of community through a project Bell started.

Bell says he launched the HOPE Project in 2009 to end poverty in D.C. by connecting the dots of the local economy (HOPE stands for Helping Other People Excel). He saw so many young people unemployed and directionless in the District, many of them black youths who had grown up with a legacy of poverty.

And he saw the number of entry-level information technology positions in the D.C. area that go unfilled every year.

“We felt there was no reason for so many young people to be unemployed with all these federal contractors and so many unfilled jobs,” Bell says.

Bell, who graduated from D.C.’s Ballou High School in 1985, decided to start a program that would bridge the gaps. With a background in corporate training, he aimed to equip the unemployed with what they’d need to excel at the jobs that were out there — in this case, IT jobs.

The 100-plus students who have completed the six- to nine-month program now make an average salary of $40,000 per year. They work at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Amtrak or the World Bank. Many of them have job offers before they graduate and several negotiate their way into raises or new positions in their first year.
Bell says their success has as much to do with professional development as with technical training. The 20 students in each class are expected to be on time and to develop “soft skills” like customer service and time management. The majority of them have perfect attendance at the end of the session.
The students take exams for CompTIA and other IT trade certifications after six months, which Bell says are difficult for those with no background in technology. But it’s nothing that can’t be learned if the opportunity is available, he says.

Part of the reason the students succeed is because, if they don’t, there are dozens of others waiting to take their place. The project recently expanded to hosting three classes at a time, but there is still far more demand.

“We felt there was no reason for so many young people to be unemployed with all these federal contractors and so many unfilled jobs." Bell says 225 people showed up for a recent information session about a class that could only accept 20 students. The prestigious acceptance rate is part of the reason the HOPE Project has been called “the Harvard of the 'hood.”
A career
For Brandon Craig, 35, the HOPE Project was his way off the treadmill of low-paying retail jobs. He was working at a state liquor store when he heard Bell on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Craig had grown up in the D.C. area and finished two years of college, but “school wasn’t right for me at the time.”

After completing the HOPE Project in 2011, Craig now makes $66,000 a year upgrading IT systems at the Pentagon.

He went from sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his pregnant wife to a four-bedroom house in Northeast that has room for their growing family.

“If I hadn’t gone through the HOPE Project, I’d still be making $12 an hour. Now, I’m able to support my family,” Craig says.

Until this year, Bell personally funded the costs of the program. As demand for the project continued to grow, he started asking students to help pay for exam fees and books last year. And, this year, the project won a grant from the United Planning Organization to train 18- to 24-year-olds through an additional course with the same subject matter. The HOPE Project has also recently launched an advanced class for its top graduates who will learn the material for the CompTIA Security+ exam.

Bell says 75 students will graduate from the program and into jobs in the next nine months.

“They’ve committed and bought into what we’re doing because, year after year, people who look just like them — and sometimes are in way worse shape — have done great things,” he says.

Shay Pasha, 32, had almost four years of college and a well-paying job under her belt when she heard about the program. She had worked most recently as a defense investigator but found the career path utterly depressing (“It’s not the easiest thing to do to defend the crime happening in D.C.”).

She never thought a technology job would be her way out.

“The most I could probably do was know how to log into my Facebook and my Twitter,” Pasha says of her tech skills before the program.

But she learned quickly and graduated at the top of her class. Pasha now works on a web-based application that is used to deploy contractors and military members out of the country, making a comparable salary to what she made before.

“The peace of mind of what I’m making and growing far outweighs what I made monetarily at my old position,” Pasha says.

Powell, the former aspiring rapper, agrees. Since graduating in 2012, he worked at the Department of Defense and the Food and Drug Administration before his current position. It didn’t take him long to realize IT “pretty much runs this world.”

But, for him, it was also a lifeline he hopes to extend to others coming from impoverished backgrounds.

“I’m thankful for Mr. Bell,” Powell says. “It’s like he reached into the bowl of D.C. and grabbed some of us out of that pit. But so many more still need that.”

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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