Derrell Roberts packed more than a dozen teens into an office at the Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights on a recent Friday. He rattled off their assignments for the night.
“Area one, skate park, parking lot, you’ll be patrolling that area,” he told some of the young people in the group. “You don’t need to go in other places, you don’t need to come into the courtyard.”
They’re attentive employees, though it’s a first job for many. The teens arrive three nights a week to set up tables, chairs and children’s activities for the center’s “Night Life Turned Right” event.
City staff placed and trained these youth through the Thousand Strong program — a new effort to increase employment in Sacramento’s low-income neighborhoods.
Le’James Riggins said it seemed like a good way to stay out of trouble. “My cousin came up to me asking if I wanted a job and if I wanted to sit and help our community and be an example for the other kids my age,” the 17-year-old said. “Instead of trying to be all cool out here in the streets, talking about gang-banging and all that.”
Since police killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark in Meadowview this March, community leaders have been calling for more neighborhood investment and gang prevention activities. Part of that means getting young adults into jobs.
“Our growing thinking around violence is really going to be around economic opportunity,” said Chet Hewitt, president of the Sierra Health Foundation, after the shooting. “We believe many of the young men engaging in activities that are harmful … need the chance to work, to earn an income.”
For Riggins, a job is another step on the way to college. He wants to study botany or engineering. But he has to make it out of the neighborhood first.
“Before all the shootings and stuff, I thought Oakland was worse than Sac,” he said. “Now it’s starting to feel like Sac is just … it’s getting there on the worry list.”
Youth employment is increasingly the focus of the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a collaboration between the county, the city, the Sierra Health Foundation and seven target neighborhoods where black children die at more than twice the rate of their white peers.
They recently published “poetic service announcements” that highlight teens’ experiences in Sacramento. In the videos, youth speak about not having options or support.
Vajra Watson, director of Research and Policy for Equity at UC Davis, said the best way to change things in these communities is to expose youth to possibilities. A college tour or a part-time job is a good start.
“The only way to expand what it is that young people conceive of for their future is to get them more opportunities to see new places, meet new people, and dream bigger than their parents have dreamed,” she said.
Last summer, Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s Thousand Strong initiative placed about 300 youth in jobs. This year, they’re hoping to get to 500. Partners include more than 70 restaurants, nonprofits, city departments, construction businesses, arts organizations and health systems.
Steinberg said he wants neighborhoods that have historically lacked job opportunities to grow along with the city’s downtown district. That might mean reviving commercial corridors, building housing, or working with schools to open buildings as community gathering places after hours.
“It shouldn’t just be about transporting kids out of their neighborhoods for good experiences and then bring them back to their neighborhoods that remain the way they are,” he said. “It’s actually about improving the neighborhoods, as well.”
The city is distributing more than $900,000 in funding to groups that provide entrepreneurial opportunities in low-income neighborhoods. Grant recipients include the Hacker Lab, Sol Collective, La Familia and Build Black, the coalition formed after Clark’s death to promote investment in neighborhoods of color.
The Sacramento Kings are also involved in the job push. They’ve hosted multiple events with the Black Child Legacy Campaign this summer, including one about teens’ future goals and one about careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Riggins said there’s only one thing that would keep him from getting to college: “Gettin shot, just in my own neighborhood. That’s pretty much it. The only thing stopping me from achieving my goals is me at the end of the day. “
This fall, the mayor will ask city residents to pass a sales tax increase to fund programs he said will make career paths more accessible to youth in Clark’s neighborhood and many others.