Roberta Williams is nothing if not determined. The high school dropout spent most of her childhood in foster homes. She recalled a previous life.
“I used to be in gangs – no lie about that,” Williams explained.
Then she found a South L.A. non-profit that provides help to young people like her. She was 18 and eager to tell her friends. They weren’t interested. “They didn’t want that," she said. "So, hey, I kicked them to the curb.”
That wasn’t an easy decision. Gang ritual requires defectors receive a beating before breaking away.
“I got packed out,” Williams said. She laughed, before turning serious. “I got beat up real bad. I almost went to the hospital. But only the strong survive."
This summer, Williams, 23, is working as an outreach coordinator for the Coalition for Responsible Community Development – the non-profit that first helped her four years ago. The City of L.A.’s “Hire LA’s Youth” summer employment program helps pay for her position.
At the Dunbar Hotel south of downtown Tuesday, city officials kicked off the program that provides $8 an hour jobs in the public and private sector for six weeks. Williams was the star speaker, urging dozens of young people in attendance to get serious about their lives.
“Those that don’t have a high school diploma, y'all better take this opportunity,” she shouted as the room cheered.
“This experience has been life changing,” said David Castro. He is working this summer at the Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center. The center has been helping him for the past year – ever since he dropped out of high school after having a son with his girlfriend.
Castro, 18, said he’s learned how to use Microsoft Word, Excel, and the importance of teamwork “Today, I am a better man, a better son and a better father.”
Despite these success stories, the big picture for summer jobs in Southern California is bleak. Opportunities for young people are diminishing.
“Sadly, summer jobs are much more difficult to come by today than they have been in probably about the last half century,” said John Mallory, a partner at Goldman Sachs. The investment firm contributed $500,000 to L.A’s summer jobs program.
“In a lackluster economy, where jobs are scarce for everybody, the youth unemployment rate is actually 15 percent higher than the general unemployment rate,” Mallory said.
A dramatic drop in federal funding has played a role too. Four years ago, L.A. offered more than 15,000 jobs to young people – nearly three times the number it is offering this summer. City officials are pessimistic about new federal dollars.
“I think we are going to have to be a self-help city,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. Right now, the private sector contributes about ten percent of the $8.7 million L.A. is spending on summer jobs.
The new mayor said he intends to push companies to contribute more.
“I think people are just waiting to be asked,” he said. “We have companies around the city who have nobody connecting them with young people in other parts of town.”
For people like Castro, the challenge of finding a job can go beyond the drop in federal funding and bad economy. He senses a lot of employers see people like him as “cholos, ghetto.”
“All we need really is just a chance,” Castro said.
That’s what the city’s program provides, said Williams. She knows the alternative.
“I still run into the people that packed me out of the gang,” she said. “I tell them I’m not with it no more. I want to better myself. My eyes have opened up.”
Williams has a dream now – of going to culinary arts school and doing what she loves for a living.