AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray, the riots that followed - they've sparked a new sense of urgency over the city's poorest neighborhoods. One priority - a staggering unemployment rate, especially for young black men. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on the challenges many face in finding and keeping a job.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Freddie Gray's funeral was across the street from the Center for Urban Families.
TENILLE PATTERSON: Show me Monday. What does money look like?
LUDDEN: In this West Baltimore classroom, three dozen people are enrolled in what's called a pre-employment training class. They're all African-American, mostly men, dressed sharp in suits and ties. They raise one hand high above their heads.
PATTERSON: That's where the energy should be every day. Stay alert.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Stay alive.
LUDDEN: Stay alive.
PATTERSON: It's really a training ground, if you will, for individuals to get some very much-needed attitudinal skills and life skills.
LUDDEN: Tenille Patterson is the Center's chief operating officer. She says too many in Baltimore grow up without seeing anyone hold a steady job.
PATTERSON: Our class is 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, for four weeks so that people can make the life skills adjustments of childcare, of getting up every single day on time.
ISAAC COBB JR.: My name is Isaac Cobb Jr., and I'm 21 years of age.
LUDDEN: Cobb says he started selling drugs at age 10. His entire extended family, he says, is involved in gangs. In this class, he says he's realized he learned to act tough to survive.
COBB: So you have to put on this fake mask almost to try to hide who you really are inside. And it starts to change you.
LUDDEN: Cobb has gone on a string of job interviews trying to replace the drug money he gave up. But he wonders if his tough act has cost him.
COBB: I realize, when you go into interviews, they have people around that's just watching you. And I guess the way I would look around, and I have this mug on my face, and it would intimidate the employer.
LUDDEN: Others come to class with a work history but have trouble keeping a job.
CHRISSY SMITH: I'm more like a emotional wreck because I've been through abuse.
LUDDEN: Chrissy Smith is 35. She spent 12 years here and there as a lab tech, but says she struggles to keep her focus on work.
SMITH: My mother was on drugs, but she been a recovering addict for, like, 21 years. And my father was nonexistent.
LUDDEN: There was as a series of foster families, a relationship turned violent, a baby daughter who died of sudden infant death syndrome. When we first meet, Smith exudes confidence - black suit, hair wrapped up high. But as she talks about her life, it's clear she can't shake her inner turmoil.
SMITH: I walked around all these years, lost. And being here is teaching me that I cannot do that anymore. I have to rise above that.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Excuses are tools of incompetence.
LUDDEN: Excuses, the class chants, are tools of incompetence. Three-hundred people complete this program each year. The Center for Urban Families says just over 200 are placed in jobs, including with major employers like Johns Hopkins University. The average wage for grads - $13 an hour.
PATTERSON: However, many of those, we place two and three and four times.
LUDDEN: The Center's Tenille Patterson.
PATTERSON: When you have someone that hasn't been consistently employed for two or three years, that first employment opportunity often doesn't stick.
LUDDEN: The poverty and violence laid bare by Freddie Gray's death, she says, is a long-standing problem, and addressing it, a long-term project. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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