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PowerCorps and Mural Arts Helping Young People Thrive Amidst Multiple Tragedies to Participants

The Philadelphia Inquirer: Samantha Melamed - December 2, 2020

The sounds of North Philadelphia traffic faded as Michael Greene’s family made their way into Fairmount Park on a recent Saturday, gathering under a tree in a grove as hushed as the eye of a hurricane. They brought photos of Greene, a handful of balloons. As his kids ran around on the grass, his sister, parents, and other relatives played his favorite music, closed their eyes, and remembered.

The site, the newly dedicated PowerCorps Memorial Grove, is both a space for reflection and a reminder of the reality that jobs programs reaching at-risk and justice-system-involved young people are often doing life-or-death work.

The 7-year-old program lost six members in its first six years. “In the past 12 months, we doubled that number, primarily due to the increase in gun violence during the pandemic,” said Julia Hillengas, executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, an Americorps program that trains young people to work in fields like solar and green stormwater infrastructure. “We wanted to establish a space where people can come and step away from the stressors — whether it’s the pandemic, violence, or anything else.”

For programs trying to reach this demographic — who are often dealing with housing instability or homelessness, open criminal cases and probation requirements, deep poverty, domestic violence, and trauma— this year has been devastating.

In the past, programs like PowerCorpsPHL and Mural Arts’ Guild apprenticeship have documented extraordinary results: job placement rates upward of 80% (90% for PowerCorps) and recidivism rates as low as 8% (12% for Mural Arts). But they’re now contending with unprecedented obstacles: a pandemic that’s infecting and killing Black people in Pennsylvania at about twice the rate of everyone else; soaring gun violence that’s caused 345 deaths in Philly; and budget challenges that have sent them scrambling to avoid cuts at a time they believe they should be growing to keep pace with soaring need.

Given its projected $760 million budget shortfall, the city eliminated its Office of Workforce Development. It cut $1 million from PowerCorps’ budget, though this year grantors made up the difference. The Guild program, which Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden had hoped to scale up, instead cut back its slots for the coming year by at least 25%.

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