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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Area Programs Pick Up in Wake of Welfare

By Joshua L. Kwan, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

In a classroom filled with a steady, affirmative murmur of "mmm-hmm's" punctuated by the occasional shout of "You go, girlfriend!" Sonya J. Wilson opens her soul a peep.

With long ebony fingers partially obscuring her carefully made-up face, Wilson explains how she ended up at the Dorchester site of STRIVE, a private non-profit job training program for the unemployed.

Beginning at age 11, Wilson was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. She kept the secret to herself, living in fear of the boyfriend's rage.

When her mother died, Wilson went to live with her father but ran away shortly afterwards. She started hanging out with the wrong boys and lost her virginity at age 15. Two years later, she became pregnant and had nowhere to go, nowhere to live.

"I've been through hell," Wilson says.

Fast forward five years to Feb. 1998 and Wilson is standing before the class, crying about how much she wants to change her life.

"Whatever it takes, I'm going to do it," Wilson says.

So, as a last-ditch effort Wilson--like many in the Boston area struggling to avoid or leave the state's welfare rolls--has enrolled in STRIVE.

And with the implementation of Massachussets' stringent welfare work requirement and two-year time limit triggered by a 1996 federal welfare reform bill, there are more and more people looking for work.

Concerned that this flood of former welfare recipients and low-skilled workers may not be able to find steady jobs, many Boston communities are building safety nets to replace those lost after the federal reforms.

STRIVE for More

For three weeks, STRIVE gave Wilson a place to become and belong.

She and 11 others dressed in their corporate best, endured hours of lectures on proper behavior in the workplace and practiced scenario after sce- nario of interviews.

Executive Director Steven Berlack andInstructor David Sykes, who play the program'sgood and bad cops, do not put up with anything. Nochewing gum, no leather pants. No attitude.

The theory is simple. Long-term jobless peopleare out of touch with corporate culture and mustlearn the nuances--how to dress appropriately (inclass, nose-rings are forbidden, suits arerequired and Fridays are casual), what to say inan interview (even the body language of ahand-shake) and when to follow up the interviewwith a thank-you note (always).

While STRIVE purports to be a job trainingprogram, the underlying focus--attitudeadjustment--is apparent from day one.

Applicants are invited for an introductoryclass and those who show signs of trouble areimmediately screened out. Half of the program isnormally spent pounding down such fundamentals aspunctuality, politeness and presentation beforecomputer training even begins.

When Wilson graduated from STRIVE, an acronymfor Support and Training Results In ValuableEmployees, she found herself in select company.

Eighty percent of STRIVE graduates find jobswithin two months and 80 percent of those retaintheir jobs two years later, according to studiesconducted by STRIVE.

The remarkable success rate has drawn nationalmedia attention to the Dorchester program andpeople are lining up to imitate STRIVE's formulaof motivation and discipline.

"It's a sexy program," Berlack says. "Itcrosses political borders because it gets peoplefrom welfare to work."

The People's Republik

In Cambridge, city officials are working inpartnership with community activists to determineweaknesses in the support structure for welfareand low-income families. Together, they hope todetermine the best way of allocating limitedresources.

"We're trying to find out in Cambridge whatconcerns we ought to have," says Cambridge mayorFrancis H. Duehay '55, who, as city councillor,organized the Cambridge Welfare Reform Task Forcelast year.

The task force set out to review the city's jobtraining and child care programs. Subcommittees ofacademics and activists are tackling education,legislation and health care. Fostering greatercooperation among individual Cambridgeorganizations is a primary objective of the taskforce.

Representatives from Cambridge and SomervilleLegal Services (CASLS) and the Community LegalServices & Counseling Center are joining forces toput together a panel of welfare mothers to givethem a voice in policy decisions. Although effortsat alliance-building are still maturing, taskforce members are hopeful.

"We've been working together to arrangetestimony from clients about how difficult it isto transition from welfare," says Ellen J.Shacter, an attorney at CASLS.

A Project to Empower

Just as STRIVE is helping welfare recipientsfind work, Project HEALTH--a Harvard program thatcombines the fields of health care and publicpolicy--is helping welfare recipients find healthcare.

Project HEALTH (Helping Empower And LeadThrough Health), founded in 1995 by Rebecca D.Onie '97, operates under the premise that patientsare their own best advocates.

Working closely with the Boston MedicalCenter's (BMC) pediatric department, where about75 percent of patients receive subsidized healthcare, 90 volunteers run 13 different programs withthe aim of meeting patients' physical needs whileempowering them to help them-selves.

When Michael M. Lai '98 joined Project HEALTH,he immediately signed up for a mentorship with Dr.Suzanne Steinbach, director of theallergy/respiratory department. As an asthmatic,Lai empathized with Steinbach's patients anddeveloped a fitness and education program forthem.

The Asthma Swim, an arm of Project HEALTH,program brings 20 Kids to the Madison ParkCommunity Center in Roxbury twice a week. Duringthe first hour, 18 Harvard counselors teachchildren how to manage their asthma on aday-to-day basis. The next hour is spent in thepool improving the children's respiratory capacitythrough swimming exercises.

"We fill in a gap for low-income parents," Laisays. "Many poor families have inadequate healthcare so we try to provide preventive care on awhole new level."

Members of the Asthma Swim program meet once amonth to reflect on their experiences withpractitioners in health care or public policy.

Members of the Human Faces program--anotherbranch of Project Health--had a chance to discusstheir findings with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56(D-Mass.) on Monday afternoon. Four parents,three Harvard students and their mentor from theBMC met with Kennedy for about 45 minutes toemphasize the importance of child care.

"The parents learn about participating in thepolitical process," says Lauren R. Garsten '00,co-director of the program. "Human Faces is notjust about telling people's stories but abouthelping people participate."

Studying Welfare

At Harvard, researchers are on the ground andin the field trying to figure out the effects ofwelfare reform.

Wiener Professor of Social Policy William J.Wilson, director of the Kennedy School's Centerfor Joblessness and Urban Poverty, is about tobegin a five-year longitudinal study inconjunction with researchers in Chicago and SanAntonio.

Wilson's project will be a comprehensiveethnographic study of 1,800 welfare recipients ineach city.

Lisa Dodson, a fellow at the Radcliffe PublicPolicy Institute, takes a more qualitativeapproach in directing Radcliffe's Welfare inTransition program.

Dodson believes in empowering welfarerecipients to advocate for themselves.

"Frankly, in this state, welfare recipients arenot welcome in policy discussions," Dodson says.

Over the past decade of research, Dodson hastried to involve the people of her studies inpolicy talks.

"More than telling a story, I believe[low-income workers] are thinkers," Dodson says."They are more than data; they have primaryknowledge."

Along the lines of including low-income peoplein the debate, Pamela H. Wescott directs groupdiscussions on the implications of welfare reform.

About 50 advocates met once a month last yearin round-table dialogues that brought academicstogether with service providers to address policyissues.

"Many low-income people had questions onwelfare reform but hesitated about askingauthority figures any questions," Wescott says.

At the Family Stabilization Program inCambridge, families are able to pursue theirquestions in the less-threatening environment of afood pantry

Executive Director Steven Berlack andInstructor David Sykes, who play the program'sgood and bad cops, do not put up with anything. Nochewing gum, no leather pants. No attitude.

The theory is simple. Long-term jobless peopleare out of touch with corporate culture and mustlearn the nuances--how to dress appropriately (inclass, nose-rings are forbidden, suits arerequired and Fridays are casual), what to say inan interview (even the body language of ahand-shake) and when to follow up the interviewwith a thank-you note (always).

While STRIVE purports to be a job trainingprogram, the underlying focus--attitudeadjustment--is apparent from day one.

Applicants are invited for an introductoryclass and those who show signs of trouble areimmediately screened out. Half of the program isnormally spent pounding down such fundamentals aspunctuality, politeness and presentation beforecomputer training even begins.

When Wilson graduated from STRIVE, an acronymfor Support and Training Results In ValuableEmployees, she found herself in select company.

Eighty percent of STRIVE graduates find jobswithin two months and 80 percent of those retaintheir jobs two years later, according to studiesconducted by STRIVE.

The remarkable success rate has drawn nationalmedia attention to the Dorchester program andpeople are lining up to imitate STRIVE's formulaof motivation and discipline.

"It's a sexy program," Berlack says. "Itcrosses political borders because it gets peoplefrom welfare to work."

The People's Republik

In Cambridge, city officials are working inpartnership with community activists to determineweaknesses in the support structure for welfareand low-income families. Together, they hope todetermine the best way of allocating limitedresources.

"We're trying to find out in Cambridge whatconcerns we ought to have," says Cambridge mayorFrancis H. Duehay '55, who, as city councillor,organized the Cambridge Welfare Reform Task Forcelast year.

The task force set out to review the city's jobtraining and child care programs. Subcommittees ofacademics and activists are tackling education,legislation and health care. Fostering greatercooperation among individual Cambridgeorganizations is a primary objective of the taskforce.

Representatives from Cambridge and SomervilleLegal Services (CASLS) and the Community LegalServices & Counseling Center are joining forces toput together a panel of welfare mothers to givethem a voice in policy decisions. Although effortsat alliance-building are still maturing, taskforce members are hopeful.

"We've been working together to arrangetestimony from clients about how difficult it isto transition from welfare," says Ellen J.Shacter, an attorney at CASLS.

A Project to Empower

Just as STRIVE is helping welfare recipientsfind work, Project HEALTH--a Harvard program thatcombines the fields of health care and publicpolicy--is helping welfare recipients find healthcare.

Project HEALTH (Helping Empower And LeadThrough Health), founded in 1995 by Rebecca D.Onie '97, operates under the premise that patientsare their own best advocates.

Working closely with the Boston MedicalCenter's (BMC) pediatric department, where about75 percent of patients receive subsidized healthcare, 90 volunteers run 13 different programs withthe aim of meeting patients' physical needs whileempowering them to help them-selves.

When Michael M. Lai '98 joined Project HEALTH,he immediately signed up for a mentorship with Dr.Suzanne Steinbach, director of theallergy/respiratory department. As an asthmatic,Lai empathized with Steinbach's patients anddeveloped a fitness and education program forthem.

The Asthma Swim, an arm of Project HEALTH,program brings 20 Kids to the Madison ParkCommunity Center in Roxbury twice a week. Duringthe first hour, 18 Harvard counselors teachchildren how to manage their asthma on aday-to-day basis. The next hour is spent in thepool improving the children's respiratory capacitythrough swimming exercises.

"We fill in a gap for low-income parents," Laisays. "Many poor families have inadequate healthcare so we try to provide preventive care on awhole new level."

Members of the Asthma Swim program meet once amonth to reflect on their experiences withpractitioners in health care or public policy.

Members of the Human Faces program--anotherbranch of Project Health--had a chance to discusstheir findings with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56(D-Mass.) on Monday afternoon. Four parents,three Harvard students and their mentor from theBMC met with Kennedy for about 45 minutes toemphasize the importance of child care.

"The parents learn about participating in thepolitical process," says Lauren R. Garsten '00,co-director of the program. "Human Faces is notjust about telling people's stories but abouthelping people participate."

Studying Welfare

At Harvard, researchers are on the ground andin the field trying to figure out the effects ofwelfare reform.

Wiener Professor of Social Policy William J.Wilson, director of the Kennedy School's Centerfor Joblessness and Urban Poverty, is about tobegin a five-year longitudinal study inconjunction with researchers in Chicago and SanAntonio.

Wilson's project will be a comprehensiveethnographic study of 1,800 welfare recipients ineach city.

Lisa Dodson, a fellow at the Radcliffe PublicPolicy Institute, takes a more qualitativeapproach in directing Radcliffe's Welfare inTransition program.

Dodson believes in empowering welfarerecipients to advocate for themselves.

"Frankly, in this state, welfare recipients arenot welcome in policy discussions," Dodson says.

Over the past decade of research, Dodson hastried to involve the people of her studies inpolicy talks.

"More than telling a story, I believe[low-income workers] are thinkers," Dodson says."They are more than data; they have primaryknowledge."

Along the lines of including low-income peoplein the debate, Pamela H. Wescott directs groupdiscussions on the implications of welfare reform.

About 50 advocates met once a month last yearin round-table dialogues that brought academicstogether with service providers to address policyissues.

"Many low-income people had questions onwelfare reform but hesitated about askingauthority figures any questions," Wescott says.

At the Family Stabilization Program inCambridge, families are able to pursue theirquestions in the less-threatening environment of afood pantry

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