California Forum

The best job training for the Stephon Clarks of Sacramento begins in the community

A sheet metal apprentice works on an air duct for BOS Sheet Metal in 2008 in Rancho Cordova, placed there by an Urban League jobs program.
A sheet metal apprentice works on an air duct for BOS Sheet Metal in 2008 in Rancho Cordova, placed there by an Urban League jobs program.

The lack of economic investment in under-served communities has left too many young African-American men in peril. This issue should be of concern to all of us because it affects our region negatively when so many young men are without access to good jobs and quality education, and when recidivism rates are unsustainable.

Twenty-six years ago I was chosen to lead the Greater Sacramento Urban League. I was naïve to believe that if we created an environment where we could change lives, the educational institutions, social service organizations and regional job service agencies would beat a path to our doors.

Change will only come when the resources are shared with the communities in peril.

In 1996, we developed a program called “Project Success.” The goal was to recruit 300 African-American men and women between the ages of 16 and 21 who had dropped out of high school, been suspended or expelled or had some interaction with law enforcement. The goal was simple outcomes: employment, a GED or completion of a high school exit exam, community college, the military or employment. More than 300 young people completed, and each graduation we invited superintendents from each school district where students formally attended. Students testified at each graduation how their lives were changed. There were no dry eyes in the room.

To my surprise, however, no school district in the region would assist us in in continuing funding once the federal demonstration dollars ended.

A few years later, we received an employment demonstration grant from the California Employment Development Department for $750,000 to place 250 adults from the under-served communities of Del Paso Heights, Meadowview, Oak Park and Fruitridge. We successfully placed 285 adults into unsubsidized employment with an average wage of $12 an hour after completing 300 hours of customer service and computer training.

Around the same time, in the late 1990s, we successfully raised $5.3 million and built a workforce training center on Del Paso Boulevard that was to create economic stimulus for development of the Marysville corridor. This building has eight classrooms, a nursery, an employment center, a health center and a community banking center, complete with state-of-the-art computers. Yet after creating these opportunities, we could not secure any appreciable funding from Sacramento County Health and Human Services during the era of welfare reform, or any significant grants from the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). These agencies award grants to each other and typically left the community with small grants to serve the hardest-to-serve individuals.

In fiscal year 2017-18, SETA received some $26 million in federal grants for workforce training. But the Sacramento Urban League only received about $350,000 of that money to serve both adults and youth, including classroom training in the under-served communities in north Sacramento. The Urban League is the largest community-based organization in the entire Sacramento region serving African-Americans. They have to raise funds from the private sector to subsidize government programs.

Dollars intended to reduce recidivism rates in the region, in which African Americans make up a large proportion of the young people, go to the sheriff’s office, and sheriff’s personnel do the work, rather than partnering with community based organizations.

Change will only come when the resources are shared with the communities in peril. I’m challenging our City Council and Sacramento supervisors, business leaders and downtown developers to commit to a five-year campaign to raise $25 million each year for the next five years to invest in under-served communities. A rising tide downtown will lift the boats in our under-served communities.

Stephon Clark would probably be alive today if some of the aforementioned services could have been used for him to provide stable life for him and his children.

James Shelby is a former Citrus Heights city councilman and past president of the Sacramento Urban League. Reach him at