News & Politics » Feature

Get A Job

Levon Calhoun's Class of Hard Knocks



Outside it's spitting rain, and the number-three buses are crawling in pairs along King Drive. Three stories up, inside a recycled parochial-school classroom, Levon Calhoun is about to hold a dress rehearsal. He's a training specialist with the small, privately funded STRIVE (Support and Training Result in Valuable Employees, aka Chicago Employment Service). A dozen of his adult trainees--all unemployed, many on welfare, some homeless--stand in a row against the blackboard. He sits across the room in a coat and tie. A blocky, imposing 37-year-old man whose body seems to be composed entirely of rectangles, Calhoun plays personnel director in this next-to-last-day drill, firing job- interview questions at each of his trainees in turn.

"Ms. Minter. What are your salary expectations?" he barks at Minter (all clients' names have been changed), a stately young black woman who was dropped from the previous four-week workshop, or "cycle," for one unauthorized absence and has come back, determined to finish.

"Uh--company policy. I would accept company policy."

"Hmm. I think somebody told you to say that." Calhoun whips out a food-stamp coupon. "If this was company policy, would you take it?"


"Aaaack," says Calhoun, sounding an imaginary buzzer and reverting to his instructor mode. "Would you like to try for Double Jeopardy, where the stakes are higher?" He explains that if you say "company policy" you'd better stick to it.

Minter remains standing by the blackboard. "I call it the Wall," Calhoun says later. All of them stand up until they answer a selected interview question acceptably. "Back in cycle 22"--that's two and a half years ago as this is cycle 46--"people weren't learning their interview questions. One weekend I was watching an old French war movie. It had an execution scene complete with blindfold, last cigarette, and up against the wall. And I thought"--a gleeful smile overtakes his face--"I can use this."

"Mr. Jackson. Why do you want this job when your qualifications are so much greater?"

Jackson, a lanky, engaging man with the quick motions of youth and the balding head of early middle age, spreads his hands and begins. "All work is good," he intones. "It gives a sense of dignity and self-respect. The way the economy is, I might work myself into a better position . . . " His voice trails off.

Calhoun has dropped his interviewer persona and is sawing away at an invisible violin. He asks a friendly but exasperated question. "Why is it you always act like Lincoln?" Calhoun drops his voice an octave. "Ouurrr fathers brooought forth on this continent . . . " Everybody cracks up, including Jackson.

Later Calhoun says, "I tell people the first day of every workshop, "I'm a crazy man with a mission. I want people to get to work.' But I also want them to laugh and have fun and be themselves. I want to be able to hit 'em from 360 degrees--be the junkie or the drill sergeant or the guy with his nose in the air--to get the point across by any means necessary."

Today Calhoun tells Jackson, "If I was out doing a con game you'd be my buddy, and we'd get rich. But that won't work here. You have one thing that's an advantage to you and a flaw at the same time. You are very articulate and very intelligent, and you put the two together. But you have to have the intelligence to tell the articulation when to shut the hell up! I'm going to tell you what I see. You start talking and you get this faraway look in your eyes. You know you do it too."

"Yeah, I know it."

"You got to stop that mess. When you shift into bullshit, they'll say, "Is this guy live or Memorex? And why is he messing with me?"'

"How do I deal with that?" Jackson asks.

"You've got a switch somewhere in your head--real stuff and BS. You've got to find the switch."

Calhoun himself has had trouble finding work in the past. "You know, they say some people have the Midas touch? Well, there have been times in my life when it seemed like everything I touched turned to shit."

Among other things, he's been through four years of college, several spells of homelessness, several spells of unemployment, a disastrous eight-month marriage that landed him in jail on what he says was a false charge, and jobs as a security guard, community organizer, truck-driving-school admissions rep, and pizza delivery man. He's worked at Chicago's five-year-old STRIVE program for almost three years, using "a combination of confrontation and support" to train chronically unemployed inner-city residents how to negotiate the job market.

"At STRIVE I see that all the things I've gone through before have prepared me for what I'm doing now--because I've been in the participants' place and have done a lot of the things they've done. People see me now in a shirt and tie giving orders. I'm comfortable with that. I've also had to be comfortable in rags.

"Some days I didn't have a chance to wash up for two or three days at a time. I had to live out of my car for six months in the dead of winter in upstate New York. I had to start the car every two hours all night or freeze to death. But I figured it was still better than a shelter, where I might get ripped off or get into a situation I didn't want to be in. I'd wash up in gas stations--a different one every day so they didn't catch on--and hustle money for gas, because that car was my lifeline.

"My history makes me approachable. I've been where many of them have been, and I can say, "I'll help you--but you have to do it yourself.' I've seen the change in people--it's beautiful. And I can tell when someone is doing the best they can and when they're shining me on."

He's not burdened by white-liberal guilt, so he can deal with those who don't do their best. That includes politicians and bureaucrats as well as workshop participants. West-side organizer Bob Vondrasek says that in Springfield during the 1992 debate over cutting off General Assistance Calhoun "was extremely good at talking to legislators. He can wear a lot of hats."

Calhoun got his start in the politics of Illinois welfare reform one Saturday in January 1992, when the South Austin Coalition Community Council (where Vondrasek works) held a meeting about the pending cutoff of General Assistance. More than 1,000 curious welfare recipients packed Saint Martin de Porres Church on West Washington. At the time Calhoun was on GA and participating in a Department of Public Aid job-search program. "I did the best I could," he recalls. "When they asked for five [prospective] employers I gave them ten. When they asked for 20 I gave them 50. "So when [then-Public Aid spokesman] Norris Stevenson came in talking about what the department would do, I got really angry. I said, "I have a question. How is Public Aid justifying cutting us off? What are we going to do? I went to college four years, came back here, couldn't get a job. Where are the jobs? I put out 4,000 resumes, got 1,000 responses, but no job. I jumped through all your hoops, and now you tell me you're going to cut me off?' The whole place gave me a standing ovation.

"Afterwards I told Stevenson I wasn't there to disrespect him. "I want to see your boss--and I don't mean the head of Public Aid. I mean Jim Edgar. Your boss just punked you out."'

Resumes and lists of phone numbers at the ready, two women in the STRIVE workshop are set to start calling possible employers. Calhoun goes over a seven-step script with them. He says it's adapted from one used by headhunter firms. Designed to make callers sound professional and confident, it also deters them from blurting out the easily fended-off question "Are you hiring?"

Callers are instructed to ask first for personnel or human resources, then give a pleasant greeting. "The last thing you want to do is to disrespect and piss off the gatekeeper," says Calhoun. Then the script reads, "PLEASE REPEAT THESE WORDS AS WRITTEN: "May I PLEASE have the NAME of the person who HIRES (THE POSITION YOU DESIRE)."' He cautions the callers not to read the words in parentheses, but to name the job they want.

First priority is to get the hiring authority's name, so that they can ask for him or her directly next time, when "the gatekeeper won't know who's calling." Once they get the hiring person on the line, they want to set up a face-to-face interview. "DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE INTERVIEWED OVER THE PHONE!!!!" cautions the script. "You get a job from face to face interviews!!!" Adds Calhoun, "If he says yes, then it's show time. You got to sell yourself."

Selling yourself is a recurrent theme at the workshop. "It's not changing yourself into something you're not," says Calhoun. "It's putting yourself in the best possible light. That's one thing I learned from hustling: you can sell anything if you package it right. Look at Madison Avenue."

Don't let them go beyond three interview-type questions on the phone, says Calhoun. On the fourth question just answer, "My objective here is to get us a chance to sit down and talk together. Is that possible?" If not, then say, "This probably will not be productive for me. Good-bye and please have a nice day."

"Still be pleasant," advises Calhoun, even though "you're probably pissed. Take that anger, box it up, put it away somewhere, and go on to the next call. It might be the one that gets you the job."

That advice may sound like psychobabble, but Calhoun knows plenty about being angry. In 1990 he worked for a neighborhood organization and put in 14-hour days for two months, helping to get the workload back on schedule so it could continue to get funding.

"My stepfather said, "Why are you wearing yourself out on this job?' But I'd been out of work two years, and I had something to prove. Their city liaison even wanted me to work for her in the Department of Housing, but that job required a master's degree, which I didn't have." When the organization got its funding renewed, "I was called in and told my services would be no longer needed."

He soon heard about a related job and got a first interview, then a second. But his former supervisor wouldn't provide a reference. "She said, "He was not here long enough to judge his performance'--and I was out of the running. You know the rap song "Beat the Bitch With a Bat'? That's what I wanted to do. I put a bat in my car, drove over there, and parked in the parking lot. Then I said to myself, "Why am I doing this? I'm just going back to the old ways and getting myself in trouble.' I drove back home and called the Chicago Commission on Human Relations."

The commission eventually advised the supervisor that Calhoun had a right to a reference, but he was still out of work. "I tell this story to people in the workshops sometimes. No matter how hard you try, sometimes stuff doesn't work out. But you can't let it discourage you or keep you from your goal."

One of the women making calls runs into an unscripted situation. "Mr. Calhoun, what do I say if they ask, do I have a husband and kids or a boyfriend?"

"Ask them if it's a requirement for the job." A big, fierce grin. "If it is, we'll make a call to the Human Rights Commission at the state."

"Now it's fashionable to be from a single-parent family, there's so many of them," says Calhoun. "But when I was a kid guys would say, "What are you and your dad going to do this weekend?' Or they'd tease me--"His dad ran away.' You have a lot of pressures being the only guy in the household with a mother and two sisters. That encouraged my decision to go away to school."

His ambition was not unwarranted. He attended Lindblom High School on South Wolcott in the early 1970s, "then one of the premier schools in the city, along with Lane. As a freshman I got a score in the 99th percentile--unheard of--on the JETS [Junior Engineering Technical Society] test." One of the schools that sent him mail for the next four years of high school was the University of Rochester. When the time came he applied there, as well as to other universities.

"Harvard basically said, "We have enough people of your category here.' At Columbia I missed a deadline or something. Catholic University of America took my $25 application fee, and I haven't heard from them since. It's been 20 years--tell 'em I want interest! And the University of Rochester put me on their waiting list! I was pissed. They'd been chasing me for four years and then this! But my mother said, 'Don't tell them off; send back the card"'--even though neither she nor his girlfriend wanted him to go so far away.

You can't talk to Calhoun very long without hearing about his mother. "She only had a high school education when my father left. I saw her work two part-time jobs, go to Crane Junior College, later Malcolm X, and to Chicago State University for a bachelor's and a master's degree. She first instilled my love for reading and exploring and examining things." Today she's dean of pupil services at Orr High School and one of the sponsors of its renowned chess team. But he doesn't just admire the example she set. He also appreciates that she charged him rent, when he worked in high school and when as an adult he lived in an apartment she owned. "I know it sounds harsh, but it was beneficial. She always wanted us to be responsible."

He was accepted at the University of Rochester. "Lindblom was a premier school, but it didn't adequately prepare me. I would say the U. of R. is in the next level down from Harvard or the University of Chicago--in fact, judging from my visit to Harvard, I think we had to work harder than those students did.

"I hadn't had calculus in high school. My buddy who became a chemical engineer tried to help me in the precalculus course. The professor knew I was trying my best. For the final grade he gave me a D minus minus in red. I just couldn't get this." He wound up majoring in urban studies.

"The other thing I was not prepared for was a totally different culture. The U. of R. had 4,500 students, graduate and undergraduate. Maybe 150 of them were black. It was a pretty all-white campus, with a lot of Jewish people and a lot of New Yorkers. I learned such new terms as schvartze--you know what that means? I told one young lady from Long Island I was from Chicago. "Chicago? Is that on Lon Gisland?' That's how she talked. I get along with everybody. I was raised that there's good and bad in every race. The important thing is not judging somebody for what others in their race have done, but upon their own individual character and the results of your contact with them.

"I followed the credo of Star Trek, to boldly go where no Calhoun has gone before. The university challenged me academically; socially it left a lot to be desired. If I had it to do over I might go to Fisk or Spelman--but then I wouldn't have learned as much about the world as I did."

Calhoun is talking about STRIVE to 40 young black men and a few women in the Probation Challenge program at Olive-Harvey College. "Who in here wants to make money?"

The response is immediate and heartfelt: "Everybody."

"Who's in here because they wanted to make money the wrong way?"

"Everybody, man," they all say.

"I've seen the inside of the gray hotel. Three hots and a cot, right? But you have to trade your freedom for it. And I've come to value mine. All of these people making a living off of you--the bailiff, the prosecutor, the police officers, the judge. Think about it a moment. Do you like people making money off you? How would you like it if each of them got $500 for your being locked up? I figured instead of hitting off this side I'd hit off the other side, and then the only man I've got to worry about is the tax man.

"It's not an easy job to do, to make money legally. Society has tagged us already. All of us black, most of us males--when I walk down the street an old white lady crosses the street because she's afraid I'm going to mug her, even though I'm dressed in a $500 suit. That ever happen to you?"

"Yeah," they say.

"I don't allow brothers to wear earrings in my class. When you go to a personal interview for a job you could be wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and silk socks. But if you've got an earring in your ear he won't see you. He'll see the murderer that he saw on TV the night before. And no matter how well you sell yourself he won't hear anything you say because that zirconia is talking louder. Yes, it's discrimination. Is it fair? No. Is it real? Yes. At STRIVE we will show you how to deal with it.

"A lot of brothers don't do well in my program, and some don't graduate. Some of us have the idea society owes us something because we went through chattel slavery, because we weren't allowed to be men. It's all right to have those feelings, but sometimes we express them in inappropriate ways--like ripping off somebody's house because you can, and you know they've got insurance and can replace everything.

"It may sound like you're conforming to somebody else's rules and regulations. In a sense you are. But conforming doesn't mean you have to change yourself."

After college Calhoun found work on the graveyard shift of the U. of R. security force. "I had no fear. My size and my seven-C-cell, steel-jacketed flashlight comforted me. I knew the campus backwards and forwards. I patrolled the unlit places. One time, around 1980, I stopped a rape in action. A woman was being attacked by a guy with a knife by the psychology building. I tackled the guy--I saw the knife when he went down--and the fight was on.

"I hate abuse towards women. Anyone who commits that crime is a straight-up punk in my book. Any man who has an idea of his strength knows that if he's physically attacking a woman she can't stand up to him nine times out of ten. At some point I knocked the knife out of his hand and he knocked the flashlight out of mine. The lady must have managed to summon help, but when they came I had beaten the guy down with bare fists."

But even that kind of record didn't do him much good when he helped organize a union of the security officers. "The [university] wanted us to have two years of college and two years' experience--and pay $4.16 an hour when other places were paying $6 or $6.50." His boss sent him to an irrelevant conference about retail-loss prevention--which had nothing to do with his duties and which he saw as an attempt to buy him off. He says when that didn't work he was suspended on a trumped-up vandalism charge.

"Rochester is one of those towns where skin color is important, unfortunately." Calhoun learned that working at a local pizza emporium in the mid-80s. He drove a "Driver Will Sell You a Pizza" truck for $4 an hour plus 20 percent commisssion. He struck up acquaintances with security guards at several factories and made deals to sell nearby during their break times. "My truck would get reloaded four or five times a night, the other guy's just once.

"I started out riding a ten-speed bike five miles to work and then back home at the end of the shift. When my commission checks started becoming bigger than my straight pay, I bought a sky blue '74 Plymouth Duster. And guess what? I started getting looks when I drove up. Certain people stopped talking to me. They hated that I had a car!

"The owner wanted to know how I was doing it. I wouldn't tell him. He started cutting the commissions, from 20 percent to 15 to 10. When they expanded and wanted to hire a dispatcher--no commissions, but $6 an hour--I couldn't get that job, even though I had done radio and dispatching work at the U. of R. It was time to go."

At lunchtime at STRIVE Calhoun and Ms. Archer are side by side at a table in the classroom. She's slim, young, flighty. "Ooh, I need a job," she says, paging through the phone book. She tells Calhoun she's completed a key workshop assignment, copying out a list of 100 businesses and their phone numbers from the yellow pages to call for jobs. "I got my hundred," she says, "but they're not all things I want to do."

Without being mean about it, Calhoun points out that she's not working now. "You don't have any decision to make until someone says, "I want to hire you."'

One reason Archer is so anxious to find work, it turns out, is that over the weekend she used her ATM card to spend $160 she can't afford. It's not the first time.

In a joking big-brotherly way, Calhoun "confiscates" her card for the day. "People do shop to escape their problems," he tells her. "I do too sometimes." Once he blew $20 at the arcade while working out a personal problem in his mind. "But you have got to go to that ATM machine and say, "It's not my money.' I'm going to do for you what I did for this guy five or six years ago. I tied him to the bed--and he finally kicked his heroin habit, because he really had no choice."

About the time he left the Rochester pizza job Calhoun met a local hustler nicknamed Shorty. "He was five foot five, 200 pounds, a tough talker. This knife"--he pulls one out of his pocket--"is one of his legacies. You know, "Anybody fuck with me, I'll get out this knife and cut him from asshole to asshole.' He didn't read or write or have a driver's license, but he taught me how to hustle and sell stuff--and a lot of things about being a man that I didn't learn from my father.

"I didn't learn the box trick from him, but from a friend of his from Cleveland." Shorty's friend sold well-wrapped, heavy boxes that supposedly contained VCRs or TVs, at cash-only prices too low to believe. Inside were rocks and newspaper.

"Shorty didn't want him to teach me that. In some ways I was like a member of the family. He didn't want me to learn the coldhearted stuff. But I saw his friend made more than enough to get his car repaired and get back to Cleveland. I did the box trick in Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Buffalo, New York City, and other places in New York. When I came back to Chicago I decided not to do it because my mother is here. I didn't want to embarrass her.

"I tell this story the first day of every class. Anybody that got took here--it wasn't me! I did it where the real hustlers hang out--in New York!"

The STRIVE workshop starts at 9 AM. About 10 Calhoun passes through the classroom. A man I hadn't seen earlier that morning is poring over the yellow pages. Calhoun snaps his fingers at him and says, "Office." The man gets up and goes. "That's Mr. Wilson," Calhoun says. "I may have to drop him. He's come in late too many times."

Half an hour later Calhoun enters the office cubicle where Wilson has been waiting and says he'll have to leave the workshop.

"You don't give me a chance," says Wilson. "From the first day you've been making me out to be worse than I am."

"You were late several times," says Calhoun.

"I was not," Wilson replies.

But like a high school assistant principal, Calhoun won't argue. "I have to dismiss you from this cycle, but you're welcome to come back April 3, when the next cycle begins. Will you be back with us?" Wilson shakes his head, a picture of dejection and defiance. Their discussion continues but gets nowhere. "You've got to change," Calhoun says finally, "or you'll always be in the same position you are now."

"I'll tell you what his problem is," Calhoun says later. "He's used to people taking his excuses and letting him slide. Yes, the program is very rough. I'm very rough. But I get paid to be rough--and to be helpful, because that's the only way people are going to make a real change. We have rules, just like any job has rules. I like to run the workshop as a place where people are free to express themselves, but there are boundaries. You spend four weeks with me, it may be four weeks of hell--but once you're through you are part of the STRIVE family."

STRIVE makes a lifetime commitment to helping its graduates find jobs--more of its budget goes to placement than to training--so Calhoun has a responsibility not to graduate people who are likely to give the program a bad name with employers. "People are as free as they want to be until they cross the line. Mr. Wilson crossed the line a few times. He's homeless. But employers don't care about that. They want you to be on time and complete your work on time."

"The first time I ever experienced public aid was 1983. I filled out all the forms. The lady who took them said, "You've got four years of college. Why do you need to be on welfare?' I remember her well--four foot ten, weighed maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She said, "You can get a job.' I said, "Where are the jobs? Can I have yours?' She denied me assistance, which caused me to be evicted. I had to stay with friends, eat meals at Shorty's or wherever. I lost a lot of my belongings.

"I asked for a fair hearing to argue my case, and I looked up the New York welfare statutes in the library. Then I went in to see my file and ask for a copy of it. My four-foot-ten friend was there. She wanted to discuss the fair hearing. I said, "There's nothing to discuss. I'm homeless, and I've got no income because of your decision.'

"At the hearing it was the welfare department lawyer against me in jeans and a shirt. I just told my story. The administrative law judge asked, "Why did she deny you?' I said, "I'm not a psychologist. Ask her.' I won the case and got three months' back assistance, so I could get an apartment again.

"Then I felt"--he knocks on the table--"opportunity again. I thought, I studied the law for my own hearing. Why not become a hired gun? One thing I wanted to do as a child was become a lawyer. I printed up business cards and flyers, using a false name because I was collecting welfare at the time. I offered to argue people's cases for them at their fair hearings, in exchange for 10 percent if they won. I won my first couple, and people started talking. Rochester's a small enough place I was even sometimes approached when I was driving Shorty's van. I figure that out of 500-some cases over a two-year period I won 375.

"Welfare sure needed reform back then, because these guys didn't follow their own regulations half the time. Some of the office staff started calling me Perry Mason. I got a gray suit. Sometimes the welfare department lawyer would say, "He's here! Give them what they want!"'

Posted above Calhoun's desk--a slow-motion avalanche of forms, memos, Tribunes, messages, and coffee cups--is a computer-printed motto: "There is a name for people who are not excited about their work--UNEMPLOYED!" Last September he enrolled in an H & R Block tax-preparation class, "because people in the workshops had all kinds of tax questions I couldn't answer--"What about the Earned Income Tax Credit?' "What if I don't get a W-2 form?' Here I was in the business of employment, and I felt I should be able to answer those questions." Now he can--"unless they want to know how to work and still get welfare!" He also supplements his income by working for Block during tax season.

He's always on the prowl for people with up-from-the-bottom success stories to speak at his workshops. "I work this job 8 hours a day, but I think about it 24." One person he met when they were having blood drawn at the doctor's, another when he ran into the Trak Auto store at 35th and King Drive to buy oil. "I'm looking at this woman in her mid-to-late 40s on the phone talking about loss prevention, and boosting sales, and other marketing stuff. She seemed to know what she was talking about. I introduced myself and gave her the rundown on STRIVE and gave her some of our recruiting materials.

"I found out her name was Shirley Lynch, a district manager for Trak, and she was very resistant [to hiring STRIVE graduates]. "These people don't work out. I've used programs like this before.' I told her this program wasn't like that, and I must have said something that made it sound like I thought she was a marketing-school graduate. She corrected me very quickly about how she got her GED and raised her kids and started there as a cashier and worked her way up through the ranks. That's Horatio Alger for you. She finally agreed to talk to one of my classes, and she's been one of our best employers."

Calhoun was on General Assistance when Governor Edgar began slashing the program for single men. During the first few months of 1992, after the meeting at Saint Martin de Porres where he asked his famous "Where are the jobs?" question, he was involved with the Westside Survival Initiative, a grassroots group of welfare recipients. Bob Vondrasek of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, who helped them get started, recalls, "They did a wonderful job as an organization--holding job actions and rallies, cleaning vacant lots, lobbying Springfield." Calhoun wrote the group's bylaws and served on its leadership committee, though not as an officer.

As the group's spokesman, he took the train to Springfield to testify at a legislative committee hearing, riding with Doug Dobmeyer, then executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition. "We talked, and I typed some general thoughts into my laptop," recalls Dobmeyer. "Then I turned it around and asked how he liked it. Levon has a better command of English than I do. His mother's an English teacher, and he was editing it as we changed the substance. He was great on the testimony and media interviews--one of the better people I've worked with on an issue, and I've worked with a lot."

Calhoun's testimony was concise and pungent, presented in a style STRIVE graduates (had any been present) would recognize. "For those of you sold on the governor's argument," he told the Senate Appropriations II Committee, "I have some great farmland available--cheap--located in the tunnels of Chicago. See me after the hearing. However, to be serious, the options that you offer our membership are crime and desperation." Referring to the Los Angeles riots, he added, "If you take a person's home, he has no stake in the neighborhood. If the economic system does not allow him to work, he has no stake in society. Think about it."

Internal disputes and leadership problems soon put an end to the Westside Survival Initiative; its main legislative legacy was the controversial compromise Earnfare program. Calhoun left before it folded, but the group's demise still bothers him. Its members' hopes were dashed, and so were the expectations of the funders who'd supported it. "I thought, I still think, it's the best thing in the world--people in that position doing something to improve their own situation."

Calhoun believed in the issue, but he also wanted to find a job. Whenever he spoke or gave testimony against the GA cuts, he brought along his resume. And he faced the paradox of any articulate spokesman for a group of people assumed to be tongue-tied. The media zeroed in on Levon Calhoun and often failed to even mention the Westside Survival Initiative. Republican state senator (now state treasurer) Judy Baar Topinka didn't change her mind about the welfare cuts, but she was so impressed with Calhoun's testimony that she circulated a letter to state agencies encouraging them to interview and consider hiring him--a favor she didn't extend to the thousands of others who'd been cut off.

None of those leads panned out, but Calhoun says he was impressed enough to make her the only Republican he voted for last fall. "At least when I asked her where the jobs were, she was honest and said she didn't know. I had a nice long conversation with her and her chief of staff, Martin Kovarik. He's a good guy--he's just a Republican." Calhoun shrugs and says sadly, as if talking of someone with an incurable disease, "He has Republican ideas."

Calhoun's informal second office at STRIVE is at the top of the stairs at the end of the third-floor hallway. There's a wastebasket, a gritty tile ledge to sit on, and a glass-block wall with a small window that opens just enough for him to tap his cigarette ashes outside.

This is where he confers with two clients who've just gotten a part-time job offer that seems to involve selling sex-oriented videos. It's where he describes his eight-year involvement in the Way ("What some people might call a cult"), and how he left it when it became clear that the group had a problem with strong black men and that he wasn't going to be allowed to lead his own fellowship group. And it's where he meets Mr. Wilson a few days after cutting him from the program. Wilson hasn't told the man whose apartment he's taking care of that he's been dropped. "I know," says Calhoun. "I've been in situations where I had to lie to somebody to get what I needed. But the worst lie you can tell is to yourself."

Later he reflects, "Unfortunately there are some people you can't help. There's an old song from the 60s, I think, about why there are no unicorns. It's about these unicorns who don't pay attention to Noah. They're out there playing and hiding, then"--he approximates a tune--"The waters came and floated them away. And that's why you never see a unicorn to this very day.'

"I know this program works. I've seen so many examples where it has." He shows me a photograph of the 17 graduates of cycle 36 (about a year ago) and ticks off their employers: McCormick Place, Au Bon Pain, Goldblatt's, LaSalle National Bank, Trak Auto, and more. "But some people, no matter what opportunities you put before them, they're not going to take it. Well, Noah couldn't do anything about unicorns either."

In the fall of 1992 Calhoun heard about STRIVE from a friend and was hired as a program assistant. In December the trainer he was assisting left, and he was asked to step in. "I had [executive director] Steven [Redfield] and the chairman of the board in here, asking them not to make me the new trainer," he recalls. "That's one time I can say I was truly scared."

"It didn't last long," says Redfield. "He stepped into that role very quickly."

"It's a laugh a minute" team teaching with him, says fellow trainer Diane Byas Green, whose teaching style is more reserved than Calhoun's. "Our strengths complement each other. Since he's been here, everybody has loved the class and we've had more successful placements."

That doesn't mean all the clients' love him. He visited Sylvia Newson's class (cycle 47) at the other STRIVE office, on the west side, for a session of "the Wall" and didn't hesitate to challenge people for coming in late or having an attitude. Newson says, "They looked at him as Dirty Harry, which he called himself. Once he left they weren't real happy with his style. I said, but what about his message? And they agreed that was OK."

For cycle 48 STRIVE had a record 111 people sign up ahead of time, about half of whom showed up at 9 AM on April 3. "People are starting to realize it's getting tougher out there," Calhoun says. "The old supports are not there, the safety net is being quickly cut away. They can't just lollygag around."

Does that mean the Republican version of welfare reform is good for STRIVE? "I don't even call it welfare reform. I call it welfare feel-good restructuring. I'll give you an example. STRIVE students can get child care provided by Public Aid only during the four weeks of the program. Afterwards, when they need it, when they're in job search mode, they can't get any. My question is, how can you want people to get jobs when they have to worry about their kids? If they leave the kids alone, they've got DCFS waiting to take them away. You want people off the dole--why don't you give them the resources to do it?

"I'd like to challenge every one of those sorry-mouth politicians to leave their big houses, their thousand-dollar suits, and all the money they get from the state and other sources--and try to make it out here for six months as a homeless man. Or get a couple of young kids and have to take care of them on $367 a month and food stamps. And then come back and tell me how they're going to reform the welfare system. Let them see firsthand how caseworkers destroy people's self-esteem on a daily basis, make people feel like crap for having to ask for help when they truly need it. Public Aid itself says that less than 3 percent of their cases are fraud.

"I'm not saying recipients have the best attitude in the world. Sometimes you ask a lady who's the father of their child, and she says, "I don't know.' But just because she might be running a game doesn't mean you have to treat her like she's a slut. I'm not defending some of this--people getting SSI [disability payments] for drug problems should be in serious rehab or not get it. But if we're going to talk about welfare reform, let's talk about corporate welfare reform instead of putting it on the backs of the poor. Why is it that Birds Eye, Tyson Foods, and others get USDA funds for operations that were designed for the small farmer? Why is it that companies like General Electric can get millions of dollars in tax breaks and rebates at tax time because of certain things written into the tax code? Here in Illinois we can take a billion dollars out of the Public Aid budget, wipe out General Assistance, increase Chicago homelessness at least 50 percent--and then use that money to expand McCormick Place. I note that 60 percent of the license plates during the construction period are not even from Illinois.

"Meanwhile you have a potential workforce that's jobless and homeless. I've suggested setting aside 5 percent of public-works jobs for welfare recipients and former recipients. Legislators, unions, and others can't give up even that much in order to take them out of their situation. To me this is not welfare reform--it's damned greed.

"Why deny stuff to children because of what their parents do? They didn't ask to be here. If we don't take care of these kids today, we will surely pay for it tomorrow at about thirty, thirty-five thousand dollars a pop with them being in jail. I think we're looking at the decline of the American empire. What happened to the Greeks and Romans? First they dogged out their kids. Now we've got DCFS. Then they dogged out their women. And shortly afterwards they got dogged out by somebody else. Is it our turn?"

"Eighty percent of those who go through our workshop get jobs," Calhoun tells the young men and women in the Probation Challenge program at Olive-Harvey College. "On average it takes them four and a half months."

But not everyone graduates. "One class started out with 28 participants. We graduated 9. Another started with 35, graduated 17. The workshop is run like a job. If you don't show and don't call, I'll toss you out."

"That's a big percentage of dropouts," says a middle-aged female staffer of Probation Challenge, one of only two white people in the room. "A big percentage. Tremendous."

Calhoun says, "A lot of people feel our programs are required to keep you and deal with your mess. But there's only so far you can go with somebody. If they're late, they get warned, then terminated. The STRIVE program works the same way as a job."

The staffer stands up and says indignantly, "The program here has been very successful. We have caring training specialists. I've only ever discharged one young man from the program. I have committed myself to do something with their lives. I am not going to be responsible for aiding the penal colonies to make money off of them."

Calhoun makes no reply to her implied criticism of STRIVE, and later he explains why. "It was her house. She obviously commands respect there. And some people's way of giving back is to bend even more and allow unacceptable behavior. But that's what makes STRIVE different. We don't hold hands, and we expect people to behave like adults. Do you remember Richard Pryor's "Bicentennial Nigger' routine? "Here it is 1976 and we are celebrating 200 years of white folks kicking ass. How long will this bullshit go on?' That's the same question I ask of other programs. If you're going to coddle folks, there comes a point where you've got to ask, "How long will this bullshit go on?' Are you helping them to succeed--or to fail?"

"When cycle 36 graduated [about a year ago] they gave me a nice wrapped package. I opened up the box. Inside there was nothing but a rock with all their names on it, and a card, and a cup that read "Those Who Can, Teach.' I almost broke down and cried in front of that class."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Chip Williams.

Add a comment