Conservation Corps is building a better city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE first morning Michael English showed up at the San Francisco Conservation Corps, he sported a cane, broad-brimmed hat, and one pants leg tucked roguishly in a boot. The young black ``looked a lot like a pimp,'' one corps member says. Mr. English stayed less than a week. He arrived 15 minutes late one day - in the middle of morning exercises - and corps director Robert Burkhardt told him to hit the road.

One extra chance

But everyone gets one extra chance with the Conservation Corps - a year-long work and education program for low-income urban ``at risk'' youth aged 17 to 24. And English came back. He's now been with the corps six months and is ``a changed person'' - a recent father who plans to ``take it all the way this time. I was getting too old to sit around the house, to be just another person on the street. I want to be a carpenter - do something.''

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English is one of a host of young men and women benefitting from this modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which stresses discipline, responsibility, vigor, and cooperative work habits. Corps members, who hear about the program from friends, family, or the media, start at $3.35 an hour. The SFCC is a cross between military boot camp, high school, and a 1960s encounter group:

Each morning at 7:30, corps members do a strenuous workout, including a mile run. Then they take off in crews of 10 across the city to different jobs: building community playgrounds, erasing graffiti, planting trees. They write in a journal each lunch period; they also take eight hours of school each week. It's a completely different life from what most corps members - who come mainly from minority welfare families in the barrio and the ghetto - are used to. ``We get about three weeks to overcome negative behaviors and habits that have acculturated over a period of about 18 years,'' says Mr. Burkhardt, the guiding light of the San Francisco program.

If corps members can make it past the first three weeks, he says, chances are good that they will stay. When Burkhardt started the SFCC in 1980, it was one of only two such programs in the country. Today, nearly 50 major cities have bought into the idea.

All corps members or ``newbies'' - as they are called for the first weeks - must be on time every morning, or they are ``fired.'' They are also out if they start a fight or are found using drugs. The attrition rate is high: About 70 percent don't last.

``It's important to challenge these young folks - not in a negative way, but in a loving way,'' says Burkhardt, a former Peace Corps volunteer. His ideal for the corps is summed up in a line by Ulysses in Tennyson's poem of the same name: ``To make mild a rugged people, and thro' soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good.''

`Antidrug' exercise program

But this morning, as he barks instructions to corps members on the still-wet excercise field, Burkhardt is not especially poetic: ``OK, everybody's here this morning, that's good. We've got an announcement. Edmund Ferdinand got a job yesterday at Zoo, Inc. [Applause.] That's a silk-screening firm. Now, we've got a lot of work to do today - a lot of work. But first let's do the run.'' And off the corps goes at a trot, Burkhardt trailing close behind. The exercises, he says, are his antidrug program.

Crew No. 4's supervisor, Janet Gomez, a black, 26-year-old graduate of the University of Rhode Island, greets a reporter when the run is over: ``You're coming with me today, so let's hurry. My van's always the first one out of here.''

We go out to Hunter's Point, a low-income housing district overlooking San Francisco Bay, where the eight men and two women in Crew 4 are building a park. ``It's important for these kids to learn how to use a jackhammer, take measurements, and read blueprints,'' Ms. Gomez says as the crew sets out the tools and begins work. ``But they can pick that up anywhere. What we teach them are skills for life - how to delegate work, handle anger, work as a team, communicate.'' Most of the crew, says Gomez, come into the corps lacking confidence and self-esteem. ``They are shy and introverted. I remember Pele,'' she says, pointing to a large Samoan. ``He wouldn't say a word when he came here. Now he thinks nothing of making a speech.''

Gomez is referring to the SFCC program every Friday, when the crews stay at their Fort Mason headquarters and discuss the week's events. Several times during the year, corps members are expected to stand in front of the 100 crew and staff members and discuss the week's work. ``Once you've done that,'' says Pele, ``you can do anything.''

Friday is also a day to discuss the daily journals. ``I used to just write about work,'' says corps member Bill Canizales, ``but lately I've been writing about problems, and doing some poetry, too.'' The journals are a way to keep corps members active mentally, says Burkhardt.

On Tuesday and Thursday nights, corps members take classes in basic reading, writing, and math skills; English as a second language; or a recent addition - critical thinking.

It was this rich mix - the morning workout, the upbeat sense of accomplishment in having ``built something,'' and the basic education - that helped Michael English ``see myself in a whole new light.''

``It's true,'' says Burkhardt. ``You can see it happening. The kids physically carry themselves differently. Out of their experience, they develop a `sense of who I am - that I'm capable, I'm a member of society.'''

Burkhardt is even philosophical about the high attrition rate. ``I don't think of it as failure. Getting bounced from the program is often just the straw that's needed for these kids to realize what a real job is about.''

Thus far, corps members have graduated to jobs at Pacific Gas & Electric, the YMCA, and construction firms. Reginald Gary, a young black, was at the corps only two months before he was hired in 1985 as an intern at the Monterey Aquarium south of San Francisco, a job ``I just couldn't believe I could get,'' he says. ``It's all due to the corps.''

Tom Bressan, co-owner of the Urban Farmer Store, a city contractor, has worked closely with the SFCC: ``We've designed a good many systems - irrigation projects in parks and repairs of neglected streets - that the conservation corps has built. They work very hard.'' The main problem Mr. Bressan sees is that some jobs require higher skills. ``They might have to cut a coupling apart and redo it once or twice.'' But Bressan is impressed with the wide range of basic skills the corps imparts.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein says the FSCC ``adds much to San Francisco's overall quality of life.''

Burkhardt hopes the SFCC will expand as more city and municipal contractors discover that the corps does a first-rate job for less. Further, it's as yet uncalculated what even a couple million dollars might do spent well on youth service, he says. Currently, SFCC operates on about $900,000 in private and federal money.

``Cities could get quality work that costs less done by young people who would be just standing around otherwise,'' says Burkhardt. ``And let me tell you, these kids are learning how to build and influence communities for the better. Cities need that.''

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