"To me, it just sounds like you're all complaining," Mr. Green, a 20-year-old Bronx native, said to his peers, many nearly twice his age. "If you're in the red, it's because you did something wrong."
What happened next might seem odd to outsiders but not to those familiar with STRIVE and its motto, "Where Attitude Counts": The students agreed with Green.
"I understand what he's saying," called out Ayesha Brinson. "It's being responsible for your own actions."
The discussion on a recent Friday was part of a financial literacy lesson for a business course offered at STRIVE. The government-funded center has helped thousands of unemployed and underemployed adults reenter the workforce since it was founded in the basement of a public housing complex in 1985.
The program has since spread to 18 other US cities and six international sites. But the mission is the same: Transform participants from being chronically out of work to professionally in demand.
About 70 percent of STRIVE participants are high school dropouts or ex-offenders, and a third are on food stamps. Almost 98 percent are people of color – all are looking for work.
At the East Harlem STRIVE center, students begin with a required class on professional norms. Then they choose an advanced course – green construction, computer networking, medical technology, or business operations – tailored to the 21st-century economy.
During the four-week introductory class, participants don professional attire during mock interviews, résumé workshops, and lessons on topics ranging from civic engagement to conflict resolution. The idea is for students to develop habits that will help them land jobs – and keep them. "They lose their jobs primarily because of poor attitudes," says Ernest Johnson, STRIVE's senior director for social services. The professional practices class, which he calls "an attitudinal training boot camp," is meant to prevent that.
Of course, many STRIVE participants with sparkling attitudes and respectable résumés still struggle to find decent work.
Mr. Nappier claims lingering racism is making it harder for minorities to climb out of the recession. "There's clearly an extra hurdle," he says.
Still, Nappier insists that – with STRIVE's help – he'll find a solid job. "Eventually I'll knock on the right door and someone will open it," he says. "But right now, I'll accept anything."