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Benton Harbor: A Chance to Show RCAP is more than Technical, Financial, and Managerial.

Sitting on the western shore of Lake Michigan, almost to the Indiana border, is the small city of Benton Harbor. Though largely industrial with a poverty rate of over 44%, Benton Harbor also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States.

I was recently called upon to assist Benton Harbor with their newly required operator certification for city employees. Believing that this would be a straightforward series of math, valve, and water main classes, I scheduled my first session with eight members of the City Department of Public Works and Water Departments. My students were a diverse group ranging from twenty-year city employees to a wonderful lady named Margaret, who is a former beautician and just entering the world of water operations.

Little did I know I would be faced with the challenge of delivering much more than just water classes.

Upon arriving for my first class, I was directed to the second floor of the water treatment facility, and after introductions, I found that the employees’ concerns were about more than just obtaining their certification; many of them wondered why they should bother continuing their education and the work they have been doing. Thinking about my own beginnings, growing up in a low-income childhood, from the east of Cleveland, needing meal tickets to help buy lunches at school, and where I am now, I realized that I had a challenge beyond my standard water classes. My first task was to deliver purpose and help them realize a sense of worth. I understood where they came from and how it was possible to overcome your circumstances.

Throughout the morning, we talked not so much about the answers to the math problems, as the calculator can do that, but how the math relates to the job and the relationship of each of the topics as we covered them. As the class continued, I found that my students and I had more in common than I would have imagined. If you don’t understand the purpose of a problem, there is no motivation to solve it. In my case, I was never going to have an opportunity to go to college, and I failed math in school because I had no reason in my mind to learn it.

By the end of the first day, I learned they had little incentive to study with the prospect of such low wages, which were nearly equal to fast-food work wages, and with some city council members calling for residents to not pay their water bills, that include wastewater and garbage. It had become time to help them understand that even if you start with nothing, once you do start, you have the choice not to stop for anything.

In the following classes, we talked a lot about the fact that obtaining their water certification was much more than just a piece of paper, it was something to be proud of and could be taken anywhere in the state. We had discussions that when they increased their skills and value as employees, it would either help their situation in the city, or provide them with a path to success in an essential job for the rest of their working career. I just had seven Benton Harbor public works employees at another class, and it really makes you feel good to get more hugs than “Hi’s.” That’s my purpose.

We spend so much time checking boxes that I think we forget that RCAP is more than just a technical advisor; sometimes we must take the time to deliver purpose and worth.

About the author

Great Lakes Community Action Partnership

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