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Business Sense Plus Faith Transforms At-Risk Youth

R&L: Much of your work at Harambee involves training young people from your Pasadena neighborhood to design Internet Web pages. How did you become involved in this work, and why?

Carrasco: I came to Harambee in 1990 because I was seeking to live out Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. All my life that vision of how Christ wants us to treat others had gripped my heart.

I became a Christian at age ten after hearing the story of the wall of Jericho falling down. I thought, “If God is so powerful that he can do something about the wall at Jericho, then God can do something about East Los Angeles.” It was a heavy thought for a ten-year-old, but, by that time, I had already lost my father and mother, and my sister had high-tailed it out of a rough, poor neighborhood in El Sereno. Yet that was where I spent the first seven years of my life. East L.A., a synonym for Mexican and Mexican-American culture, is in me, is me. And the community we left was a community in struggle and pain. I wanted God to care about the community, and, in the Jericho story and others, I learned that God did care about groups and places, not just individuals. So I held God’s love for communities deep in my heart, hoping to go to college and get a degree so that I might return to East L.A. and lift up the community.

In the course of my growth and Christian discipleship, I came across little that combined an evangelistic mentality with social action. What I saw was either one or the other. However, John Perkins, Harambee’s founder, demonstrated to me a holistic approach that did not sacrifice faith for good works. One week from finishing my last class at Stanford, John came by and invited me to work with him in Pasadena. We negotiated a two-year internship where I would serve as his personal assistant. I imagined that at the end of the two years I would be ready to return to East L.A. Well, I am still at Harambee ten years later. What happened is that East L.A. came to Pasadena. My community is half Latinos, principally immigrant Mexicans, and anything I thought I was going to confront in East L.A. needs to be confronted in my neighborhood in Pasadena.

R&L: What has been the impact of your teaching business and technical skills to at-risk youth?

Carrasco: We have raised an awareness of how technology may practically and immediately increase individual and community fortunes. Some youth have excelled. One former Harambee student is now working at Earthlink and recently was promoted to their highest level of technical support. She just turned twenty-two and has only one year of college under her belt. She served on Harambee’s teen jobs program for six years. And at least fifteen other young people have made money doing Web pages, and one of our high school students was this past summer selected for a prestigious summer tech academy here in Pasadena.

I am not a business person by nature or inclination, but my need to get my urban young people into the technology future, plus the financial needs of the students, drove me to consider entrepreneurial endeavors. In the course of responding to these needs, I have learned a great deal about economics and business.

An area of learning, or failure, in our Internet program involves access. Much is said about how young people, poor people, and minority at-risk youth do not have access to computers and the Internet–the so-called digital divide. In response, we created a policy whereby we allowed our young people lots of time on the Internet. What we learned is that, yes, students want to be on computers, but what most want to do is e-mail their friends and visit Web sites where they can make personal contacts. The computers were really an extension of their entertainment options, and we did not think that was good, so we began taking steps to restrict Internet access to program hours. Harambee remains committed to providing computers, but the great need that we see in the computing world is technical support. Rather than allocating Harambee resources to keeping a computer lab open all night for community use, we are training students and interested adults in the community to the ins and outs of tech support. Think of Harambee as a neighborhood-based technical support and training institute–an Andersen Consulting in the ‘hood, so to speak. This approach sustains the immersion model that we began with, whereby a student who responsibly and successfully maintains his Internet connection will be able to spend as much time as he chooses on the net and learn as much as he wishes.

R&L: In your Internet training program, some of your clients are businesses, large and small. In light of this, what message would you have for business people who want to serve their communities in constructive ways?

Carrasco: There is something to be said about business people offering real opportunities. In my context, though, we need more than just opportunities. There are many young men and women who are not able to take advantage of or follow through on such opportunities, so there needs to be an additional layer of training that is coupled with a healthy dose of grace. For example, say you run a small Internet Service Provider and want to provide an opportunity for a worthy at-risk kid. Well, that kid, as bright as he may be, does not have the skill set you require, so he needs to be trained. During this training, other issues arise. He does not come to work consistently, because no one in his life is consistent or on time. He does not read well because he fell back in third grade, and the public schools just passed him along. He has emotional problems. In dealing with at-risk youth, that is the kind of stuff you come upon.

The fact is that the kid needs to be able to do the job, but he or she needs extra support. Business people can partner with groups such as Harambee, with churches, or with nonprofits that are seeking to provide opportunities. Use your entrepreneurial profits as well as your raw cash. Make strategic investments in programs and people that have a chance to turn a kid around. Work closely with churches and religious groups that have a moral component. We are often the groups that can bring about the necessary character and ethics changes that at-risk youth need, and at the same time we often have our heads in the sand about what it takes to turn that good kid into a good worker. Your incentive as a business person is that you are accountable to our Heavenly Father for what you do. “To whom much is given, much is required.” The task for anyone working with at-risk youth is that much more than a good training program is involved. At-risk youth act like at-risk youth, and they tend to have big, generations-in-the-making types of problems. A holistic approach that takes their skills, emotions, and soul into consideration has the best chance of being effective.

R&L: In your view, what are the most important issues to keep in mind when thinking about how to serve the poor?

Carrasco: The poor are people just like us, with one additional, critical component: chaos. One of the hardest things for we who minister to the poor is to be close to them, because then our orderly lives become enmeshed in others’ chaos. Loving the poor does not mean giving in to chaos, however. It does no good to drop the values that keep you sane and successful just to walk alongside someone. What it does take is long-suffering. This virtue does not get much press, but it is what you need. Otherwise, the fifth time a kid misses an important appointment, you will be so frustrated that you will take it out on him. I hear it all the time from our volunteers. They do not think I hear it, but I am just around the corner, listening. Demeaning things are said, value judgments are made, the kid is made to feel stupid and ignorant. There are ways to discipline a kid and not make him feel like the scum of the earth, but that requires long-suffering.

R&L: The Old Testament commands the people of God to do justice to the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner; how do you try to obey this commandment in your day-to-day work?

Carrasco: The Old Testament injunctions are exactly what drive our entire ministry. There is a retirement-age woman in our community who is single and is helping to raise her grandchild. We provided her with a computer and dsl access, and now she does a lot of Harambee volunteer work from home. She has health problems and is frequently confined to her home, but she can do the computing work from there. There are many Mexican immigrants in our community who are proverbially poor. One family has eleven children and the kids often come to Harambee hungry. We have made a place where kids with one or no parents can grow and excel.

We demand excellence from the orphan who failed every class of ninth grade, but we understand if he continues to struggle for a while and is obstinate in receiving our help. The widow confined to her home needs lots of technical support and lots of training. She was not raised in the Internet age, and technological concepts come slowly. We have to be gentle and loving to her; it is easy otherwise to make her feel dumb or unwanted just because she is not fast on her feet in understanding technology. It is a long, patient road with the foreigner. The fourth grader who cannot read needs to learn before he can go on to other things.

R&L: One criticism of welfare reform is that the private sector–especially churches and other faith-based organizations–does not have the resources to bear the burden of cases dropped from the welfare system. Do you think the church is up to the task of providing social services for the needy?

Carrasco: The church has the resources. Replacing what the state provides will involve a massive redeployment of those resources. Whether the church will do so is an important question.

My church’s philosophy is that our obligation is to take care of those in the household of faith. When people who are not Christians ask us for help, we invite them to church. If they are Christians, we tell them they should be asking their church. When we do that, sometimes we get excuses such as “My pastor would never do that” or “My church is a very poor church.” This tells us that they are not in relationship with others in a way that they can get their needs met. It also usually means that they do not want to be held accountable for their actions or that they are having friction with others and do not want to resolve it. It is really tough to tell people that we will not help them unless they come to church, but accountability is important. And that is one of the tough dilemmas that I face. Some people just do not want to come to church or make changes in their lives, and watching them pay the price for their pride and hard-headedness is painful, especially when their children suffer.

R&L: In light of your experience in the inner city, what counsel would you give to middle- and upper-class Christians in terms of their economic choices?

Carrasco: Say you made a large profit last year, and you chose to invest it in ways that provide jobs in needy, urban areas. It also would be really cool if, like a venture capitalist, you aided the management there. But that means you will have to enter a chaotic environment. Turning an urban venture into a profit-making venture requires a tremendous amount of business education. A typical venture capitalist assembles a great management team–people out of Wharton and Stanford–and “does it right,” but in the inner city you most likely will not have that option. In my community, many people have not graduated from college or even high school, so they will have to learn as they go. It would be an odd venture, the sort that any right-minded business person would back away from. But educating people who are far behind in the business and technology game is exactly what is needed.

Good business and economic sense is not usually in abundant supply in the inner city, and I count myself in that needy group. My challenge to business people is that the need for economic training is not met simply by offering classes. Jesus relocated to earth from heaven for over thirty years. Could not a good business person relocate his life, home, and family to an area of need and live out good economics there? Our children learn by what we do and say, not by what we command. The same applies here. It is one thing to be taught how to write a business plan in a seminar; it is quite another to write a business plan with the student and then let him watch you pitch it. It is what we do with our children. They learn as they go, and, after a while, they catch on.