A NEW HOPE
December 17, 1997
With Defense Department funding, a non-profit organization has built one of the world's most modern factories in one of Detroit's most blighted neighborhoods. Focus Hope, founded during the civil rights fight of the 1960's, is providing more than high-tech training for inner-city residents; it is providing opportunity. Fred De Sam Lazaro reports.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: From the security system that recognizes hand prints to the Star Trek motif, complete with Bridge and Enterprise Cafe, this is one of the most modern factories in the world. It is managed, among others, by Lloyd Reuss, who retired five years ago as president of General Motors.
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LLOYD REUSS: These manifolds are actually going into the Ford Windstar--
The Center for Advanced Technologies
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What's unique about this Center for Advanced Technologies is that its workers are actually students working on advanced degrees in engineering on equipment that Reuss says is up to 10 years ahead of industry standards.
LLOYD REUSS: That's the thing that's so different. They are acquiring knowledge and applying it, and they're applying the knowledge on the next generation of machine tools. So it is truly, I look at it as a miracle that's taking place right here on Oakman Boulevard, right in, downtown in the city of Detroit.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The real miracle could well be that address. The center is located in one of Detroit's most blighted neighborhoods, one further devastated last summer by a tornado. And the center's owner is not a big automaker but rather a non-profit civil rights group founded in 1967 by a local Catholic parish priest, the late Father William Cunningham.
SPOKESMAN: I want to show how the power comes in.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The NewsHour reported on Cunningham five years ago when construction of his Center for Advanced Technologies was getting underway with funding that came from a Defense Department program intended to preserve basic industries in the U.S.
FATHER WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM, Founder, Focus Hope: It's good of you, Senator. Thank you. God bless you. A check for $20 million.
FATHER WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM: In the center of Detroit, where the little kids can walk down the street, look in the windows, and see their older brothers and sisters in the highest ranks of technology, what a marvelous thing that is to see.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Eleanor Josaitis founded the organization Focus Hope with Father Cunningham.
ELEANOR JOSAITIS, Director, Focus Hope: He never liked the term he was a visionary, but he definitely was a visionary but more than that, he was a risk taker. He was not afraid to do something that we had never done before.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Josaitis was a suburban housewife and a civil rights activist. In 1967, soon after riots tore apart Detroit, she moved into the city with her husband and five children to join Cunningham. Their goals were modest early on according to Neil Shine, retired publisher of the Detroit Free Press.
Focus Hope's origins.
NEIL SHINE: The wedge that was driven between black Detroit and white Detroit--when I say Detroit, I'm talking about the metro area--was huge and there was concern that the following summer, the summer of ‘68, was going to be worse. So Bill started an organization with Eleanor and some other priests called Focus Summer Hope. Let's involve everybody talking about this, so we can calm things before we have another explosion. And we didn't have the explosion, but the more he involved himself, the more need he saw.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Focus Hope quickly became active in civil rights campaigns. It published a study that showed city residents paid more for groceries than people in suburbs. The group sued a major Michigan insurer for discrimination. Later, Focus Hope took over from city all a program to distribute food to the poor and expanded several-fold. At its peak a few years ago, the program fed almost 90,000 people each month.
ELEANOR JOSAITIS: We've never lost sight of what that mission statement is: It was intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty, and injustice Well, intelligent and practical action when we started was to see that people had food and that babies didn't lose their brain power because they didn't have enough food or senior citizens became senile. Then when industry started moving out, we said, well, how do you get people off of food program and how do you get them into the financial mainstream?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For about two decades the road to that financial mainstream has begun in Focus Hope's food distribution center. Closed-circuit TV sets throughout the center carry messages urging people to enroll in a machinist training program. Denesia Harvey was coaxed into applying. She was 24, single, and a mother of three when we visited her in 1992.
DENESIA HARVEY SHAKHAN, Information Systems, Focus Hope: I was always saying what I couldn't do. Oh, I can't do this because of my children, or, I don't have this for my children, I can't do this. I don't have a baby sitter. I made an excuse for everything.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Focus Hope had a "no excuses" answer for Harvey. Its center for children provides child care for younger kids, and Montessori and latch key programs for those older. Harvey had other hurdles. Most dropouts and many graduates of Detroit's public schools lack basic skills. They are put through a computer-based fast track program that in two months can boost a student's math score by two years.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Once their skills are upgraded students are offered training to become machinists, an increasingly sophisticated and lucrative field in Detroit's manufacturing sector. Kevin Robinson is an associate director of Focus Hope.
Kevin Robinson: "It gives them a sense of accomplishment...and it lets them know they have the potential to do this type of work.
KEVIN ROBINSON: We want them to learn how to read blueprints, to do the high order math so that they can make things like make a hammer, V block, sign bar, parallel bar; these are all tools that every machinist has to have. So it gives them a sense of accomplishment, it gives them a tool, and it lets them know they have the potential to do this type of work.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Focus Hope's machinist training program is supported by for-profit enterprises in machining, also by a host of volunteer retirees, who learned a lot about their students according to publisher Shine.
NEIL SHINE: What they've managed to overcome is the feeling that poor people, black people aren't capable of doing anything complicated. When Bill Cunningham started the machinist training institute, he recruited retired machinists, lathe operators, milling machine operators, board operators, a lot of nice old white guys, a lot of them Germans, Scotts, British, who--and asked them to come and train these kids. And so many of them told him--look, I had these people working for me when I had my own place, they don't want to learn, they are not interested. And he would say to these guys, give me six months, and many of them later came to Bill Cunningham and said, you know, we were wrong about this.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Denesia Harvey did become eligible to enter machinist training. But she opted, instead, for full-time office work at Focus Hope. Since our last visit, she has obtained her high school equivalent diploma and has gotten married. In an organization whose annual budget is now close to $100 million, Denesia Harvey Shakhan foresees lots of career growth in its information systems department.
DENESIA HARVEY SHAKHAN: Possibly into different areas of computer hardware, different types of programs that they have out, Novell 4.1, NETG, NT servers, routers, hubs. I'm learning a bit of everything. I feel a lot more successful and much better about myself coming from a ADC Mom to now a working person, being able to take care of family, household expenses, help pay car notes now, you know, I was never able to do that, but rent, and things like that. And it's hard--it gets hard sometimes, but all in all. I would prefer from being an ADC Mom to working.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For many recruits it proves too hard. One out of three people entering Focus Hope drops out.
SPOKESMAN: Now what happens and you're supposed to be here at 8 o'clock, and you're coming up the steps, it's two minutes to 8, and you stumble and fall down the steps. By the time you get back up the steps to the computer, now it's two minutes after 8.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A tough love drill stresses strict discipline. Not only can a hint of drug use disqualify an entrant, so can tardiness. One strike and you're likely to be expelled.
SPOKESPERSON: We're not in the rehabilitation business. We have a saying around here. "no missionaries," and people laugh at us and say what do you mean by no missionaries? Well, a missionary is going to pat you on the head and say that's okay honey, I understand that the bus didn't come or whatever the excuse is. But then when they get out into industry, industry does care.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But for every one dropout two thriving careers are launched in young people who otherwise barely pass high school. When we met Andre Reynolds five years ago, he'd been through machinist training and was applying to go to the Center for Advanced Technologies. He had dreams of major companies looking to him for solutions.
ANDRE REYNOLDS: So if they have a problem, let's just say in Germany, or in Japan, they will say, well, who can we get to solve the problem; they say, well, call Andre Reynolds; where is he? Welt, last I heard he was in Washington So they call me up and I fly down to Japan, and I won't need a translator because I already know the language myself, see.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, Andre Reynolds has fulfilled part of that dream. He's six months away from an associates degree in engineering. The rigorous routine includes an eight-hour day on the shop floor, then three hours in more academic settings. His technical skills even now could command an annual salary of $50,000 in the market. But he plans to pursue a bachelor's degree, one whose curriculum includes Japanese.
ANDRE REYNOLDS: Sometimes when I'm sitting on my back porch and watching the kids run around and playing and I look at airplanes pass me by overhead and see helicopters and cars and engines and that's when I go wow, I know exactly how we produced this. I have some idea on how to do it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Aside from gaining marketable skills, Reynolds and the many others who wear Focus Hope uniforms gain self-esteem for the first time, according to Josaitas.
ELEANOR JOSAITAS: Let me tell you one story about a young man that was in one of our programs and I saw him on the street with his uniform on and I stopped to give him a ride, and I said, you've got your uniform on, you are ready to get on the bus, why do you wear it all the time? And he said, Eleanor. when I used to go into the bank, I was nothing but a black hood, and he said, now when I go into the bank and they see me with this uniform, they say, oh, you're over at Focus Hope, you're studying to be an engineer? He said, Then I am somebody.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So far, Focus Hope has placed more than 1300 machinists in regional factories. The first minority workers with these skills at many of their employers. This year, Focus Hope will graduate more African-American engineers than all six of Michigan's other engineering universities combined.