Produce delivery driver Rico Hearns has aspirations far beyond moving vegetables from one place to another.
Hearns, 29, would love to set up his own website as a platform for the artist interviews he does in his spare time and shares on YouTube. Driving a delivery truck isn’t a bad gig, he said, but he’s got something bigger in mind.
Before a couple months ago, Hearns’ goal seemed like a long shot, as he worked long hours and didn’t know how to get the training that web development requires.
Now, through his involvement with the Charlottesville Alliance for Black Male Achievement, Hearns has found it in a basic coding and IT training and mentoring program. At the end of the six-month regimen, he’ll still have only rudimentary skills, but he will have a clear idea of how to continue his training.
“I want to take it as far as I can go,” Hearns said. “The more I learn, the better.”
The program, called My Brother’s Keeper, serves black men between the ages of 17 and 29, and is designed to present them with opportunities they so far have missed.
In partnership with WillowTree Apps and Scitent, My Brother’s Keeper meets twice a month, focusing first on mentoring and then on hands-on IT and coding training for its 12 participants.
City Councilor Wes Bellamy, co-chairman of My Brother’s Keeper, said the program is designed specifically to keep black men from being left behind as the city strives to become a tech industry hub.
Without focused training, Bellamy said, job prospects are few.
“To be honest, the job prospects are not very good in the city. You see a lot of these guys working at desks at the University [of Virginia] or delivery driving, and there is nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But to live here in Charlottesville, you need a certain set of skills, or you continue to see the haves and have-nots.”
Changing career prospects for the city’s low-income residents sometimes means introducing lifelong residents to a community they did not know exists.
“If you look at how C’ville is trying to become a tech hub, not only do you want to change the trajectory of the city, you want to change the opportunities for some of the residents,” Bellamy said.
The men in the program get hands-on training and help from workers with WillowTree Apps and Scitent, as well as from people in other skilled trades such as plumbing, HVAC and electrical, said Hollie Lee, chief of workforce development strategies in Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development.
“The idea is to get people familiar with it and see what direction they want to go in, then get them training,” Lee said. “It is really very basic, just to get the foot in the door.”
When the six-month program, which is still considered a pilot, ends, Lee said, the city plans to expand it into another of the city’s Growing Opportunity programs to actually train and connect participants with low-level IT jobs.
So far, Hearns said, he has gotten at least a primer on web development.
“We have been playing around with coding for websites and how they are built up,” he said. “Just the basic blocks and what really goes into building a website.”
With the basic training out of the way, Bellamy said, he and his fellow mentors will keep pressure on both participants and employers.
“As individuals running BMA, we need to be staying on the guys in the program, making sure we are talking to them about upward mobility,” he said. “And then staying on a commitment from the employers, making sure they know we are looking at these guys to be moving upward.”