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Conservation Corps: Work for the Mind, Too

January 20, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The word of the week was destiny.

"The 49ers had a destiny to win," said Sam Wilson, 21, writing the word in huge block letters so fellow members of the San Francisco Conservation Corps could read it on the blackboard at the corps' Ft. Mason headquarters. "But did they win?"

Other corps members wrote the word in their native language: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Samoan. As they piled into vans bound for 10 work sites around the city, their conversation focused on the theme of the week's reading, "Who/What Controls Your Destiny?"

Death and Destiny

By the morning work break, the 95 uniformed corps members, 18 to 26 years old, paused from bus graffiti removal, playground construction, installation of irrigation systems and other muscle-expanding endeavors to contemplate "Appointment in Samarra," the Somerset Maugham epigraph on death and destiny in the John O'Hara novel of the same name.

At the Hunters Point Boys Club, the nine-person work crew immediately plunged into an animated discussion.

"You can't run away from your fate," said Tony Biancalana, 22. "It's going to happen one way or another."

"My destiny?" said former Mission District gang leader Jesus Guerrero, 18. "I can shape it into what I want it to be. But like I say, if I get hit by a car, there's nothing I can do about it."

Across town, there was confusion and an uncomfortable silence as crew members read the passage sentence by sentence at the MUNI bus site. Finally, work supervisor Lonnie Ford used the stentorian tones of his actor's training to break the silence that followed the reading.

"I'd like to ask a question," he announced. "Does anybody know what this means?"

Puzzlement, reflection, inquisitiveness, rank boredom: The diverse reactions were exactly what corps director Robert J. Burkhardt Jr. had in mind when he began 1988 by adding the reading segment to the 5-year-old program designed to provide work skills for a population known euphemistically as "youth at risk." At least 50% of those enrolled in the corps program are high school dropouts; many are immigrants who speak no English.

The Reasons Behind Them

"Some are here because they want to plant trees," Burkhardt said, "some because their grandmother threw them out of the house, some because they're dodging the law. They didn't come here to be educated."

But Burkhardt, who as deputy director of the California Conservations Corps instituted a mandatory writing unit in that manual labor program, was adamant that "we're not just working the biceps here, it's the cerebral muscles as well."

Education, Burkhardt said, need not be stagnant or classroom-bound. On the contrary, he said, integrating readings from Brecht, Thoreau, Emerson, African folk tales, the Bible, wherever to illustrate such concepts as "What is correct behavior?" "What is racism?" "What is truth" or "How do you handle fear" into the workplace affords a "liberating form of education."

"It only has to take 10 minutes a day," Burkhardt said of the "Socratic to the extreme" readings and discussions he incorporates into daily work breaks. "I think it's a kind of worker education that can be used all over.

Looking at Production

"My contention is that this will increase productivity."

Work, Burkhardt said, will increase and improve in proportion to "the unity that this kind of group effort builds, as these co-workers come to trust each other more, as they become co-inquirers into the world."

Atop a windy work site in the city's heavily minority Hunters Point district, for example, the reading swiftly evolved into an elegy to corps member Angel Orellana, a 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, who died Christmas Eve.

"We don't know if we're going to die of cancer tomorrow, and there's nothing we can do about it," Tony Biancalana said after he had read the Maugham passage aloud.

"But there are some things we can do to speed it: drugs and alcohol, for instance," work supervisor Ginny Jordan said.

"I'm just wondering," Jordan said, "did anyone think to say, 'Hey, Angel, I really like you,' while he was still alive?"

She looked around at the crew that was taking time out from installing a fence and building a walkway and patio at the local boys' club that would withstand heavy rains.

"It's something we can all do, you know," she said, "We can say to each other, 'Gee, you're doing a great job.' You can say it to each other. It doesn't just have to come from a supervisor."

Later, as her crew grabbed heavy equipment and returned to their work stations, Jordan said that the new reading component had received mixed responses from corps members. Many were wary enough of the required journal-writing that Burkhardt demanded the last time he threw in an educational monkey wrench. Now, Jordan said, they were being asked to include the word of the week and their reactions to the reading of the week in their journal entries as well.

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