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Conversation With Jeanetta Johnson : Working Tough Streets, 'Treat Everyone With Respect' : Telephone service technicians are among the ranks of workers who venture into high-crime neighborhoods each day on their jobs. Trin Yarborough talked with Jeanetta Johnson, a technician who is also a member of a special Pacific Bell community relations team that trains other phone company employees to avoid tense situations. Since the team's inception in 1992, the annual number of violent incidents involving Pac Bell workers has dropped from 32 to two so far this year.

August 01, 1994

Question: What are some of the things the community relations team does?

Answer: We go into the rougher neighborhoods and meet with grass-roots organizations. Most of the people in these neighborhoods are good hard-working people, just doing their best to survive like everyone else. We want people to know we are phone company employees, not police. We demonstrate phone equipment at schools and block parties and are part of a group that gives out decorated trees at Christmas.

Q: What problems have you encountered?

A: We've stepped over dead bodies. We've hooked up phones in drug houses. And we see a lot of poverty: big holes in the floor with rats coming up, kids who haven't had a bath in weeks and have no food in the house, older people lying in filth with no one to care for them. I've had guns and knives pulled on me, had mentally disturbed people confront me.

Sometimes people just want a sounding board, so they yell and scream and I sit and take it. They talk to me about something that has nothing to do with phones--like they can't find a job or their son is on drugs and they don't know what to do. Sometimes I'm able to put them in touch with a solution.

Q: How has all this affected you?

A: When I first started working in high-crime neighborhoods, it was scary. For three years, if a person was anything other than what I thought they should be, I wouldn't shake their hand or look at them. But something happened that made me see that people are people, and I realized it was time to make changes in myself.

Q: What happened?

A: One day I went into a fast-food place, ordered lunch and realized I didn't have any money with me. I was real embarrassed and was going to leave. Then this real bummy-looking guy over in a corner, a raggedy guy in his '30s, African American like I am, said: "Don't worry, I'll pay." Well, I was wondering what he really wanted from me, but he insisted. It stayed on my mind because I knew that money was probably all he had. I did see him again and paid him back. He was soft-spoken, with an amazing intellect. He changed me.

Q: Have you changed in other ways?

A: You come to truly appreciate what you have. Once I really wanted this pair of glasses with special trim and couldn't afford them. Then I went to a house where a lady could hardly see and couldn't afford any glasses at all.

Q: What else do you teach other employees?

A: We teach about the different gang colors: Once the company gave out some folders in a school, and the kids had to leave them there because they were the color of a rival gang. We teach them never to stand in front of a door when they knock as someone inside could shoot through it. Those kinds of things.

We also teach them to treat everyone with respect. Always let people see your eyes. Always say hello and talk to people in a courteous, respectful way. When you go in someone's house, act as if it's your house, and no matter what you see, do your best work. And never go out on your job with an attitude.

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