Abiezer Mendez grew up just a subway ride away from Wall Street. The East Harlem housing project where he was raised, however, might as well have been on a different planet. The tall buildings, bustling taxi traffic and limitless economic opportunity of the global financial center downtown seemed out of reach to a neighborhood kid like Mendez. Then, at 14, he enrolled in Cristo Rey New York High School.
Cristo Rey requires all of its students to work one day each week in an office environment as part of its Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). “As a 14-year-old when I started, I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation with you right now,” Mendez admits in an interview. “I was shyer than most, quiet and introverted. I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I can remember feeling completely overwhelmed. Coming from a background of urban poverty and being thrown into corporate America, it’s a complete daze, or it was for me at first.”
This spring, Mendez will graduate from Fordham University and go to work at JP Morgan, a leading Wall Street firm. He’ll start his job with five years of in-house experience, thanks largely to the CWSP. His senior year, Mendez worked as a low-level administrative assistant at Morgan. The firm, in turn, paid a large part of his tuition at Cristo Rey. He later applied for and received a scholarship through JP Morgan to attend Fordham and continue working for the firm part-time and during summers.
Mendez overcame his initial shyness with support from his supervisors at the work-study jobs and from teachers and administrators at Cristo Rey. “Throughout the years, it became a slow build for developing the skills I needed,” Mendez says. “I became great at copying and filing, and I worked on my people skills as well. Without the skills I learned in the CWSP, I wouldn’t have the job offer I have at JP Morgan today.”
The Cristo Rey CWSP model was launched in Chicago in 1996 and has spread, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to 24 low-income urban neighborhoods across the country. The schools are financed largely by the contributions of the corporations who employ CWSP students. This year, each participating company donated $30,000 and received five student workers, one for each day of the week.
“It began mainly for financial reasons,” explains Father Joseph P. Parkes, S.J., the president of Cristo Rey New York and board chair of the nationwide Cristo Rey Network. “What we’ve discovered over the years is that it has a huge transformative effect on the kids. They become aware of the opportunities that are out there for them – that if you stay in school, you can be a doctor or a lawyer or what have you, and that these people really want them. They get a lot of nurturing.”
Parkes’s role is to create a meeting point between these two disparate worlds – corporate New York City and the poor, underserved neighborhoods that surround the economic center. Whether he’s talking to a struggling student or a potential corporate sponsor, his rhetoric always returns to responsibility.
“We teach them to be proactive,” Parkes says of the students. “Don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor. If you don’t understand the first time how to do it, ask again, they’re there to help you. It also gives them a sense that they’re invested in their education. It’s not something that’s just given to them; they have to work for it. They are working for it.”
From the participating sponsors, Parkes hears how they want to practice corporate responsibility and increase diversity in their workforce. “There are 75 more kids of color in corporate America every day because of us,” he explains. “And there are going to be more, because they’re going to hire our kids out of college.”
Most of all, Parkes stresses, the experience is beneficial for both sides. “The kids love going to work,” he says. “It’s a fun thing. They’re not in school; they’re treated like an adult. Some of this work is boring, so the companies have problems with temps; they’re bored out of their minds. Our kids are not bored; they’re excited to be there. We’ve had companies telling us that our kids put their employees to shame.”
Khadija Angrum, also from Harlem, is a 17-year-old senior at Cristo Rey. Her dream is to someday become a television anchorwoman. She goes to work one day each week at MultiVu, a media production company.
“She’s really into the work,” says Christiane Arbesu, Vice President of Production at MultiVu and Angrum’s CWSP supervisor. “She doesn’t want a shortcut. And in production, there really are no shortcuts. She’s learning those key lessons that can be applied to her life. We’re always telling her, what you put in is what you get out.”
For Angrum, it’s a thrill to have that responsibility. “The things I do at my job are necessary,” she says. “I have people who are counting on me to show up and get things done. I think it’s cool that I’m a necessary part of it.”
Her colleagues at MultiVu similarly enjoy helping a young person find her way in the competitive media job market. “Everyone shares their experiences with her, how they got into television,” Arbesu says.”Everyone has something they can share with her, whether they interned or worked for $10 a day. And that gives her confidence.”
“I was really good at checking out by ear what some of my coworkers thought were the best places to apply for college,” Angrum says. “They’re really interested in helping to make my dreams a reality. They’re really good about advice, not just about broadcasting, but life in general.”
Both Angrum and Arbesu compare the MultiVu work environment to a “family.” It’s a word often invoked in office culture, but it takes on added poignancy when the family is extended beyond the ordinary payroll to include poor kids from marginal neighborhoods that the average corporate employee might only ever see from the windows of a speeding train.
Imagine if corporations looked on the children playing in the shadows of their skyscrapers as family members, or if those same kids were invested with the confidence to see the well-dressed, moneyed men and women scurrying around downtown as potential mentors and friends. Cristo Rey offers a window on that possible world, Parkes says. It’s a world defined by dual responsibilities – to extend a hand to the less fortunate, and to succeed by working hard and playing by the rules. Or as Mendez, the soon-to-be Wall Street analyst, summarizes his experience in the corporate work-study program, “It’s taught me to put value in what I do, and it’s taught me to deliver.”
Mike Agresta is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. His work can be found in the Texas Observer, n+1, A Public Space, and Boston Review.