As the executive director at For Richmond, Kyra Worthy is a tireless advocate for the people of Richmond, a working-class community located north of Berkeley and just across the San Francisco Bay from tony Mill Valley.
Worthy’s job is to help the people of Richmond live up to their full potential through better education and better jobs. She helps students and parents navigate the tricky waters of education beyond high school by working with historically black colleges to send promising students to college summer programs and then to four-year programs. She makes sure that when companies promise jobs for the community, they deliver, and that residents are prepared to fill those jobs.
For Richmond helps lots of people, but Worthy says there is still more work to be done.
“To have this negative cloud over the city as if folks aren’t ready [to work] is really doing an injustice for folks who just sort of skip over Richmond,” says Worthy. “People try to make the answers for the community instead of engaging the community.” She’s working to turn that around.
Listen to “A Step Ahead”‘s full interview with Worthy below:
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A Step Ahead: Kyra Worthy
Hi everyone and welcome to this edition of The CALinnovates Podcast, this is Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates, and this time we’ve got…we’ve had a wonderful conversation with Kyra Worthy who’s the Executive Director of a community-based non-profit called For Richmond here in the East Bay in Richmond, California. At CALinnovates, as you know, we’re talking all the time about the fundamentals of the innovation and technology-based economy, and what are some of the gaps, what are some of the barriers to everyday people being able to participate in that economy.
Kyra does amazing work in a community that really exemplifies the kind of community that is in transition, but needs a lot of support and help to be able to participate. She’s got a really fascinating personal story and as you’ll hear, she’s doing remarkable work here in her part of the world, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Kyra Worthy, executive director of For Richmond, thanks for being with us.
Kyra Worthy: No problem.
It’s nice to be here in your beautiful offices in beautiful downtown Richmond.
Well thank you for coming!
It’s good to be here. So tell us about For Richmond. What do you all do?
We are here, the easiest way to say what For Richmond does for our community in Richmond is that we supplement services and support to the residents to be a bridge to community and to get them where they need to be to be socio-economically connected, to also build a bridge that could be self-sufficient, and that they can have the same opportunities as any other resident in the community and their neighbors.
So let’s break that down a little bit and we’ll talk about some of the specific programs that you’re doing, how you’re doing what you just said. But I want to talk about you though, for a minute, too. Where did you…how did you end up here? Are you from here?
Nope, I’m from San Jose.
Okay, so not too far.
Nope, not too far.
How did you end up at For Richmond?
After leaving the city and county of San Francisco at the mayor’s office, I started working at the school district here in Richmond. I worked in the Community Engagement Office at which time our current board member of the school district, Madeline Kronenberg, was one of the first influential folks to create For Richmond, and she plucked me from my job at the school district and I took on the job here at For Richmond.
What were you doing…what did community engagement in the school district…what did that mean?
So, I was in charge of half the schools in the school district, so I supervised about 15-16 schools and I engaged parents of color within their students’ academic success and also creating a line of community services and getting them help in that regard.
It could be employment, helping students’ success whether it was the right school they needed to be enrolled at, I also helped a lot of Spanish-speaking parents with getting their students out of…to get them classified into being proficient in English, to be able so that then when they get into high school, they’ll be able to take their A-G credits and graduate on time as opposed to being in English learning classes, which kept them sort-of behind the rest of their peers.
How big of a problem was that?
It’s a very big problem in Richmond.
I live in Walnut Creek, so you have to help educate folks like me that…I guess because I’m extremely fortunate, I don’t even…I haven’t had these types of experiences. You have to help me understand how many students are we talking about in the district…I don’t need the exact statistics but I’m just curious as to the landscape that existed and exists inside of the West County School District in terms of some of these fundamental barriers you’re talking about.
It’s 60% English learners in the…
60. Six zero.
Uh-huh. Six zero. In the school district. It’s a very big problem. A lot of parents don’t know what it means, they think that their kids are in classes just to help them with English, but it’s also…they’re not able to take, at the same time, the regular classes that they need to be on track to graduate. There’s a way to opt-out, there’s a way to test out, it’s called FEP and educating the parents on requesting that test so that their children can be just as successful as their neighbor.
Because otherwise what you’re saying is just trying to deal with the fundamental language barriers was preventing…just tackling that problem was fundamentally preventing these kids from participating…all the other A-G requirements that are necessary to get them out of high school and to whatever the next level might be for them?
Yes, and what would usually happen would be around after Christmas break, when the kids return, after the grading period, students would then be called to the office and we’d let them know there are different alternatives for getting across the stage, whether it’s just going to be their GED or to just get homeschooled because graduating a normal graduation with the cap and gown like you and I had wasn’t an option for them because they didn’t have all their credits.
So then that would cause a dropout.
Yeah. And so, I’m curious…how long were you there? How long were you at the school district?
2 1/2 years.
So long enough. How many of those kids, in your mind, again, I don’t need exact statistics, but just in your experience, how many of them were graduating and then going on in a post-secondary way into something that was on a career pathway?
And what are the other 90% doing?
Come to For Richmond now looking for work.
So let’s talk about that. So I guess that’s why…that is clearly part of how you got here.
It’s great that there was a leader in the school district that identified the good work that you were doing but I know there were others that saw that you could draw on your background to help really kind of build this program.
It was still in its early stages when you got here.
Oh, it was very, very…there were no blinds, there was no furniture in here. It was like a little vacant storefront.
The artwork in here is beautiful, by the way. Where’d it come from?
It came from NIAD.
It’s a facility to help adults with disabilities and they create art. All of these photos are done by African-American artists at their facility.
I made the request.
It’s beautiful, that’s really great. How do people find that, by the way. That would be interesting to know, if they could find that…
It’s right here off of Nevin in Richmond.
How do you spell NIAD?
Okay, cool. Very cool. What did you think you were getting hired to do here?
Well at first I got hired just to be the educational convener, just supporting and pushing different support services into the schools, which I really enjoyed. About a year and a half later, I was asked to be the interim ED and I did that for about six months, and then I interviewed to get the job and I was gratefully…I gratefully accepted and I’ve been here ever since.
And in those interviews you obviously must have brought to them a vision of what you thought For Richmond could and should be, I assume. What was that?
One of the main things is being honest and being understanding of the community. Recognizing that we all come from different spectrums. I come all the way from San Jose, you know. It’s night and day between San Jose and Richmond. And also just being trustworthy with the community, letting them know you know everything is not perfect but you can do your best to try to help them get to where they need to be. And it took a lot of trust. I came to Richmond with a lot of trust and so people were happy to see that I was still around. And centrally located on McDonald, one of the busiest streets in Richmond. I love my job, there’s never the same day, ever. I’ve never had the same day twice.
So tell us about, then, you’ve said it in your introduction but let’s dive into it a little bit of more…the actual programs. What are some of the key programs or activities that you perform here? People come and engage at For Richmond, what are you helping them with?
I think that the main programs that people really reach out to us for is our barrier-removal program and our educational services because we help kids get off to college. Primarily we work with all the historically black colleges, HBCUs, around the world, but it’s also an opportunity for the undocumented population in Richmond to get involved in a post-secondary education as well because a lot of schools outside of California aren’t concerned about your status. And I’m able to help them get to a zero balance with full scholarships, and that’s for all students that put that package together. We send the kids away in groups, we don’t send just one. They’re either going in twos or fours, boys they all go with one group. That’s fine. We want them to have a sense of community when they go. One of the other special caveats is that I don’t send kids far away from my personal family so that there’s places the kids can go to still have that sense of family.
Hmm. You have that much family at all these different schools around the world?
Yes, my mother has 19 brothers and sisters.
You know, yeah. There’s many cousins after that.
Many extended family.
I guess so.
So there’s always someone not so far away.
And when talking with the parents, I do give them the choices of those schools of where they’re going to be near somebody.
That’s really interesting.
So the kids go in a group, a small group or what have you…
…they go and visit one of these historically black colleges…
…how long do they go for and what do they do when they’re there?
During the summer programs, a program can last anywhere from 3-8 weeks. So the Howard University program, that lasts eight weeks, so that’s more of a medical-focused biology program for folks that are interested in medicine. So of course that program is going to be a little bit longer. So they take college courses, they take an English, a science, and a math. They get all their assessments done. And they return. So usually I send kids their junior year and their senior year. Their senior year, they’re going to be going to the summer program to where they’re going to be attending school in the fall. So we already know after your 11th grade year where you’re going to be going to school.
So we sort of get all that stuff knocked out.
That’s really great. How interesting. And then the cost of all that, that’s underwritten by For Richmond and other donations?
Because that sounds like…
Mm-hmm. And the school itself.
And the school itself.
Because we keep sending them students.
Okay. That’s fantastic. So that’s great, so a big part of your job then is not only identifying these kids and getting them engaged in a program and preparing them, but I guess also managing all those engagements with all those colleges at the same time?
Yeah. And we manage their courses.
We choose their classes.
Wow. That’s really, really great.
How many kids have gone through this program since you’ve…
Wow! That’s really fantastic. And you’re capturing their stories.
All those things.
Everything. Capturing the suspensions, academic probations, we capture it all.
I could imagine. The first thing you said was barrier removal, too.
Which I think is different than education…
…so tell me about what that means.
So it’s a job barrier removal program, and how I came to this program was, when I first started with For Richmond, it was around the time where Chevron was preparing for their modernization project, trying to get the city council’s approval. It came out when they said they were going to have about 2500-2600 jobs for the community. And for someone who applies for jobs and there are certain things you’ve got to meet, you’ve got to be qualified for those positions.
Right? And in a community like Richmond, there’s a lot of different barriers. There’s drug addiction, there are those who’ve never had employment before, experience is low, they don’t know how to obtain or sustain employment, and I asked, what things are in place to assist people with obtaining their positions? They said, “We never really thought about that.”
And I was very concerned because if you’re soliciting to the community, saying that these jobs are for you in the community, who is preparing them and how are you getting them prepared? So that’s something I started working on with the community. So I worked with all the trades doing small, open-houses where questions and answers can go back and forth for folks to get a deeper understanding about what it meant to be in a trade. What it took to get into the trade. What tests had to be taken? I was also able to convince the trade to let them take the test here at For Richmond. So we did the tutoring and prepping and the testing right at For Richmond. So it was a comfortable place, they were used to coming here, they didn’t have to go away to Concord or Martinez or anywhere far. And they worked with the instructor who’s from Richmond to help them get through those steps.
And so to date I’ve placed over 1,000 at the refinery for work. To actually bring truth to what was being advertised to them. Last week I sent 80 laborers out there and just today I sent another 40. There’s folks in Richmond that do want to work. I’ve had people tell me that no one in Richmond wants to work, no one in Richmond wants to go to school, they’re just here, they don’t want to do nothing, and I take a lot of offense when people are describing the community because they’re using words like “they.”
Community has names, you can say the community.
You don’t have to represent it. A lot of the community looks like me, so I take personal offense myself. I have a brother with many barriers. I know how hard of a track it is for even someone that’s my own sibling to make it to where my sister and I have been able to make it.
I hear you. You’re talking about, we’re here in Richmond, CA. The Chevron-Richmond refinery, a major industrial facility, has been in this community for 100 years I suppose.
It’s been a significant employer, and you’re talking about just trying to go through a process of capturing local workers, youth or people of all ages, really.
People that just need jobs and are willing to work, but just trying to create that connection and get their skills, training, get their confidence, get them proficient to be able to pursue local jobs right here in the community and that’s a process unto itself. Where I’m going with this is that…I’m trying to imagine but what I want to ask is what’s that like then, to try to get people prepared for jobs that aren’t even right here locally?
How I’ve explained to the community, a job is a job.
You just, you take it if you meet the qualifications. So it took a lot of one-on-ones and trust to say, okay, For Richmond and the staff that work at 3109 McDonald are really here to help us. All of us live in Richmond. I’m the only non-Richmond native on staff. And all of my staff are under 30. So these are folks they’ve known and grown up with that are trying to help.
Wait a minute, you’re saying there’s millennials that are trying to do things that are constructive?
That’s right. Only at For Richmond!
I don’t know about only, but at least those are good examples, right?
Yes. And so one of the bigger things of that, Richmond has a local-hire ordinance. A lot of people weren’t following it. So when I brought it to people’s attention, I said, “You have to be able to fill this gap and not use the excuse as of, people aren’t ready.”
Yeah. I hear you. The intensity and the real authenticity of what you’re doing locally seems like it’s critically important just to make things happen right here in the community. At CALinnovates, when we talked about this before we sat down, we’re thinking about the global innovation and technology economy all the time and how things are changing so dramatically.
It makes me anxious, it makes me worried about the fact that that economy seems to be moving at breakneck speed in a certain global direction and what does that mean to people that live in communities like this one? What is your feeling about perhaps this disconnect or this widening gap that may be between where the economy’s really going and where people really live in towns like this?
I think it is very much a disconnect, and opportunities are being missed by not engaging communities like Richmond. It’s rich in a lot of different ways. I think that folks need to be given an opportunity and shared information to see where they fall, just like you do in any other community. Right? You’re not going to engage everybody, but you will engage some. To have this negative little cloud over the city as if folks aren’t prepared and ready, is really doing an injustice for folks in office who just skip over Richmond. I think that, and I always tell people this, one day Richmond, the residents of Richmond, are going to be so upset it’s going to be a little revolt. “Stop skipping over us, don’t build over us, don’t include us, don’t ask us…” People try to make the answers for the community instead of engaging the community.
It is an interesting thing, where as we are having this conversation we’re about three weeks away from the presidential campaign and it seems like it’s something that that campaign is exposing nationally. You have a lot people that are supporting both candidates for different reasons, I suppose, but you have a lot of people out there that clearly are expressing their frustration, their fears, the fact that they feel like their community is being skipped over as well. You’re having your own experience but it definitely seems like this is a challenge that’s very widespread, and it’s not just here, is it?
No. It’s not just here. It’s predominately in cities where opportunity is not being given to them.
Folks sort of feel like, “I’m not just missing the boat, the boat is not even coming near me.” I’m like waving at the boat, I’ve got to swim to the boat.” I think it’s an unfortunate feeling for a city like Richmond which is such a working class community.
I think that going to college is great. I went to plenty of college, but I don’t think that college is for everybody, and I think that until people get used to saying that, it will continue to be this way.
And even if it isn’t, our view of a four-year university…we have, clearly, in our lifetime…and I think people for really good reasons…because people that are our parents’ age, that was a critically important thing, to give people of color, people of all stripes, opportunities to go to college, because that had been shut out for people…
…in previous generations, so folks worked really hard to create and set an expectation that that four-year degree is something that is attainable and something that we should all strive for. But it is interesting how it feels like that is coming back around and if we’re too narrowly focused on what that means, we maybe leaving people out all together.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Definitely. I think like the community in Richmond, there’s a lot of different age groups here, right? There’s generations and generations of families. I always tell young people, “Go back and speak to your elders about what it was like growing up.” My mother, my grandfather was a slave, my mother was not given the opportunity to go to school until she was in 9th grade. So the woman who she worked for, the white woman who she worked for, educated her after she got done doing her work when her kids came home from school. My father, he grew up in the East Coast, came from much more, was given an opportunity to go to Bronx Science and NYU, had a different sort of experience as a young person, but as a kid hearing both of these stories all the time, it really helped me understand what I wanted to do for my own life. Right? Because I was able to see that you can make it with not being afforded much, my grandfather had 19 kids to take care of, and my dad just had himself and a set of twins and they were all very, very successful.
But to hear those types of experiences about how they grew up and what school meant to either of them was very important. And to actually meet the woman that my mother did work for and her explaining to me why she felt my mother needed to learn was also…I never would think anybody would ever take the time to explain to her child why that was.
Clearly it takes people that are committed and people that are thinking about their own experiences but wanting to share what they have and make a positive impact in the communities that they serve. I think that will always matter. As we sort of wind up our conversation, I’m wondering also about technology.
I’m wondering at the Chevron-Richmond refinery that we’ve been talking about, a tremendous amount of technology, engineering is basically the foundation of what a company like that is. Given your experience at For Richmond and in schools in the West County District before, how do you feel about how we’re preparing youngsters in terms of equipping them to participate in what clearly is a much-more technology-driven economy moving forward?
They’re not coming out prepared.
Even some of the entry-level admin positions at the refinery need to have a technology knowledge. They have to have it. And right now going in, there’s a lot of on the job training that folks have to do with the companies because, number one, they’re committed to who I send to them being local residents, but also, they recognize that there is that gap. So I don’t know to get that done or bridge that gap, but technology is very important. As much emphasis and time young people, or we all, take just answering emails or sending a text, there needs to more on the technical side of creating spreadsheets, understanding the formulas, knowing which programs are used to do what, and it is very important because from there automatically you want to learn more.
But once you get folks interested in learning those things, those components of what it’s going to take to get for them to get their job to the next level, it will be beneficial for everybody, not only the employer.
Do you see technology becoming a bigger part of what you do here at For Richmond?
It is, because before I…I do all the pre-screening for the employers. Me personally. So depending on the job, I need you to show me what you know how to do. So I’ll say, “okay, log on the computer, do this, make this spreadsheet, I need to see a payroll something,” and sometimes people will just look at me. So I say, “okay, we need to get those skills.” Because when you get there, these are construction people…I’ve placed people at veterinary hospitals, answering phones someplace, just being able to take a message. I think people take all these little things that we do in our day-to-day life for granted.
And you see some of these youngsters that are working for you here now, are they pushing you? Not that you’re much older than them, but are you…
…I know if I was working here, I know they probably would be pushing me. But is that part of the culture or part of the experience?
Yes. I have to ask them … Everyone knows I don’t like social media, you can’t find me anywhere until I came to For Richmond and had to write all these things, but I ask them, “What do you guys do? What does this mean?” And that’s what we try to implement. Because I tried to get on a Facebook page one time and I erased everything and they were like, “You can’t touch it anymore.” And I was like, “That’s fine.” Because it was all gone. I didn’t know what happened.
Last question, which is what are you most proud of in, now, the couple of years that you’ve been here? The vision that you started with and the things that you’ve been able to accomplish, what stands out to you?
I think from receiving our money from Chevron and the community seeing us as an independent entity. And not a façade or some fake face or, I’m not their puppet or anything like that. I really take pride in that. I always tell people my name is not Chevron, my name is Kyra. And I have a mind of my own. That’s just how it is.
What about in terms of a student that you’ve reached or a story that you can think of of someone that, just through the course of their interaction with you, that stands out to somebody … A life that you’ve been able to impact.
Oh, this last student I just took was Latayna. That was the hardest rock ever to move. Ever.
Tell us about it.
I think that when you’re going to a school where all you hear is your teachers saying negative things about your community all the time…she was very aggressive, fighting…she’s a very good fighter.
It was just really hard…I personally took her to school. I personally dropped her off and told her, “Okay, this is it. No one’s here to bail you out. You are far away in a whole other state where it’s either you make it or break it. I bought you a one-way ticket. So here’s all your stuff.” We helped her with her room and that was it. I seen her a couple of weeks ago, she just finished her midterms and she got all As.
This is a girl that sort of turned it around her 11th grade year and just blew it out of the water. I don’t know what she was doing back in 10th grade. But 11th grade she really turned it around, and that was a good thing. So I’m happy for her.
That’s really great. Well listen, Kyra Worthy, you are clearly that example of what I was talking about a minute ago, where it’s going to take in communities like this one, and there’s so many of them, industrial communities, urban communities where the economy in many ways had moved away from folks, and there’s still real challenges, and the only way that we’re going to bridge those gaps is some combination of authentic community engagement, a recognition of the past…
…but looking to the future. It’s clear that you’re the kind of person that’s making that happen here.
You were telling me a story, I’d love if you’d repeat it on air here, that you took a field trip to Google recently, is that right?
Yes, we took a field trip…
What was that about?
…we took the Richmond Steelers, the whole team about 100 cheer and football…
…kids. They’re all from the south side of Richmond, and we took them to see something else other than what’s been going on in their community as of late. And so we took them on a field trip to Google and to Stanford. We had lunch and toured the kids around. One of the things that the kids were so shocked to see was that there were actually a group of African-American employees there.
And they said, “Kyra, black people work here, too!” And I said, “Black people are everywhere! Stop saying that out loud!” It’s just to get the kids out more, and their parents too, to see that young people that are, or their older siblings are, aunts and uncles ages are working in places like Google that you see everyday. I was very grateful that they were able to take them around, they explained their jobs and talked about where they came from and how they got there, but it is indicative to be able to show kids in communities like ours who aren’t really exposed to as much that we have been afforded to, that it is possible. Just being on it everyday and also encouraging their parents and encouraging the kids because at times when you’re going through hard times or when you feel that you are less than, it is very important to have that light at the end of the tunnel. Working with folks to ensure that they know that there is hope and that they, too, can do it is really important here.
No kidding. We’re really glad that you joined us. Thanks for being part of our program. We appreciate it.