Loma Prieta earthquake gave birth to Cypress Mandela
By Lou Fancher
Out of horror comes hope.
The hard-to-believe phrase is made a reality every day at the Cypress Mandela Training Center, a free, no-nonsense 16-week construction industry boot camp operating out of a 25,000-square-foot industrial warehouse in West Oakland.
Founded in 1993 in response to the Loma Prieta earthquake, which collapsed the elevated portion of the Cypress Street Viaduct on Interstate 880 on Oct. 17, 1989, the program was designed to provide local, unemployed West Oakland residents with training in freeway repair.
In the late 1990s, the Women in Skilled Trades program, founded in 1987, joined Cypress, aiming to increase the participation of women in training for nontraditional occupations. Women, minorities and veterans over the age of 18 are encouraged to apply.
Approaching the 25th anniversary of the earthquake that also ruptured sections of the old Bay Bridge, set off massive fires in San Francisco's Marina district, and caused roughly $6 billion in damage, Cypress Mandela's program has expanded to include more green sector jobs, but its mission remains unchanged.
Cypress Mandela students attend classroom and hands-on courses in applied math, computer skills, alternative energy, environmental remediation, and cement, electrical, plumbing, welding, safety, CPR and other construction trade skills. In addition, the Monday to Friday, 7¿1/2 days include calisthenics and behavioral training that adds "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir" to students' vocabulary. Graduates of the rigorous program exit with certifications in areas of specialization, up to seven college credits from UC Berkeley, UC Davis or Laney College, and training leading to employment in a wide variety of construction trades.
Most important is what they leave behind -- their pasts -- and what they carry with them: a career defining their futures.
"Careers come with adequate medical care, pensions, real work that changes them into loving, caring, taxpaying citizens," Executive Director Art Shanks said in an interview. "They become people whose money goes back into their communities."
Most often, students arrive from communities crushed by poverty, illegal substance and sex trafficking, domestic violence, and other crimes. Shanks said he sees 18-year-old women with three children, 8-year-olds who are chemically dependent, young people with no skills or ambition, and an educational system that he said fails everyone and doesn't allow young people "to flower like they should."
It's poetic language for a man more often prone to blunt, truthful assessments.
"I want to stem the tide of African-Americans in prison," he said. "We once had Scouts, home, art, sports -- we gave it all away. These kids are socially deficient, even if they're technically intelligent." Inviting students with violence scarring their transcripts, he insists they must learn skills that save lives, not take lives.
Shanks is particularly proud of putting the first African-American woman -- a Cypress graduate -- on the tower cranes during the new Bay Bridge construction. "Women are the best workers. They succeed far more than men," he said. "They wind up foremen, earning $34 per hour over a male journeyman, who earns $28."
But even with men, Cypress Mandela's numbers hold up to scrutiny. With a waiting list of 300, each 16-week session accepts only 30-40 students. Boasting a roughly 80 percent job placement rate and 2 percent attrition, 1,449 men and 394 women have found employment during the program's 20-year history. With alumni who've worked on the Oakland Coliseum, Oracle Arena, Kaiser in Oakland and the new Bay Bridge -- and taking into account the impact on students and their families -- it's no exaggeration to say that thousands of people benefit from Cypress Mandela daily.
Alaina Gadson, 23, said she was getting into trouble before coming to Cypress.
"I was going to lose my freedom forever -- or my life," the San Leandro resident said. Asked if being a woman in the construction industry is an obstacle, she said, "I'm the only obstacle: it comes down to my inner self."
Douglas Butler, program manager-instructor, said careers reduce crime and giving students AIR -- accountability, integrity and responsibility -- inspires enthusiasm.
For Vince Martinez, a 24-year-old father of two with a child with disabilities, earning $15 an hour at three low-skill jobs while driving 100 miles between hospital and home was exhausting. He said Cypress Mandela promised a career, not a dead-end job.
"This program will give me skills to help my family long-term. I'm working to be an electrician with PG&E -- I'll take care of my girl," Martinez said.
Like Martinez, Dawn Taylor, 37, Oakland, is seeking a better life for her child.
"I wanted a change. A job is: Go to work every day. A career is a foundation," Taylor said. "I want to pass along what I'm learning to my daughter. Some people think construction's a man's job, but it's not. A woman can do anything she wants to do. If I'm motivated, I won't let anyone tell me what I can do."
Cypress Mandela is funded by federal grants, state funds, foundations and private support. Shanks said that after a six-year weak period in the construction market, industry tax incentives and a newfound respect for vocational-technical careers is making application numbers robust. He's hoping to see more veterans in the program and said prospective fuel refinery action by Chevron and Delta strip oil refineries and increasing green sector jobs will provide major opportunities.