Planting a Future

The Philadelphia Citizen
By Jill Harkins

In 2015, Xia Frazier was 27, bouncing from a job at a fast food restaurant to a position as a cashier at Target to, finally, unemployment. An unskilled West Philadelphia resident, she was struggling to support herself and her two-year-old son on minimum wage or less.

While scrolling through social media on her phone, she came across an ad for a program that would dramatically alter her financial situation and, ultimately, her view of herself and her abilities: a landscaping course run by the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative that, if she met the requirements of the program, would guarantee her a job with Green City Works (GCW), a social venture landscaping nonprofit.

In March 2016, Frazier became one of the now 14 skilled employees of Green City Works, created and run by the University City District in West Philadelphia. She has since been promoted to supervise GCW’s contract at CHOP Roberts Center.

“Before I came here, I was scrambling to figure out where I was going to get money from to take care of my son,” Frazier says. “They offered me a full-time job, benefits, and a nice pay rate. I’m finally comfortable.”

Green City Works is a competitive design, build, and maintenance company just like any other. They created the Rain Garden at the University of the Sciences; maintain all plants at 30th Street Station—including those in the outdoor “Porch” space; and conduct stormwater infrastructure for the city at large. They have 35 clients in all; 90 percent of their work is done for external clients, while 10 percent is completed in-house for UCD.

“When you take talented people and provide them with good quality jobs, supports, and training and advancement opportunities, they are amazing,” says English. “That has been our philosophy and it has fueled the growth of this company.”

The company’s goal, though, is quite different from that of most landscaping companies. “The bottom line is jobs created, not necessarily profit,” says GCW Director Brian English.

Green City Works specifically recruits and hires those with barriers to employment. According to Alissa Weiss, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications for UCD, “We’re focused on removing barriers from people’s past that made it hard for them to thrive in their career, regardless of what those barriers may have been.”

This includes applicants with criminal records. One in six Philadelphians  are formerly incarcerated, and an estimated 92 percent of employers run criminal background checks on employees before hiring. This helps explain why 60 percent of all formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed a year after being released, and further contributes to recidivism, with 60 percent  of formerly incarcerated Philadelphians returning to prison within three years.

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