Cypress Mandela Training Center grooming Black trade workers for 3 decades

As a 'community response to a tragedy,' it was founded after the Loma Prieta Earthquake - and it's been changing lives ever since.

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Thursday, February 17, 2022
Cypress Mandela training next generation of Black trade workers
Creating bright futures from a dark moment in West Oakland's past, Cypress Mandela trains the next generation of Black trade workers.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- This Black History Month, ABC7 News is honoring people and organizations making an impact in the Black community in the Bay Area.

Born out of a dark moment in Oakland's past, the Cypress Mandela Training Center anchored in West Oakland is training up the next generation of Black and Brown trade workers.

If you want to make it at Cypress Mandela Training Center, you have to keep on your toes.

"I'm constantly barking orders," said Golden Scott.

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Scott has worked as an instructor at Cypress Mandela for the last two years.

"You don't get paid to stand. You get paid to do it," he shouted across a spacious area the training center uses to practice carpentry techniques.

Those orders are preparing the next wave of trade workers in Cypress Mandela's signature free 16-week program that comes with a stipend.

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Ask Scott, and he'll tell you times have changed when it comes to training future trade workers.

"I had woodshop class and a lot of other things growing up," said Scott. "I don't see that in the youth today."

For more than three decades Cypress Mandela Training Center has been working to change that, investing in free hands-on training for Black, formerly incarcerated, and otherwise disadvantaged workers.

"Being able to work with them, it's wonderful. When you see teenagers come in here who have never touched a hammer and they get up there and they start playing around. The next thing you know, something beautiful is happening," said Scott.

"I owe them everything," said 2022 Cypress Mandela graduate Chris Yang. "This being a free program - they've given me a lot. They've given me a future."

That future was born out of one of Oakland's darkest moments.

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Cypress Mandela was founded after the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1989.

Dozens were killed in Oakland when the magnitude 6.9 earthquake collapsed the Cypress Freeway.

The training center gained its purpose and its name from that event.

"It's a community response to a tragedy," said Eric Shanks, executive director of Cypress Mandela Training Center.

Mandela was incorporated in the training center's name to reflect the future--Mandela Parkway that would replaced the leveled Cypress Freeway.

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"The real issue came about when there were no qualified workers in West Oakland to work on heavy construction highways. So that's really the impetus of Cypress: to help produce qualified people," he said.

Since its founding in 1989 shortly after the earthquake, Cypress Mandela has graduated thousands of Black and Brown trade workers in the last three decades.

The goal is for people born and raised in the Bay Area, specifically Oakland, to be able make a livable wage and serve the communities they grew up in.

After at least 640 hours of hands-on instruction these workers accept jobs at East Bay MUD, BART, private construction companies, and, with additional training, take on roles at PG&E.

"It's a great opportunity for us to provide and give back to those communities that need a little help," said Alicia Bert, PG&E community relations manager.

The graduates of the program describe the skills they have gained as transformative.

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"I would not be as prepared to earn the role that I've earned with PG&E had I not spent the time at Cypress Mandela. But I also want to underscore I would not be as prepared in life," said Michael Orange, a 2020 graduate of the Cypress Mandela PG&E Power Pathways program.

Orange now works with the utility as an electric line assistant.

"Cypress Mandela is the pinnacle of transitioning into a professional workforce and providing all the necessary tools needed to be successful," said Mark DuBose, a 2018 graduate now working with PG&E in its field metering operations department.

January 2022 graduate Beatrice Andong would agree.

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"I was the only woman in the class," she said. "But they were also very supportive, welcoming, and helpful throughout the 16 weeks."

"I remember my first graduating class. I cried," said Scott. " It was really something. To see somebody go from one place to another."

Cypress Mandela is meeting each candidate where they are and helping them get to where they want to be.

"It's only four months. The things that you will gain will be life-changing," said Shanks.

Cypress Mandela Training Center accepts multiple cohorts each year. To apply visit the organization's website.