“Mr. J” Helps Youths Expand Their Possibilities

by Justin Pye

Alameda County’s Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP) works to ensure that the oldest wards of child welfare aren’t left out of care.

“Most kids would come into care and live their whole life there until emancipation,” said Robert “Mr. J” Jemerson, the center’s life skills teacher and a child welfare advocate of 25 years. “When they get out, they don’t have any life skills.”

The program focuses on youth aged 16 to 21 and is broken into modules that address everything from professional development to health services. The program’s goal is to graduate young adults who are well-prepared for successful independent life. Everything from balancing a checkbook, to obtaining medical records, and home management fall under the program’s training objectives.

Last month, ILSP graduated 92 students and gave away $19,000 in scholarships divided among the youth going on to post-secondary education.

Jemerson’s courses teach students valuable lessons while participating in certain rites of passage, like getting a driver’s license. He says these elements are critical in endowing youth with a sense of normalcy, “We must find out what they are missing and add to that,” he said.

One thing Jemerson says many youth are missing is the ability to code-switch, or navigate professional society while retaining their identity. He says he wants his students to be “bi-cultural,” meaning he doesn’t want to rid them of their “street culture.”

Learning how to look the part is a hurdle ILSP addresses by taking the youth to purchase professional attire. Jemerson said many of the young men had never worn a suit before he took them to K&G.

This is a likely a lesson best taught by someone who has experience adapting to a new world.  Originally from Mississippi, Jemerson pursued a law degree and decided to have a career in service. He believes respect is the key to reaching youth and is resolute in teaching this lesson.

“If you come in and show them absolute respect and show them what they can get and benefit from what you have to give them, everything then turns around,” Jemerson said.

Justin Pye is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and Journalism for Social Change summer fellow.

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