Cedric Wouldfolk’s life changed the day he got the call.
“I looked down and saw my son’s name pop up. He never calls me at work unless he wants money. I’m like, ‘What do you want, Dimitri?’ His girlfriends says, ‘Dimitri’s been shot.’ My first words were, ‘Is he dead?’ ” said Wouldfolk, 52, a lifelong resident of the West Side Austin neighborhood, and a veteran premise technician at AT&T. His son survived.
Wouldfolk and other AT&T employees living in the inner city are the inspiration behind Believe Chicago, a new initiative by the telecommunications giant tackling gun violence and unemployment in 19 neighborhoods — home to 28 percent of Chicago’s population and 72 percent of homicides in 2017.
Those employees, who know firsthand the poverty and gun violence plaguing some South and West Side communities, helped create the initiative, said Paul La Schiazza, president of AT&T Illinois and AT&T’s North Central region.
With a website launched on Sept. 25, Believe Chicago initially has focused on jobs — more than 400 residents of targeted neighborhoods were hired at AT&T stores and at the new Chicago Platinum Call Center opened in March — as well as employee volunteerism and neighborhood investment.
“These are very challenging times. At AT&T, we believe in Chicago, and we are going to help,” said La Schiazza.
Believe Chicago will serve as a template for launch of similar initiatives, in other urban areas nationwide, La Schiazza said.
AT&T declined to divulge total spending, but aside from the jobs, it’s invested $2 million in nonprofits serving those neighborhoods, like Heartland Alliance, North Lawndale Employment Network, St. Sabina Employment Resource Center, UCAN and Skills for Chicagoland’s Futures.
Employees have ramped up volunteer efforts — from participating in anti-violence events, to beautifying Burke Elementary and Bowen High School, and helping out at nonprofits like Marillac St. Vincent Family Services and Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.
The website hosts an AT&T Learn portal providing basic courses in skills like resume crafting, and basic training for entry-level or in-demand jobs.
Targeted neighborhoods are: Austin, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, West Englewood, Englewood, Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, South Lawndale, New City, Lower West Side, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, Auburn Gresham, Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Washington Park, South Shore and South Chicago.
Caitlin Capporelli, 30, a lifelong resident of South Chicago, was unemployed when hired as a customer service rep at the new call center, AT&T’s most advanced nationwide, and was recently promoted to manager.
“In all the jobs I’ve ever worked, no one’s ever seen me as management material,” said Capporelli, who after high school worked at Jewel-Osco, Horseshoe Casino, then Macy’s, before being downsized.
“This job has changed my life,” she said.
Believe Chicago is working to assess and address potential workforce barriers in those 19 communities.
“These are good jobs that pay well and offer good benefits. But our success won’t be measured by how many people we place in these jobs,” La Schiazza said. “We want them to succeed in these jobs … to help these neighborhoods for the long term.”
The focus eventually will expand to technology and public safety in the 19 communities, La Schiazza said. Government, civic, faith-based and philanthropic leaders, along with AT&T employees in those neighborhoods, weighed in on creating the framework.
“When I got to the hospital, the police said my son was in a gang. They said, ‘You see that gang tattoo?’ I was shocked,” Wouldfolk said.
“My son said to me, ‘I had to join in order to walk the streets. When you’re out here by yourself, they punk you.’ Of course, you feel that you failed as a parent,” said the husband and father of three.
“But they say, ‘Instead of cursing the dark, light a candle.’ And it lit a fire beneath me. My son’s out of that life now. He goes to work and comes home, and I’m very mindful. I started talking to the young guys on the streets, mentoring them, trying to help them get jobs. I volunteer with a nonprofit. I march at anti-violence protests, like the one on the Dan Ryan.”
To reach more youth in those communities, AT&T joined the city’s One Summer Chicago job program this summer, offering 20 internships, then hiring several of the interns afterward. And it’s partnered with Christ the King High School in Austin in a teen work-study program this school year, said AT&T Vice President of External Affairs Eileen Mitchell.
The company also is using its entertainment platform to change the narrative about those communities. Thirty students from local high schools are working on Believe Chicago’s “Beacons of Hope” project. Their documentary profiling nine such individuals will be unveiled on Oct. 25 at an evening event at AT&T’s 600 N. Michigan Ave. store.
“There are so many good people making a difference in these neighborhoods, and it’s been really beautiful to see the students use their voice to tell those stories,” Mitchell said.