Investment program puts Latino and Black youths from the South and West sides on a path to job security – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Every day, right before the sun sets, Marilyn Ulloa makes her way to her job as a commercial truck driver in the Chicago area; it’s an unusual career path for a young woman, but one that has been rewarding, she said.

At 22, Ulloa was inspired to obtain a commercial driver’s license through a program funded by PREP — the Pathways to Readiness and Empowerment Program by PepsiCo — which embodies the company’s commitment to investing more than $5 million in community organizations to motivate young people from Chicago’s South and West sides and finance a path for them to enter different careers by 2026.

For Ulloa, who thought that only men could thrive in the trucking industry, the opportunity has been a blessing, she said. Shortly after getting her CDL, the Cicero resident got hired as a driver at PepsiCo’s 35th Street distribution center in October. One day, she said, she hopes to have her own trucking company.

“After I graduated high school, I wasn’t sure what path to take and I figured I could try something new,” said Ulloa, who added that she passed the test to get her Class A license, or universal commercial driver’s license, on the first try. “It was challenging at first, but I’ve learned a lot. I’m very grateful.”

Thanks to a career fair in the summer funded by PREP, Ulloa found her passion and a job that has allowed her to help her family, she said.

Though higher education is important and resources are needed to encourage and help get Latino and Black youths on a path to a college degree, for many, entering the trades or finding a different avenue to secure a good job is imperative and an “equal path to success,” said Quabeeny Daniels, a community organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, a nonprofit that aims to advance racial equity and economic justice.

SWOP was one of 15 community-based organizations and nonprofits in Chicago that received funding from PREP, along with City Colleges of Chicago.

South Side resident Briana Brewer, 23, was one of the recipients of PREP’s Uplift Scholars Program, which gave her an internship with the company and a grant to pay for her education at Olive Harvey College.

Brewer said she was passionate about acquiring work experience to stand out to employers and get on a career path to improve her quality of life.

Youths in the South and West sides are “underprivileged and do not always get recognized. There are few opportunities and chances given to us, but PepsiCo hasn’t ignored us,” Brewer said.

Daniels said it is important for large companies like PepsiCo to invest in the communities that remain loyal to them.

In recent years, big corporations have left Chicago, some seeking areas where they can have cheaper operations or moving out of neighborhoods on the South and West sides because of violence, said Armando Saleh, PepsiCo’s director of government affairs. But, he said, PepsiCo continues to have a significant workforce in the Chicago area with a beverage development and delivery facility on the South Side and regional headquarters and other business units.

“We wanted to create an intentional strategy where we directed our attention to areas where there is chronic disinvestment and where we could really make a difference,” Saleh said.

The Southwest Organizing Project aims to advance racial equity and economic justice through different initiatives and programs. It has used a $75,000 grant from PepsiCo to expand its credentialing resources over the last year, helping at least 24 young people from the neighborhoods SWOP serves to enroll in programs at Richard J. Daley College and connecting others to workforce resources and job placement services.

That investment can encourage youths — many in high-risk areas — to divert their free time into opportunities rather than street violence, Daniels said. For others, the job-readiness programs provide hope for youths and their families, many from low-income households.

“I see day in and day out how our people of color are pushed solely into minimum wage jobs — which there is nothing wrong with that — but we should motivate the youth into places where they can grow and develop to take care of their families,” said Daniels, who is a career adviser and coach to young adults, connecting them to programs that get them into livable-wage jobs.

Many of the young people he works with are first-generation immigrants who have a dream of attending college, he said. But first they need more financial security, Daniels said, and the job readiness programs through PREP allow them to have that.

The Southwest Organizing Project serves mostly Latino immigrant families, estimated to make up more than 70% of the community it serves — including Chicago Lawn, Gage Park, West Lawn, West Elsdon and Ashburn — followed by African Americans, according to data from DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies. And more than 70% of the households in that community area have an income below $50,000, which is less than the Chicago-area median income of $93,000, the data shows.

Marilyn Ulloa opens the back of her truck at the PepsiCo distribution center in Chicago.
Marilyn Ulloa walks toward the loading dock on Jan. 26, 2023, at the PepsiCo distribution center in Chicago.

Since the launch of the PREP program in October 2021, more than $400,000 in scholarships have been awarded to Black and Latino youth through the partnership with City Colleges of Chicago. Several PREP program participants, including Ulloa, have gained full-time employment with the company. A total of $1.2 million of the $5 million pledged has been invested so far in workforce and career programs that reached more than 3,000 youths, according to a statement from the company.

The corporation announced that its next round of grants will total nearly $300,000, which will be distributed to the groups Imagine Englewood If, Girls in the Game, UCAN, Chicago Cares, Southwest Organizing Project, Chicago Jesuit Academy and Ladies of Virtue.

“There’s nothing like the energy, ingenuity and resilience of young people from South and West Side communities,” said Brittany Wilson, PepsiCo’s Chicago community relations manager. “They inspired us at PepsiCo to focus our efforts on making career resources more available for Black and Hispanic youth and provide meaningful workforce readiness support.”

Ulloa said that she feels proud to be a minority in her industry, driving a truck and doing a job that many once questioned. She hopes that other youths can seek opportunities through the various programs offered in the city of Chicago and see past the traditional pathways to a career.

“I’m excited for what the future holds,” she said.

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