Congressman Rangel speaks to reconnected youth

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What does an octogenarian who has served in the House of Representatives for two generations have in common with South Bronx youth who were disconnected from education, skills training, and employment opportunities prior to coming to BronxWorks?  A whole lot more than you’d think!

That was made apparent when Congressman Charles B. Rangel, one of the deans of Harlem politics, met with young people enrolled in “second chance” programs in operation at the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center at 1130 Grand Concourse.  Rangel, whose district has been redrawn to include portions of the Bronx, shared some of his youthful experiences with an audience of about 70 on the morning of April 23rd.

Congressman Rangel with Excel Program Director Shalima McCants (left) and Excel Instructor Juanita Webster

The son of a Puerto Rican father and an African American mother, Rangel was born in New York City during the Great Depression.  He became an adolescent as World War II was ending and the Cold War was beginning.  Opportunities for young men of color were largely limited to jobs in the Post Office or as railroad porters or elevator operators; Rangel’s maternal grandfather was an elevator operator in a Manhattan office building that put his elder in frequent contact with lawyers and judges.  This was the congressman’s first exposure to a generations-long career rooted in legal work.  

While the city’s public schools were not segregated by law, Rangel went to predominantly African American schools until he entered DeWitt Clinton High School here in the Bronx.  Although the demographics of the school have changed with the passage of time, the congressman’s experience there was similar to that of many 16 to 24 year olds now enrolled in the Youth Workforce and Education Division of the BronxWorks Children & Youth Department.  

Rangel, now 83, recalls being driven home from DeWitt Clinton High in a police car, having encounters with NYPD officers then that are similar to the stop-and-frisk experiences youth of color encounter today, and skipping school to hang out with his buddies, some of whom eventually ended up in prison.  He told the story of a one-time friend he encountered years later.

“I told my old buddy that I had become a lawyer.  He told me that he had just gotten out of prison,” said the congressman.  “It was as if he couldn’t believe how much I had changed.”

If hearing stories about lawyers and legal work from his grandfather gave him an early taste of the law profession, it was Rangel’s experiences as a Korean War veteran that led him to change his life forever.  An infantryman, he saw the horrors of combat firsthand.  He survived them to win a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with Valor, and three battle stars.

Rangel returned from Korea a seasoned soldier with distinction, but lacking the tools to succeed in the civilian economy.  He worked hard to get help from the Veterans’ Administration and as a high school dropout eventually obtained a GED.  A few years later, Rangel obtained a bachelor’s degree from NYU and a law degree from St. John’s.

Excel Instructor Juanita Webster, Congressman Rangel, and BronxWorks Interim Executive Director Eileen Torres

“There was no organization like BronxWorks when I got my GED,” said Rangel.  He urged participants in the organization’s “second chance” programs to use the enrollment experience to transform their lives and pursue options they could not dream about when they were disconnected from education, skills training, or employment opportunities.

A member of the House of Representatives since 1971, the congressman implored the youngsters in attendance to put their past difficulties behind them and “start a clean slate.”  He praised BronxWorks for creating a supportive environment at the Carolyn McLaughlin Center where once-troubled youth can uncover their true talents and overcome obstacles.

“BronxWorks has given you a chance to create a key that will unlock the doors to a brighter, more promising future,” said the dapper and effervescent Rangel.  “Your GED is that key.  Get it and go far beyond.”

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