EVERETT — The sky was overcast, another gray Northwest December day.
The classroom at Everett Community College’s Jackson Conference Center was brightly lit and full of applause, smiling faces and teens ready to conquer the world.
They were clapping for their accomplishments and their ambitions. The 25 students had just finished an eight-week course in the soft skills needed for success in the American workplace. They had spent most of the past eight Saturdays learning about financial literacy, how to make an elevator pitch, public speaking and other skills often left out of standard school curriculums.
The course’s leaders — mentors more than instructors — made a personal statement to each graduate before handing over the certificate.
Everett Community College staffer Jerod Grant gave Frankie Tilmon III his certificate.
“This man right here, he’s a powerhouse,” Grant said.
Tilmon smiled self-consciously.
“The program is what you put into it, and you put your all into it,” Grant said to the junior from Sequoia High School in Everett. “Continue to be the amazing man you’re meant to be, all right?”
“Much love,” Tilmon said.
Like every student in the room, the 16-year-old is African-American. And that means he faces a world where biases still exist. They might be quieter than they were 20 or 50 years ago, but they are there.
Even in Snohomish County, blacks have lower economic standing than whites.
In 2013, they made up about 2.4 percent of the county’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That year, the median income for blacks was $24,561 compared to $31,349 for everyone in the county and $33,041 for whites. And 6 percent of white families had lived below the poverty line in the previous 12 months, compared to nearly 15 percent of black families.
The course Tilmon just completed is meant to change those numbers. It is called the Youth Development Program and is run by the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Everett Community College.
It’s aimed at students with African heritage, but it’s open to any student in Snohomish County.
“We are not lecturing to them but building on their strengths,” said Janice Greene, a Boeing executive and president of the NAACP’s Snohomish County branch. She helps run the course.
When 17-year-old Rayzne McCartha heard about the program, she signed up and tried to get other students to do so, as well.
“This is a thing most people should go to,” the 17-year-old Mariner High School student said.
“It showed me what I can do with my abilities as an African-American woman,” she said.
It also taught her to reach out for help when she needs it, McCartha said.
No one succeeds totally on their own, said Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Eric Lucas, one of several speakers at Saturday’s ceremony.
“Every single person needs help in this life,” he said.
Lucas had been a star football player in high school, but then he injured his shoulder, he told the students.
His doctors said he shouldn’t play, warning that further injury could do long-term, irreversible damage. His coaches, though, told him to play, Lucas said.
“One coach, my favorite coach, he told me, ‘If you don’t play, you’ll never go to college,’” he said. The coach’s message was clear: As a black man, he could only get into college with brawn, not brains.
But a teacher reached out to him, telling him that was not true, that “you are not a product of your programming,” he said.
Before everyone went their separate ways, Greene encouraged the students to come by Everett Public Library this next Saturday, when the NAACP would screen a film about what to do when you’re stopped by police — a grim reminder of what it can mean to be black in America.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dcatchpole.