Brooklyn Center, Minnesota– Amid the questioning of purpose and attempts to find community that are characteristic of adolescence, there comes a point in nearly everyone’s adolescence when you need somebody to look you in the eye, and tell you that the work that you do, and the person who you will become– matters.

For many Twin Cities area high school students, Charles Walker is that person.

Charles Walker pictured on site with members of his 2021 MTA class. PC: C. Walker

Walker is a Minnesota educator, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation organizer and youth mentor for the Minnesota Trades Academy, a paid summer construction internship experience for high school youth with the goal of preparing youth for adulthood through skill development, and access to good jobs with good benefits in the construction industry.

“My experience volunteering with the Minnesota Trades Academy has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Walker. “A lot of these kids are looking for summer jobs, and some can’t get one because of their age or because they don’t have access to transportation. The Minnesota Trades Academy is an important program, because it eliminates these obstacles for students, allowing them the equal opportunity to get paid to learn a trade that they may want to go into one day, regardless of their background.”

Walker’s experience with MTA began seven years ago through a connection with Sam Ebute, Trades Navigator for the Construction Careers Foundation, a Twin Cities- based nonprofit organization with the mission to, “increase the diversity of entrants into the construction trades and to enhance young people’s access to construction-related employment opportunities.”

The pair had previously coached track and field together at North High School in Minneapolis and had bonded over their shared passion for, “getting kids set on the right path,” according to Walker.

So, when Ebute informed Walker of the Minnesota Trades Academy’s need for mentors to oversee their summer programming, Walker knew it would be a perfect fit for his skill set. He began mentoring with the program and hasn’t looked back since, returning every summer since he first began his role.

Finding Meaning Alongside Peers

For Walker, the value of the Minnesota Trades Academy extends beyond career preparation. The educator has found incredible success using his influence as a mentor to foster strong, life-long friendships between the program’s interns– who, Walker notes, often come from very different backgrounds– and instill in his students strong values of community engagement and service, respect for one’s peers and one’s community, and pride in oneself.

“I teach every kid that I encounter that we are not going to disrespect one another. If you have a problem with that you are in the wrong place,” said Walker. “In my first year with the program, I had one group of students who were all gangbangers – But I teach every student that we are all one when we enter this program. I make it known that it’s not about where they come from, it’s where they are going, and we are all headed down the same path when we are with MTA. Once that respect is there, everything else falls into place.”

“Besides gaining experience using tools, it is the friendship and bonds that students make along the way that really makes the program a success,” said Walker. “Those students from my first year with the program forged a strong bond together that summer, and many of them are still friends to this day.”

With students’ sense of purpose and community bonds growing increasingly unsteady under the weight of two years of a global pandemic, to say Walker’s continued success in this sector is anything short of a miracle would be an understatement.

Service-Oriented Program Builds Students’ Sense of Purpose

Walker draws upon his well-earned foundation of respect to inform the work that interns perform in service of their community during their time in the program. Walker recalled one recent project where students built a handicap ramp for a woman living in south Minneapolis.

“The handicap ramp project was probably my favorite project that the kids completed,” said Walker. “That project marked a big step for a lot of the students because they just loved working on that project. When it was completed, they were very happy with what they did for her, and so proud.”

During a different project, in which students rebuilt a deck for an elderly woman living in Minneapolis, Walker realized that one of the student interns lived only two blocks away from the project site.

“I was recently in touch with that student, and he told me that he walks by that house everyday. He spoke about how proud it makes him to see that the work he did on that house had such a profound impact on his neighbor,” added Walker. “It is in this way that the program has had such a positive impact on how these students view and respect the world around them.”

At the end of each MTA term, students work on one large community-based project. In summer 2021, Walker’s MTA class built a high school a ticket booth for sporting events. PC: C. Walker

At the end of each MTA term, students work on one large community-based project. In summer 2021, Walker’s MTA class built a high school a ticket booth for sporting events. PC: C. Walker

Mentorship Matters

Walker values the respect that his students have for him, and does not take that responsibility lightly. The educator is committed to showing up for any student who needs guidance, no matter how long it has been since their time with the Minnesota Trades Academy.

“If any of these kids get in trouble, I am often the first person that they call, even if it’s years after they have taken part in the program,” said Walker. “I do a lot of work in this community with youth, so they trust me to help them navigate difficult situations, and help them resolve whatever issues they have.”

Two MTA alumni whom Walker mentors to this day are DeShawn Davis, whom Walker first met when Davis ran on the 7th grade track team that Walker coached, and who took part in MTA three years ago; and Josiah Sutton, who completed the MTA program four years ago.

Davis and Sutton both entered a career in construction after their time with the program. Davis recently began an apprenticeship with a construction company that is renovating Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, while Sutton is reaching the end of his bricklaying apprenticeship and will soon graduate to become a journeyworker.

Educators: Get Involved Today

Educators seeking guidance in informing their students about a career in construction, or hoping to pass along the opportunity to join the Minnesota Trades Academy, can visit the Resources for Teachers page on the ConstructionCareers.org website.

Students and Parents: Connect with Resources at ConstructionCareers.org

Those seeking guidance on learning about a career in the construction industry can contact Sam Ebute, Trades Navigator for the Construction Careers Foundation at sam.ebute@constructioncareers.org to receive personalized support in entering a career in the union building trades.

Students, parents, and educators can visit ConstructionCareers.org to explore 30+ careers in the union construction industry, have access to valuable information regarding apprenticeships, read about the experiences of current construction apprentices in Minnesota, and more.

To learn more about the Minnesota Trades Academy, visit here.