Standing in front of a table display featuring light fixtures and wiring in the Billingsville Elementary School gym in southeast Charlotte’s Grier Heights neighborhood on a December night, 24-year-old Tiaunjalae “Tee” Chancley beamed as she showed what she had learned during a 13-week workforce development program that had just wrapped up.
Even as she prepared to graduate from the program that night, she was still in a state of disbelief about the experience. The skeptical feelings she originally had about the program when she learned about it over the summer had gone away, but that didn’t make the experience any more believable, per se. In fact, if there was one word Chancley repeated most often during our conversation, it was “unbelievable.”
She told me she had come across flyers for the program — a partnership between the Charlotte Hornets, Lowe’s and local tech nonprofit Potions & Pixels — while working at the Food Lion in Grier Heights. The idea that someone would pay her to take part in workforce development was hard to believe.
“I seen it at first and I could not believe it,” she recalled on graduation night. “I left it alone for two weeks and then my girlfriend came to me with it like, ‘Let’s try to figure out if this is real.’ I applied and still when I did the interviews I was like, ‘Are you serious? You’re going to give us tools and pay us money to come to class?’ Just each day within the program over three months it’s still been unbelievable. Still now, unbelievable. All these people here now to see us? It’s unbelievable.”
The 13-week program is perhaps the most ambitious of all those that have made up the Legacy Project, a campaign originally launched by the Charlotte Hornets in 2016 that began with renovating neighborhood basketball courts and has now evolved into more in-depth community initiatives.
During the 13 weeks, students from the Grier Heights community learned fundamental, high-demand electrical skills in order to pursue careers in electrical construction via hands-on training led by EIG Electrical Systems.
Potions & Pixels founder Michael Zytkow had experience running a workforce development program before. In 2019, Potions & Pixels collaborated with a coalition of local businesses and organizations including Lowe’s on a program where students learned the electrical trade by repairing broken arcade games.
When first approached by the Hornets and Lowe’s to help run this year’s program, however, Zytkow had a reaction not unlike Chancley’s: skepticism.
“At first, I kind of wanted to pump the brakes because I was like, ‘Man, that’s so much work and, my style, I want to be really in-depth and be really intentional about how I put it all together,'” Zytkow said of the partnership with the Hornets and Lowe’s. “I’m like, ‘Hey, if we’re going to go forward with this, I’d really love to make this the dream project.’”
Zytkow met with representatives from Lowe’s and the Hornets Foundation, and brought with him a list of goals he’d like to see implemented to make that dream a reality: evening classes, tools supplied to students, free meals during classes, and a $15-an-hour stipend for anyone who goes through the program. They agreed to all.
“I was like, ‘Well, damn, they’re definitely serious about this. They want to support it.”
Zytkow hit the streets of Grier Heights, setting a goal to visit every house and apartment in the neighborhood to let folks know about the opportunity, plus churches and other community hubs. He spent several hours each day for multiple weeks traversing the neighborhood over the summer, hitting the Food Lion, Grier Heights Presbyterian Church, the Grier Heights Community Center and anywhere else he thought he could reach residents.
The canvassing work came naturally to the former activist and Charlotte City Council candidate.
“It took me a long-ass time,” he said, laughing, “and it reminded me of running for office again. I lost some weight doing it and a lot of sweat for sure, but I literally knocked on every house and left thousands of flyers.”
By summer’s end, Zytkow had more than 100 applicants. He put them through a series of interviews — a phone interview followed by an in-person followed by a tour of Camp North End — just to gauge each applicant’s seriousness. In the end, he ended up with a class of 22.
Brittany Jordan, a 31-year-old Grier Heights resident and care connections specialist with Atrium Health, was the first person to sign up. By the time Zytkow made it to her door, she told him she had already signed up on the first day after receiving an email and walking to the community center for an application. She was one of 19 class members who graduated on Dec. 15.
“It actually exceeded my expectations,” she told Queen City Nerve on graduation night. “I didn’t know what to expect, but from day one we just jumped right into it. From day one we did metal conduits, bending and cutting metal pipes, and it’s just been up from there.”
Jordan said she joined up because she wanted to learn to be a jack of all trades, but is now interested in a career using what she’s learned.
“I saw it as an opportunity to learn something new,” she said. “I didn’t really think much of it or think I would get this much out of it, but I’m glad I did. This was such a blessing for me, I love it, and I’m ready to start a career as a helper in the electrical industry.”
Most of the class members have already applied for jobs with EIG, a subsidiary of international firm DPR Construction, which also lent its expertise to the workforce development program. EIG has committed to hiring at least five students from the program.
After a short break for the holidays, management at those two companies will begin to survey the job applicants and make decisions around hiring, though Zytkow said he’s confident that each one of the graduating students can get a job in the industry using the new skills they’ve learned.
He said he’s been in constant contact with each student since gradation. While he has plans for a six-month follow-up, the way that the team came together throughout the program has convinced him that they will remain close long after that.
“We know we’re going to be in each other’s lives … I wanted to have a commitment to at least six months of structured follow up just to make sure that the job placement — the feedback that people will give from having work, and the challenges, the ups and downs of the whole process — that they have an opportunity to share that, but I think that camaraderie is going to be the thing that sticks with me the most,” he said.
“Just seeing people’s eyes light up when they put a light bulb together from scratch or wire something, and that feeling of empowerment where we really wanted to start the program off, where from the very first class, you have the tools in your hand and you’re doing things that let you know you can do all of this. It might seem like magic, but you can be that magician. You really can be the person that’s bringing these buildings and this infrastructure to life.”
Chancley said she has already applied to both EIG and DPR and hopes to hear back from both in January.
“Hopefully they can pick everybody [from the program],” she said. “Hopefully everybody can come together and everybody who was in the program can be an asset to them. I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m willing.”
And that’s how skepticism turns to belief.