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Inside AT&T's mission to help Chicago escape gun violence

AT&T is dialing up a deeper commitment to helping one city.

AT&T

Two years ago, AT&T technician Cedric Wouldfolk was finishing up an installation at a customer's home when he received a call every parent dreads.

The caller ID showed his son's number, but a female voice was on the other line. His son had been shot.

"I went dark for a little while," Wouldfolk recalls.

His son, who was shot half a block from the Wouldfolks' home in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin, was hit in the back of the leg. He now walks with a metal rod.

Rather than get angry, Wouldfolk tried to understand the problem, first by talking to the men hanging out at local street corners and hearing their stories. "I can't let something like this go," he says.

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The entrance to one of AT&T's garages in Chicago.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Wouldfolk, who strides easily in his 6-foot, 4-inch frame and speaks with a booming but jovial voice, wasn't involved much with the community prior to the shooting. When he decided to act, many of his co-workers joined him.

He ended up helping the Austin Boxing Club, a program that gets kids off the street and teaches them valuable skills like conflict resolution, and that arguments don't always have to escalate to using guns. 

Wouldfolk's volunteer work and his calls to help with the gun violence facing the city served as one of the key inspirations behind AT&T's Believe Chicago initiative, which includes not only charitable contributions, but creating job opportunities, providing the necessary training and encouraging staff to volunteer in the community.

After nearly a year spent in development, AT&T announced the program on Tuesday. CNET got an early chance to talk with the people at the company and in the community who helped make it a reality.

AT&T's effort marks a different, more proactive form of community outreach. It's unique, community leaders and activists say, because the company's not just cutting a check. Instead, it's leaning on the employees working in those communities, as well as local leaders and charity groups, to figure out where and how best to help. In doing so, the company hopes the program serves as a model that it can take from city to city, but also can inspire other corporations to follow.

"I commend AT&T for investing in Chicago neighborhoods, creating jobs and offering skills training to prepare Chicago residents for opportunities in their communities," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. "Believe Chicago is not just a great example of good corporate citizenship, but of smart and sustainable economic and community development."

AT&T technician Cedric Wouldfolk

Cedric Wouldfolk is an AT&T technician who helped the company on its broader mission to help Chicago.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Chicago needs the help. The city saw more murders in 2016 than did Los Angeles and New York combined, according to CBS News. There have been 246 murders and more than 1,400 shootings this year, according to data collected by the Chicago Tribune. The violence in the city's has been a lightning rod for a broader debate over gun regulation.

AT&T and many of its partners say this goes beyond a public relations stunt, but Tuesday's announcement comes at a time when the company could use some good will. Shortly after the telecommunications giant closed its acquisition of Time Warner, it raised the price of DirecTV Now, its video streaming service, and eliminated a popular wireless plan that bundled in HBO for free, drawing the critical eye of some consumer groups.

And like other major internet service providers, the Dallas-based company takes a position on the divisive issue of net neutrality that runs counter to that of many consumers. It's also often the punching bag of T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who rarely misses an opportunity to ding his larger rivals for customer service failures.

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But for people who may benefit from Believe Chicago, that's not even on their radar.

"It doesn't matter to someone who wants a job," said Cherita Ellens, executive vice president of business operations for Skills For Chicagoland's Future, which connects people with potential employers. "At the end of the day, that's what people care about."

Bringing Believe to life

For AT&T customer service manager Caitlin Caporelli, the sound of gunshots in her neighborhood is such a regular occurrence she often doesn't even notice it. But one incident, in which a 7-year-old was shot on her block, shook her.

That was one of the stories she shared as part of roundtable sessions held in November last year as AT&T began toying with the idea of a community outreach program. The company identified 19 neighborhoods that accounted for 54 percent of the shootings and talked to employees who live in those areas. Caporelli's Eastside neighborhood was one of them.

She recalls being shocked by the interaction.

AT&T customer service manager Caitlin Caporelli

AT&T customer service manager Caitlin Caporelli lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.

AT&T

"We're not used to people coming in and asking what we can do to better your city," she says. "It's usually, 'This is what we're going to do.'"

Many pointed to the clear connection between the lack of opportunity and the rise in violence in those neighborhoods.

"The common denominator is despair," Wouldfolk says.

After AT&T identified gun violence as the key problem to solve, Eileen Mitchell, vice president of external affairs in Chicago, took the feedback and put together a plan to present to John Donovan, CEO of AT&T's communications business. The key was for the company to make use of its employees' experiences and feedback.

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Eileen Mitchell, AT&T's vice president of external affairs for Chicago, was one of the masterminds behind the program.

Roger Cheng/CNET

"I've never seen a corporate entity think though all of their assets the way AT&T is doing here," says Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, a local charitable organization.

While Donovan liked the plan, Mitchell says he encouraged her "to think more broadly about it."

"All I did was provide energy and amplification," Donovan says in an interview.

Setting the model

Donovan had a personal epiphany a few years back that spurred him to reconnect with his background growing up in an urban area. It also sparked the desire to participate more in his own community. He joined the board of the Salvation Army, and he and his daughter continue to pursue worthwhile charities.

John Donovan

John Donovan, CEO of AT&T's communications business, has his own passions about giving back.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Beyond bringing aid, he was insistent that whatever plan AT&T came up with be sustainable in the long run. He wasn't interested in a quick fix or showy contribution.

"It's not about throwing money at issues and moving on," says Donovan. "We are going deeper than elaborate fundraising events and focused on embedding ourselves in these communities and helping them flourish."

Believe Chicago is just the first such program. AT&T started up efforts in New York and Atlanta, but they're still in its infancy. The intent is take up an issue specific to each city. In New York, where AT&T doesn't have a broadband service footprint, the company tackles the issue of cyberbullying. 

Over the spring, Donovan flew to Chicago to talk to some of the employees and community leaders. One of those leaders was Michael Pfleger, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, who runs a program to rehabilitate people with criminal records and get them back in the system with jobs.

"Donovan came to see what we were doing, and I'm one who deeply appreciates that," Pfleger says.

His biggest challenge is getting companies to alert him about job openings or to provide some level of training.

Donovan had his team create a portal called AT&T Learn that offered rudimentary advice like preparing a resume alongside basic explainers on topics like installation and even 5G. The site gives people an idea of what it's like to work in customer service or retail.

While AT&T Learn was built with the intent to launch with Believe Chicago, the site was designed to be universally acceptable no matter where you live, says Scott Smith, chief human resources officer for AT&T's communications unit.

Pfleger, meanwhile, says he appreciates that AT&T will force other companies to start questioning their own commitment to local communities. "What is your social responsibility as a major American corporation to involve yourself in those who are hurting or left out of the American dream?"

A sustainable effort

Brenda Palms Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network, sits in her corner office in Nichols Tower, the former headquarters of retailer Sears Roebuck, as she briefs me on her organization's mission to "find good people good jobs." Some of those people include folks who have been convicted of a crime.

Ironically, she explains to me in a calm, measured tone, it was the exodus of Sears and other businesses during the civil unrest in the 1960s that plunged this area into the kind of economic depression that it has persisted until today.

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Brenda Palms Barber is the executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Her organization got on AT&T's radar through Mitchell's work with the Partnership for a Safe and Peaceful Community, which works with a number of local charities. Barber recalls how she got a call from AT&T out of the blue, and how Mitchell and other AT&T executives showed up with informed questions and comments.

"They impressed me because they did their research," she says.

Chicago's Nichols Tower

Nichols Tower once served as the headquarters for Sears Roebuck.

Roger Cheng/CNET

The nonprofit runs a business called Sweet Beginnings, which makes honey-based products like lotion and lip balm, and is used as a job training vehicle for people in its employment program. AT&T gave Sweet Beginnings a grant in 2017, but Barber says she's more excited by the prospect that AT&T is committing to hiring some of the people who go through its IT training program.

Likewise, Pfleger is working with AT&T to offer more skill and job training to the individuals in his program to give them a chance. His program also got a grant from AT&T.

In total, AT&T has given $2 million to Chicago-based charities, with more planned this year. The company has also hired more than 400 employees from those 19 neighborhoods.

The company held two job fairs Chicago Kennedy King College in the last two months, drawing in crowds of applicants from those neighborhoods. 

"You can see the look on people's faces," Mitchell says. "The hope."

Beyond money and jobs, AT&T is also making it easier for its employees to work with the community. Some technicians have the flexibility to build their schedules around volunteer work. Instead of one morning meeting, a team led by James Edwards, AT&T area manager for network services, went out and cleaned a nearby neighborhood.

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James Edwards, AT&T area manager for network services, believes there's enough energy from employees to sustain this program.

Roger Cheng/CNET

"As long as AT&T opens the door for us, we'll have the energy to sustain it," Edwards said.

For Jacobie Jones, an area manager for the Chicago care center, the push to widen the net for new employees means giving people opportunities they may have never seen before. "Troubled past can recognize troubled past," he says. "But talent can recognize talent."

From Caporelli working with colleagues at her call center, packing school supplies in backpacks for underprivileged children, to Wouldfolk ensuring that every kid in the Austin Boxing Club who brings a B+ average gets a free bicycle, the company is showing its support.

For Wouldfolk, serving the community isn't a question anymore.

Wouldfolk recalls walking into his son's room and seeing a thick stack of obituaries. "Many of them are just kids," he says. "How could you not be thrown into doing something about this?"

The story originally published on Sept. 25 at 5 a.m. PT. 

Update, Sept. 26 at 5:10 a.m. PT: To include additional quotes, background and links.

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