A Conversation with Jon Vang

Jon Vang is a Training Supervisor at EMERGE Community Development. Based in North Minneapolis and Cedar Riverside, EMERGE helps people facing significant obstacles redefine themselves. The Minneapolis Foundation is a proud supporter of this nonprofit, which has helped thousands of people access jobs, financial coaching, supportive housing, and other key services as they build brighter futures.

Jon, who first came to EMERGE as a client, recently sat down to tell us about his path to becoming a Training Supervisor, the barriers faced by the people he works with—and how it feels when they call him to say they found a job.

Sheldon and Conley

Jon Vang

Foundation: How did you first connect with EMERGE?

Jon: I first heard of EMERGE while I was in prison. I was in a program called The Power of People, and the facilitator brought in Marvin Clark, who’s an EMERGE Manager. When I came home in 2012, I was looking for support services and I remembered EMERGE. At first I thought, “I’ve got this resume stuff down. I don’t need any help,” but I called one of the managers here and he said, “Oh, just come on over. It’s a good place to network.” So I came for an info session, and they assigned me a workforce coach to help me with my job search strategies. I also went through the Job Club (now called “Hire Ground”), where you do mock interviews, practice your elevator speech, and learn other job search skills. I learned quite a lot.

Foundation: How did you end up working here?

Jon: I initially worked part-time as an Outreach Coordinator for a program I’d been involved with in prison called the Alternatives to Violence Project. It was just 10 or 15 hours a week, but it helped me build a solid job history. Later, one of the managers at EMERGE called me up and said, “We have this position opening up, and you should apply for it.” I was really nervous, because there had been so many jobs I’d applied for, and they would look at all my credentials and interview me, and everything went great, and I just never got a call back. I’ve had HR people tell me it was because of my record. They’d say, “I talked to my manager, and they were just not feeling comfortable with this.” And this was after I went back to school and got my two-year degree – because at first, I thought that maybe education was the problem. It was pretty disheartening.

One of the biggest things that helped me out in that period was what my mentor from The Power of People, Shane Price, told me. He said, “Sometimes to get something, you’ve got to give of yourself.” So I started volunteering. Before the 2012 election, I phone banked and door knocked for some of the campaigns. That really helped me feel like I was part of the community again.

Foundation: Tell me about your work at EMERGE.

Jon: EMERGE provides a lot of different services, and we try to meet clients where they’re at. If they say they have child care issues, we try to help them navigate that. If they have housing issues, we try to help with that, too.

I started out as a Career Coach for a pilot project called the WIN program. From that job, I was transferred over to become a Career Coach in the training department, and then I was promoted again to become a Training Supervisor. A lot of this work is about helping people find trainings, helping them stay engaged with the training, connecting them with resources to complete the training, and helping them find a job afterwards.

I have guys who are coming out of prison, guys with chemical dependency, and homeless people. A lot of the clients I work with are men – a lot of the women steer toward health care or administrative training – but I’ve worked really hard to get women into property maintenance, which is a male-dominated profession. I tell them, “Guys always do this, but don’t let that stop you!”’

Foundation: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Jon: Sometimes clients call me when they get a job. Just hearing, “I got a job!” and “Thank you! I couldn’t have done it without you!”—that really means a lot. I think back to all the tough conversations where clients were like, “I can’t do it anymore. I gotta quit,” and I say, “Slow down! Let’s talk it out. What options do we have?” The people in our community face a lot of barriers. It’s debilitating for guys that are coming home from prison. You can do everything right and be perfect for a job and still not get the opportunity to work. It’s very hard, and it can leave you hopeless. I work to pull clients back from the abyss and help them see potential in themselves…

Foundation: You recently won a Counselor of the Year award at a conference put on by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Department of Employment and Economic Development. How did that feel?

Jon: It’s amazing. I’ve never gotten an award like this before, and to be recognized by a lot of people throughout the state… If you had asked me four years ago if I could see myself here, I would never have believed it. What’s been good is I’ve helped other people get into places they have never seen. I love doing this stuff, because I see so much untapped potential.

EMERGE Community Development and The Power of People Leadership Institute are both recipients of competitive grants from The Minneapolis Foundation. Learn more about our recent grants >