Dent Education was one of 10 organizations that received funding from the City of Baltimore’s recent $100,000 grant award pool for local firms creating personal protective equipment for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the few awardees that focuses on training youth, Dent has trained 51 students to make protective face shields from home.
For each shield a student creates, they make a dollar. A volunteer delivers a box of 100 shields to student workers. It takes about eight to nine hours to finish a box for some students and two or four hours to finish for others, students said in interviews. The general rule is a student is expected to finish a box in five days. Theoretically, students could make $100 or more a day.
“These young people are creating the product that is saving lives and keeping us safe,” said Rajan Patel, cofounder of Dent Education. He went on to explain that although money is a benefit to the students, it’s not the primary point of the program. “It’s not about donating and helping the poor kid. It’s about recognizing that these people are smart, brilliant and have value to add to Baltimore city.”
With the unemployment rate rising in Black communities despite falling for the nation overall in the past few months, an extra source of income in a household is welcome. Collectively, students in the program have made 8,500 face shields and made $5,000, according to Dent. Most youth working with Dent don’t participate for the money. They do it for the access to opportunity.
“If I didn’t join, I’d probably be doing nothing,” said Joshua Chiosi, who has made $200 and 170 face shields. Chiosi also makes videos with Dent, and is paid for that work. “I’m not really looking at the money. Mostly I’m giving back to the community but [the money] is nice, too,” he said.
If you’re doing the math, at one dollar a shield, 170 face shields made from two boxes of 100 shields doesn’t add up to $200. The unaccounted for $30 and 30 face shields are small bonuses to students for filling out paperwork about best practices. Additionally, completing a box of 100 face shields doesn’t mean they all meet the standards of quality control.
A collaboration with civic hackers at HACK Baltimore resulted in an Airtable platform that allowed Dent to scale up from a 15-student program to 51 participants. The program designed by HACK Baltimore tracks student production, orders and distribution. In terms of scaling the program, it was most important for pinpointing when a student was finished and needed a new box and feedback for quality control, Patel said.
Patel also said the program is used to check for aberrations in student output that would mean a student is working more than what’s healthy. It doesn’t track hours to identify if a student was working more than eight hours a day. Students self-report their hours and comfort with their workload. There’s also a weekly group check-in with Patel and the Dent team, where, more than PPE production, the students discuss wider topics about life for teens in a pandemic and, more recently, the protests about police brutality and the death of George Floyd.
“First and foremost, we’re training youth developers,” said Patel. Dent Education’s goal is to create change makers and tomorrow’s future leaders that develop solutions to community problems. Even though they’re running a manufacturing program now, youth development is always at the front of the leaders’ mind. Although lack of engagement in the PPE program was the org’s main concern, he acknowledges the importance of “being actively on the lookout for how the opportunity we’re building is sustainable and healthy.”
For many students, making PPE was an opportunity to give back to the community. Some even went to George Floyd demonstrations and donated face masks to protesters with full support from Dent to use their talents to make a difference in their community.
“We don’t really get a lot of opportunities,” said Charity Fisher, who has made $350 and 400 face shields. “A lot of the time when they see young kids, they automatically think they’re up to no good. With Dent it doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are — they want to help you to get to where you want to be.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.