New apprenticeship network honors Boomers and boosts Millennials

Brandon Black met Mr. Palmer at a breakfast spot in Walnut Hills. Well into his seventies, Mr. Palmer is an experienced carpenter, plumber and overall craftsman — trades he learned from his father and from growing up in a small town in Alabama where, if you wanted to build a shed or repair a shower, you didn’t call a carpenter or a plumber. You did it yourself.
The skills he acquired throughout the years allowed Mr. Palmer to improve his home. Adding a room here, building a garage there.
Although he’s retired now, men like Mr. Palmer rarely stop working. To stay busy, he helps his daughter maintain a store, volunteers at his church and picks up odd projects here and there. Sometimes he simply rearranges his tools.
“To me, that’s heartbreaking in a way,” Black says. “Mr. Palmer has real examples, monuments to his effort and experience, and he often keeps himself busy by moving his tools from one shed to another.”
Black was awarded a 2016 People’s Liberty Haile Fellowship grant and is halfway through his year. His idea will make it possible for Mr. Palmer and people like him to pass along their knowledge to the younger generation.
Naming his new venture RetireRepair, Black wants to narrow the gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials through the concept of traditional apprenticeships. His plan pairs new homeowners or young families with retired tradesmen willing to supervise DIY home rehab projects.
“I think there’s something innovative and transformative in wanting to connect the two generations,” People’s Liberty Program Director Aurore Fournier says. “Nowadays with technology a lot of us are lost or lacking communication and awareness of other generations and thoughts.”
Mentors make an impact
Black was born in Cincinnati, but early in his life, moved to Houston with his parents. Things didn’t work at as expected in Texas, and his mother decided to move back to Ohio so he could be around her extended family.
As a young child, Black says he spent a lot of time internally. In these introverted spaces, he developed a talent for drawing and became a voracious learner.
By the time he reached high school, however, Black started looking for a new outlet. That’s when a coach suggested he go out for wrestling. He took the coach up on the offer and embarked on one of the toughest challenges he ever faced.
Over the course of four years, Black transformed from the small, quiet kid into a state qualifier and sectional champion. He cites Terry Meinking, the wrestling coach at Purcell Marian High School, as a significant influence and mentor who taught him lessons he still thinks about to this day.
“Coach Meinking is someone who I really revere as a mentor, coach, father figure,” Black says. “He taught me a lot about discipline, perseverance and doing the hard thing.”
Black carried these lessons with him as he went off to study at Miami University, where he felt immense pressure to succeed. But by his third year he was still unsure about what he wanted to do.
“I go from a big fish in a small pond to, you know, an ocean, a gulf, just all kinds of possibilities,” he says. “You know it was this period of time that felt a lot like waiting for something to happen or for something to click. Or the whole thing could just go down in flames and I could be called a failure. That was the space in my head.”
It wasn’t until his third year when a professor, noticing Black’s writing skill, suggested he major in creative writing. Reluctant at first, he eventually settled on the major and met Eric Goodman, a writing professor.
Goodman had an old property he was fixing up and regularly invited Black to help him with projects. Splitting wood, painting, removing wall paper, the pair had a chance to bond through work — an experience that fed into Black’s concept for RetireRepair.
Through college and to this day, Goodman acts as a sounding board, a voice of reason, a mentor and a friend for Black.
Connecting people through projects
Black spent time after college substitute teaching and coaching wrestling at his alma mater, Purcell Marian. But he felt like the classroom setting limited his ability to connect with the students.
Thinking there had to be a way to supplement traditional means of teaching with a hands-on approach led him to the Public Allies program, where he ran camps and summer excursions for kids to come together and learn.
He took these experiences with him to Starfire Council, where Black has worked for the past five-plus years. In his position, he helps people with developmental disabilities build strong, long-term relationships within their communities. The first program he developed was a capstone project that paired community members based on common interests.
“Brandon has a lot of responsibilities and experience working with individuals and working person-to-person,” Fournier says. “I would also say his interests and personality are very people-driven.”
When applications for the People’s Liberty year-long fellowship opened up, Starfire Executive Director Tim Vogt encouraged Black to apply.
“The DNA I take from Starfire is that people are happiest when they’re connected and pursuing things that matter to them,” Black says. “For whatever reason, people tend to bond around doing something together — some kind of project that’s challenging and difficult.”
Home ownership sparks an idea
Recently married, Black and his wife Marian started looking for a home. And not just any home, he wanted a fixer-upper — something they could get below market value, put some sweat equity into and create a place they could call home.
They eventually found a duplex in Silverton. It was the perfect fixer-upper Black was looking for. But there were times during the renovation when he was unsure, so during the rehab process he called on his old wrestling coach for advice.
“At some point we had to go through the wall, and I was kind of nervous about that,” Black says. “So I call up Coach. He tells me if I want to do it on my own he’d come over and help me through it. I thought that sounded like a great idea.”
And Meinking wasn’t the only person he went to for help. Black’s father-in-law, Jack Hill, has a background in construction, and one day after church he agreed to help Black tear out some old carpeting. Black assumed he would simply advise him, but as soon as Hill arrived he got straight to work, not bothering to change out of his Sunday clothes.
“I was on my way to change clothes and he’s already banging away and, you know, never let an old man outwork you, so that was motivating,” Black says. “It was fun. I get to a place where I feel comfortable taking on projects without him and when he comes back and sees the work and says, ‘That’s a really good job,’ it’s just a really great feeling.”
'A beautiful collision of worlds'
Black sees RetireRepair as a way to enable new homeowners to take on projects that increase the value of their homes. He firmly believes that there will be rewards for taking experience and knowledge and building it into people and families.
He also sees the retirees, who he calls “Multipliers,” benefiting from the program. It could be as simple as encouraging them to call the young homeowners if they need a faucet fixed or yard work done or even help setting up a new phone.
“A lot of times when people do that work their bodies are wore out a bit and they’re not able to do it the way they once could,” Black says. “So you bring this young ambitious body into that space with your knowledge, and maybe there’s a banister that’s a little loose. Now I can help you.”
Since the People’s Liberty fellowship started in February, Black has devoted his full attention to developing his concept, putting his job at Starfire and his Drawnversation graphic recording service on pause. The bulk of his work has been around learning what it takes to launch something from scratch.
He also has been discovering how to best deliver value to the participants — especially for the retirees who aren’t accustomed to volunteering their services.
The first incarnation of RetireRepair involves a cohort of 12 mentors paired with 12 apprenticing homeowners. Black anticipates that his $100,000 People’s Liberty funding will go mostly toward building out a digital presence for RetireRepair and reimbursing participants for things like materials, travel expenses or even meals.
For Black, success looks like an improved space or an acquired skill. He also plans on analyzing the cost benefits to homeowners using his program versus hiring the work out.
To date, he’s paired six mentors and mentees and, of those pairings, two projects are complete. If his first run continues to be successful, he plans to expand it by incorporating disciplines beyond home repair like auto maintenance, woodworking or even cooking.
Going further than incorporating more disciplines, Black also has his sights set on possibly expanding throughout Southwest Ohio and scale RetireRepair as much as possible. But, as he says, “it all depends on how many people are willing to do it.”
Black has approximately eight and a half months left for this first pilot program. After that, he feels confident he’ll be able to find funding to continue his work, having already been approached by several local philanthropic organizations and community foundations.
He is still looking for six more homeowners with home renovation projects and six mentors with experience in home rehabilitation. A simple online application is here.
In the end, Black hopes to create a new generation of homeowners and leaders. His ultimate vision is a platform that helps build a culture and foster genuine relationships and connections — a tool to pass the wealth of one generation’s knowledge and experiences onto the next.
“It’s just this big cycle of people caring and giving and learning and for the betterment of communities, cities, the world,” Black says. “What would it mean to have Mr. Palmer, a black man, in a Hyde Park home with a white family who has young kids, the parents respecting him, showing him courtesy and dignity, a man that doesn’t look like their parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents?

“My hope is that they have a real, lasting memory to compare to what they see in the media. There can be this beautiful collision of worlds that just really has resounding ripple effects.”
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Patrick Venturella is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rust + Moth, The Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blue Lyra Review and other online and print publications. You can follow him on Twitter @p_venturella.