Former Atlanta police chief Eldrin Bell looked Thursday into the eyes of more than a dozen local men and one woman enrolled in Hope for the Inner City's Jobs For Life program. The group included gang members, adults who quit high school and men with arrest records.
All of them said they wanted jobs. All of them said they wanted to live law-abiding lives.
Bell and Former Chattanooga Police Department Detective Napolean "Donut" Williams spoke to the group to encourage them to continue trying to improve themselves.
Williams called on city government to help provide the group with employment.
"Mayor [Andy] Berke, give me some help," said Williams after speaking to the class. "These kids want a job."
Twenty-four-year-old Ellis Orr sat with his arms folded watching Bell as he spoke.
"Very inspirational," Orr said of Bell's message. "It let us know we can be successful."
Bell, former chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, told the group he's been all over the country and in Africa speaking about law enforcement, but he wasn't always in a top position.
"I started out just like you, but the bottom was not made for me," he said.
"How many of you lived in the projects?" he asked the group.
After every person in the class raised their hands, he raised his.
"Just like you," he said.
"How many come from single-family homes?" he said.
After their hands went up, Bell raised his.
"Just like you," he said.
Bell talked about living in the ghetto, his embarrassment at having a child outside of marriage, the gun violence that took his father's life when he was 7 and how his grandparents helped raise him.
As a child, Bell said, he had no idea that one day he would be police chief.
He said he became interested in law enforcement after dating a girl whose father was a police officer.
"How many of you know the meaning of the word dream?" Bell asked.
The group watched, but no hands went up.
In 2040 the No. 1 job in Chattanooga will be health care, because people are living longer and getting older, Bell said. And a large number of jobs that will be needed in 2040 haven't even been created yet, he said.
He said people died coming from Africa to America, but some of them survived. They were some of the strongest people, and they are your ancestors, he told the audience. Your grandparents are the best of the best, Bell said.
"So who are following when you wear your pants down here?" he asked, pointing to his thighs.
He advised the group to create jobs. Develop a product, package it, promote it and distribute it.
Bell looked first at Orr, and then scanned the room.
"What would you like to be burning inside [you]?" he asked. "The bottom was not made for you."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.