After 36 years on the job, Los Angeles Fire Department Assistant Chief Antoine McKnight is looking forward to retiring in 2023. One of only a handful of African American fire fighters currently in the department to rise to the rank of Assistant Chief in LAFD’s 135 year history, McKnight is working hard to ensure the next generation of minority and female fire fighters are in the pipeline, trained, prepared and ready for the rigorous career.
McKnight said that when he joined the force in 1986, Blacks made up about 13 percent of LAPD. Currently, he estimates the number of Black fire fighters is closer to eight percent.
“There’s going to be a lot of [African American] retirements in the next two years,” said McKnight. “We just want to make sure this career opportunity is made available to people of color, especially Blacks. We want to do everything we can do to make that happen.”
McKnight is a member of the Los Angeles City Stentorians, an association of African American fire fighters founded in 1954, dedicated to recruitment and promotion of diversity within the LAFD. On July 12, the Stentorians, in partnership with Children Youth and Family Collaborative Los Angeles (CYFCLA), launched Command LA Youth Fire Academy, an initiative developed to recruit, motivate, inspire and train individuals from marginalized or underrepresented communities into the field of fire service.
Command LA was supported by Hire LA’s Youth, a citywide summer jobs initiative that equips young adults 14 -24 with soft skills such as resume writing and entrepreneurship training. Individuals in Hire LA’s Youth must go through twenty hours of soft skill job training and complete an application to be eligible for placement in programs around the city such as Command LA and receive compensation upon completion of 120 hours of work.
Command LA cadets, ranging in age from 15 – 22, were recommended by nonprofit organizations, CYFCLA, Community Build, Urban League and Brotherhood Crusade. Using the principles of fire safety as a foundation, LA Command participants learned discipline, teamwork and leadership. Each day of the 4-week program started promptly at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m.
Ebony Williams heard about LA Command through Community Build, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in South Los Angeles. Williams was part of Community Build’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program (GRYD). The 22-year old West LA College graduate wasn’t “one hundred percent sure” about joining the fire department, but she wanted to check it out.
Williams’ leadership skills earned her the top spot as a Command LA team leader and captain. Although not a member of a gang, Williams admitted to hanging out with gang members and being knocked unconscious and having panic attacks. Speaking to an audience of her peers, family members and academy organizers, during the graduation ceremony on August 7, Williams said she was humbled by her experience at the academy.
“I’m glad to be in this community with these wonderful people. I could be hanging around the no-gooders right now,” said Williams. “[but] Instead of hanging around the people who make the bullet wounds, I’m hanging around the people who help the bullet wounds, who patch them up. That’s what it’s about.”
During the graduation ceremony, Robert Sausedo, president of Command LA partner agency Community Build, acknowledged that growing up as an Afro-Latino in South Los Angeles in the 1980s, options like LA Command were not available to him. He encouraged the graduating class to take advantage of the discipline and leadership skills they learned during the 4-week academy and stay focused. “No matter what happens in life, keep your focus and your purpose. From time to time, your purpose will change or shift, but no matter what stay focused on your purpose.”
McKnight hopes some of Command LA participants will eventually join the LAFD, but he says the main goal of the academy is to help the young participants succeed in life. “We all come from varying circumstances in life, varying obstacles that we have to overcome, but my goal is to equip these young people with the tools to help them overcome those obstacles,” said McKnight. “They can succeed at whatever they put their mind to and heart to. That’s my best dream for them.”
For more information on LA Command Youth Fire Academy visit lacitystentorians.org.