Getting to YES: ExpandED’s Extraordinary Effort to Reimagine Summer Youth Work During a Pandemic

Guest blog post by Saskia Traill, President & CEO, ExpandED Schools

In April, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that he was doing away with New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which annually puts tens of thousands of youth in paid summer jobs. With a huge budget deficit looming amid the pandemic, it would have been easy to shrug and walk away. But ExpandED Schools did the opposite. The organization rolled up its sleeves to design the reimagined Youth Empowerment Summer plan, now being put into action. Here, Saskia Traill, ExpandED President and CEO, discusses how the organization got to YES and what they learned along the way.

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The order to work from home was not even a month old when New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that he was going to save money by eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The loss of SYEP would devastate plans for tens of thousands of Black and Brown youth from communities hardest hit by COVID-19. For many New York City students, SYEP provides a way to build professional skills while also earning badly needed income totalling around $2,000, typically used to help cover basic necessities, like food and rent, as well as school supplies and college tuition.

As the designer and overseer of ExpandED Options, a citywide program that offers teens spring apprenticeships combined with the summer employment program, we felt the need to address this crisis. We turned to other intermediaries in the City to help us build a strong tri-sector solution, uniting public forces, non-profit organizations, and employers. With guidance from City and advocacy leaders, we created a proposal in which public funds would primarily support non-profit contracted partners and youth stipends, while private funds disseminated through ExpandED would support content creation and technical assistance. Our partners in this endeavor were able to move quickly because every organization had a clear role aligned to its areas of expertise.

We approached the creation of the tri-sector solution in three ways. First, we leveraged our convening power to equip a network of nearly 100 organizations to re-engineer a traditional internship model into high-quality digital experiences given social distancing requirements. Over the course of two months, the team worked tirelessly to create a new format for summer work. Using shared on-line documents allowed people to add design ideas, which promoted collaboration and democratized the process. A core design team then made sense of the ideas and presented summaries back to the group. Within a matter of a few weeks, the Youth Empowerment Summer was born. The new plan included a five-week, 60–90 hour, digitally-rich, remote career experience that blends career exploration, mentorship, and real-world workplace challenges that help participants hone professional skills. Upon completion, students would receive a stipend of up to $1000.

Second, we built a powerhouse team of advocacy partners. From the word go, it was clear that revamping the summer jobs program to address the limitations imposed by the pandemic would require a full-court press with a range of partners. We turned to some of the most powerful groups in the city, including Teens Take Charge, a youth advocacy organization that took up the fight to #SaveSYEP immediately after the Mayor cancelled the program. We also reached out to groups like United Neighborhood Houses, Tech NYC, and the New York Association of Training and Employment Partners, which had begun thinking of ways to protect the program from cuts even before the Mayor had made his announcement. Together, a coalition of more than 90-plus organizations teamed up in the fight for summer youth jobs, relentlessly reaching out to City Hall in favor of a summer youth jobs program, working the phones to keep allies abreast, tweeting around the clock to keep the issue front and center, pushing local and state advocates, negotiating with employers, and briefing funders.

And, finally, ExpandED led an ambitious fundraising effort to raise $2 million dollars in a few months from multiple private institutional, individual, and corporate funders to support the creation of new tools, supports, and resources for remote career-focused learning. These augmented and enhanced the City’s investment, resulting in a robust public-private partnership to serve young people throughout the City. Our fundraising was a success in part because we carved out clear and distinct yet complementary roles for private and public funders.

Thanks to the tireless effort of so many, both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, the City restored $51 million for SYEP. And this summer, some 35,000 youth will gain skills and stipends through a reconfigured fully remote program. It was a hard-fought effort that yielded a great victory worthy of pride in our collaboration and persistence. Hopefully, some of the lessons we learned will help others in their efforts to devise and implement new systems to address the many challenges we all face.

Lesson 1: Listen to Those Most Affected

So many programs are designed for groups of people without their buy-in. Having the young people who would benefit from YES at the table helped us to design a program to best meet their needs. For example, by having them discuss how they used devices we were able to craft a program to deploy technology to best effect for the purposes of a reworked summer jobs program.

In addition, because those most affected had a huge stake in the outcome, they were fierce advocates. The teens not only helped design a stellar solution, but their Op-Eds, protests, petitions, and relentless social media posts meant that the issue stayed front and center. Had it not been for their advocacy, I’m not sure any of our efforts would have mattered.

Having the people most affected by the outcome in the room was a constant reminder of why we were tirelessly working to find a solution. The more we worked with them and learned their stories, the more we all felt that we simply could not let these youth down.

Lesson 2: Use What You Know

We built a team that had extraordinary expertise in a range of distinct areas, allowing ExpandED to focus on our own areas of expertise: systems-building, convening, advocacy, and raising funds for public-private partnerships. And, we relied on decades of evidence and practical knowledge from the field about youth development and workforce development. We also chose partners who shared a common commitment to equity. The combination of expertise and shared values created a strong foundation on which to re-engineer.

Lesson 3: Nurture Strong Relationships

We drew on grantees, partners in various local and state coalitions, funders, former staff and leaders, and many others. Everybody looked for solutions and reached out to others as needed to solve problems and move forward.

As in all relationships, language was important. We were working quickly with many partners from a variety of backgrounds, so we knew we needed to stay attentive to the potential for misunderstandings. When terminology issues caused confusion, we made sure to address them both one-on-one and explicitly in large groups. We created a glossary and used our listservs to update everyone so that we could also stay on the same page. We remained optimistic during difficult conversations and returned to shared values and goals.

Lesson 4: Boost Creativity and Look for New Partners

We purposefully gave our effort a new name — Youth Empowerment Summer — so that we could think without constraints from previous models. This frame captured the imagination of people who might not have supported incremental changes to a broad summer employment program. The great need, opportunity for innovation, and true collaboration were motivating for stakeholders.

YES excited partnerships within the non-profit and philanthropic communities, many of whom were new to our work. At ExpandED we are always looking to recruit and engage new funders and we saw YES as an exciting recruitment opportunity for people and companies that want to identify ways to support youth development initiatives with racial justice goals.

The team effort paid off. As I write this, tens of thousands of youth are at work in opportunities that did not exist three months ago. The next phase of this effort includes applying the lessons learned to build on this extraordinary resource- and relationship-rich system to advance educational equity in the 2020–21 school year and beyond.

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