By C.N. Staff Writer
“I love Marion Barry. I received my very first job through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program,” said Maiysha Toney. She recalled participating in the first summer job program and said, “I always had summer money” because of the program. Officially named the Summer Youth Employment Program, the program was one of former Mayor Marion Barry’s key tenets of his mayoral legacy. It was one of his first programs when he took office in 1979 and in the first installment of the program Barry and his team was able to enroll 25,000 youth. 2014 marked the 35th anniversary of the program, which aims to employ thousands of the District’s youth each summer.
Currently Barry serves as the Ward 8 Councilmember and said the idea for the program grew out of his childhood in Memphis, TN. “As a young man in Memphis, there were not many summer job opportunities. I worked several jobs and I knew then that I wanted to do something to change the job scope for youth.” Barry says even before he became mayor he had thought about creating a program for youth. “This idea about the summer job program came from my own head, not from a staff person,” he said.
The summer before Barry took office, he said there were only 4,000 District youth working in the summer and much of the funding for those was through federal government funds. When he took office, January 1979, he instituted the program with the Council’s approval and allocated city funds to help supplement federal money. “In the 16 years I was mayor, 100,000 young people went through the program,” he said.
While the program primarily started out for public school students, ages 14-18, it quickly expanded to college students, to include students up to the age of 21. “A lot of college students would come home and wouldn’t have anything to do. So we expanded the program and got them jobs too,” he said.
F. Alexis Roberson was the second Department of Employment Services (D.O.E.S.) director with the program. She said the program focused on employing youth aged 16-19 with District and federal government jobs, private sector jobs and various non-profits and other organizations. Through the program, youth got the opportunity to explore several career options and learn what was required in order to obtain a job.
The partnership has remained strong because District businesses have been committed to helping train students in the summer and then employ them once they finish high school or college. However, Barry says the program has seen a significant reduction in numbers over the years. “It [the summer youth employment program] has fallen by the wayside. This summer 11,000 youth were employed and last summer there were 14,000 youth employed.” He said there is still a need. He said he would work with the new mayor to help bring the numbers back up.
Roberson says one of the strong partnerships back when the program began was with Brenda Strong Nixon, who ran Associates for Renewal in Education (A.R.E.). One summer Nixon had between 3 and 4,000 youth in her summer academic enrichment program. Her program focused on job readiness, life skills, social skills and fun activities for students. Roberson said her goal was to keep students on their current grade level and make sure their academics wouldn’t slip during the summer.
Other major sites that were participants included the federal Departments of Health and Human Services, federal Department of Labor, Department of Housing and Development, the Social Security Administration and the Pentagon. Many students who went to work at these federal agencies still maintain employment there currently. Marsha Williams said she went to work at the Department of Labor and never left. “I began the program at the age of 17 and enjoyed my summers with it so much I never left. Barry’s program provided me with on-the-job training and the skill set needed to get and keep the job. I am forever grateful.”
Roberson said, “Barry instituted the best youth program in America. He deserves all the credit for beginning this initiative and I am happy to have served in his administration in such a pivotal time.” Barry seconded that comment saying, “No other city in America had a program that even came close to that program-in terms of the amount of money that was spent and how the program was structured. Because of this program a lot of District students have gone on to college and very successful careers.”
A partner program to the summer youth employment was Barry’s Youth Leadership Institute, which was a program, initiated to mirror the Districts’ political system. The program, still currently in existence, focuses on job, social, civic and political skills. Barry said the first installment of the program saw 500 young people in the institute. “We taught students the structure of government and how to access government.” Roberson said she thought the civic and political elements were important because youth “need to learn how to serve.” “The value of getting active in the community is golden,” she said. Through this program students have the opportunity to become engaged from 9th grade to 12th grade. Each year the students hold “elections” as if they were running in the local seats of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANC), State Board of Education seats, City Council and mayor.
Ultimately the program focuses on planting the seed of college into the minds of students throughout the four years that they are involved. Over their four-year tenure in the program they execute their platforms over the course of each year for the respective elected offices they hold. Thus, they gain the experience running and working a campaign.
Of his legacy with the Mayor’s Youth Leadership and the Summer Youth Employment Program, Barry said, “Mayors have a responsibility to lead, not to follow. Leading means putting out ideas and visions of how things ought to be. I happen to have a big vision.”