Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

The Game of Chance by Janaye Ingram

Jan 13, 2012

The summer after I graduated 8th grade, I had my very first summer job at McCollum Insurance in Camden, NJ. Even though I was only 13, because I was entering high school, I was allowed to work in a program sponsored by two area nonprofits. As an “assistant”, I spent my many summer days learning about data entry, how to file, how to interact with customers, but most importantly, I learned self-worth. Through my job, I was able to gain some independence – I was doing a job and I was valued. I don’t even remember how much money I made, but whatever it was, I earned it and that gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment. At my job, the business owner, Lynda and her associate, Felicia, served as role models. I don’t know if I ever told them, but I really looked up to them. They lived in Camden like me (see here Newt!), but they lived what I believed to be glamorous lives, they drove nice cars, had all the right connections, and were just what I wanted to be when I grew up. They were also my mentors before I even knew what the word meant – guiding me and showing me the way. I don’t remember them ever getting upset with me – they allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them while teaching me how to avoid the mistakes in the future. The other benefit of having a summer job, especially that summer, was the fact that it kept me off the streets. Because I was entering high school, I thought I was grown. It was bad enough that I was a new teenager who thought I had it all figured out, but being idle could have meant that I would have been hanging out with my friends and I’m not sure what would have come of that. My summer job shaped me and made a world of difference by allowing me to see the opportunities that lie ahead of me and the potential that lie within me. I was given a chance, an opportunity and the value of the summer job was worth more than what I was paid; it helped me get to where I am today, of that I’m sure.

Reflecting on my own summer job experience is the reason I was so happy to attend the White House Office of Public Engagement’s Summer Jobs+ Conference last week. The event brought together government, corporate, nonprofit, and youth for an interactive day focused on creating more summer jobs, but beyond summer jobs, helping youth grow life skills. In the American Jobs Act, the President proposed $1.5 billion for summer jobs and year-round employment for low-income and disconnected youth. As we all know, Congress did nothing with the bill. But for all that Congress failed to achieve, the President and private corporations were able to come together to make happen for tens of thousands of youth. The goal of Summer Jobs+ is to provide work opportunities to 250,000 by the summer with at least 100,000 of them paid. For many youth of color, this is especially critical. This past summer only 34.6% of African American youth and 42.9% of Latino youth had jobs. The need to circumvent the process and create a new type of partnership was crucial, especially in this harsh economic climate and I am glad that the President and his team showed leadership on this issue.

The day started off with awards presented to various corporations who have showed their commitment to low-income and disconnected youth by providing opportunities including summer jobs, internships and other skill building programs. Companies like Jamba Juice, Wells Fargo, Viacom and the PGA have pledged to give their support to continued job creation and were honored for their work thus far. After the awards, we had the opportunity to hear from a panel of experts from the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors including Jamba Juice CEO, James White; President and CEO of National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguia; Board Chair of America’s Promise Alliance, Alma Powell; Mayor of Minneapolis, MN, R.T. Rybak; and John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and the White House Council for Community Solutions. The discussion, moderated by Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, focused on how the strategies that each sector employs can provide at-risk and disconnected youth the opportunity to build the technical skills that will not only help them find a career, but developing the soft skills and life skills that are needed to go further.

Following the panel of experts was a panel composed of youth who have participated in various summer jobs programs. They came from all across the country – California, New York, Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, but their sentiments about participating in the program were all the same. They felt that the summer jobs programs they were in gave them purpose, gave them a sense of accomplishment. Through the jobs, they felt they had mentors and were able to confide in someone about their direction. Hearing them talk, I saw glimpses of my younger self. As they spoke, they spoke not just for themselves, but for their friends, their classmates, the other young people in their neighborhood. What they said was they needed opportunities.

“One of my mentors used to say to me, ‘If all you have in the world is a chance, you have all the world in your hands.’ America’s youth need a chance.” Said Shaakirah Medford, a college junior from Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Jose-Luis Mejia from California echoed the importance about a holistic approach. “It’s not really just about a job; it’s not really just about education, but it’s about a wrap around.”

Those very same sentiments were echoed by the President who made a special, surprise appearance at the conference.

“For young people, so much depends on a community that provides them with a roadmap…in concrete terms,” said President Obama. “These are the opportunities. That’s why summer jobs are so important.”

The day ended with breakout sessions focused on ground level strategies that will aid in keeping this commitment going beyond just 2012, but well into the future. The strategies discussed in the breakout sessions were delivered to the larger group and to Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, who will take the suggestions back to the President as they flesh them out and figure out which ideas can be implemented.

During his speech to the group, the President encouraged all in the room to find opportunities within their own companies and organizations. Whether it is providing someone with a paid summer job, an unpaid internship, mentoring opportunities, shadowing or even just assistance with their resume, there is something that each of us can do to help young people who simply need an opportunity and want to feel as though they are doing something meaningful. Having both been in a summer jobs program and having been witness to the level of confidence exhibited by the young people on the panel, I know that by extending ourselves, we can make all the difference. Today, the youth from the panel (and many more like them) are the beneficiaries of summer job opportunities, but tomorrow, they could be the next CEO of Jamba Juice, the next DC Bureau Chief of National Action Network, or even the next President of the United States of America. All they need is a chance.