I’m 17 years old, and a first-generation Senegalese American. As a rising sophomore, I knew I wanted to do something with my summer. An internship and other summer programs would be difficult to secure because I had only finished my first year of high school. So I applied to the only option I knew about: New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program.
Some summer experiences are unpaid, which means students have to choose between compensation and the value of a summer job. But with a simple lottery, you can get both through the youth program, and also choose jobs that are close to your home.
I was excited for my first opportunity to be financially independent and learn about potential career paths.
I vividly remember the day I had gotten chosen by the lottery. Usually, I don’t have success with lotteries. It was a rough day at school, and I had a lot of assessments going on. In the afternoon, I checked my email and saw that the youth program lottery had accepted me. I was ecstatic for the rest of the day, because even as a freshman, I knew what a wonderful opportunity I was being offered.
One thing I really like about the youth program is how it connects local youth, mainly black and brown, to community-based organizations. For example, the summer following freshman year, I was an intern with the Children’s Aid Society. During the week, I would travel to downtown Manhattan in professional attire. Just having the responsibilities and dress of a working adult helped to develop maturity that I did not have before.
My peers and I learned about the different food injustices in New York City. We also learned about the various environmental impacts of our food choices. I liked how there was hands-on learning because we visited greenhouses, local gardens in the city, and a United Nations-sustainable house. I had to apply the different skills I had learned through growing plants using hydroponics and learning to make sustainable and organic meals.
This amazing experience ignited a passion for giving back to my community, as well as searching to understand the systemic issues that led to so many black and brown New Yorkers living in poverty, having underfunded schools, and not have enough sources of healthy food.
Along with the incredible information I learned through my summer job, I also had my first chance to be financially independent. Freshman year was tough for my family financially, and I did my best to burden my family as little as possible. Of course, I’m a teenager, and while my family always provided basic needs, the youth program provided me the opportunity to have some of my wants fulfilled.
With the money I made, I was able to purchase a new phone, clothes for the school year, and have a really enjoyable summer because finances did not stress me out. Although I can never repay my parents, I was able to make a dent in everything they have done for me by buying groceries and giving them some of my earnings.
I have only had one experience with the youth program thus far, but you can see all that it means to me. I applied this year and encouraged my sister, who is a freshman in high school, to apply, too. She was excited by the chance to be in the program after seeing my experience. The cancellation of the youth program came as a major surprise because thousands of city teens were relying on this opportunity, and the burden that we can take off our families by participating.
We have lost the chance to be financially independent and prepared for this summer. I believe the decision was made too hastily. Since the program does not start until July, the mayor has plenty of time to plan remote options that keep kids safe. If he listens to the teens of New York City, his administration would understand how valuable youth programs are and reconsider the decision to entirely get rid of these opportunities.
More than 75,000 youths were depending on this program for either a summer job or an internship opportunity. Low income communities already are being the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, providing teens with financial independence and a means to help their parents during these tough times is everything.
Of course, the city has tough budget cuts to make, and the top priority must be safety, but the youth program is not where to do it. We understand the city’s budget is tight this year, but investment in the youth program is not a waste, and teens are not expendable. We can be hired by employers that want to get back on their feet.
To the mayor and all New York City politicians: New York City teens can be a part of the healing process this summer. If you let us.
The author is a member of Teens Take Charge, a Bronx-based youth advocacy group.