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Oh Y.E.S. We Did! New Report about Summer Work Program Highlights the Power of Collaboration

May 20, 2021

In the spring of 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a drastic decision to cancel the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) in New York City, the largest of its kind in the country. SYEP had typically offered income-generating, skills-building summer jobs to more than 70,000 teens and young adults, ages 14 – 24.

The response from communities, youth development organizations and young people themselves came fast: New Yorkers were going to demand the program be reinstated. As youth advocates Teens Take Charge led the public outcry with a voice of moral clarity, systems-builders, community-based organizations, companies and donors came together to devise and push for a way to safely restore an alternative approach to  SYEP during the pandemic.

The Youth Empowerment Summer coalition came together to advocate for restoration, collaboratively designed and pushed for a model for a virtual summer career exploration program that centered youth and community needs, incorporated the voices of diverse stakeholders, and created active supports for educators on the ground, including over $1 million in supplemental program funds. The development of YES demonstrated that virtual internships were possible, eliminating one of the main arguments against running the summer program. With that hurdle cleared and with the public demand building, Mayor de Blasio announced that the City would fund 35,000 stipended summer experiences through a new program called Summer Bridge, aligned to the core program elements of the YES model.

Making this effort a success required a new way for communities, youth, educators, and leaders to come together, and contained important lessons for the future or work-based learning and the formation of civic coalitions to redesign opportunities for young people. ExpandED Schools, Beam Center, and Hive NYC Learning Network partnered with Student Success Network and Telos Learning to document and analyze last year’s efforts. The resulting report, “Youth Empowerment Summer: Crisis Response and Lessons for the Future of Collective Action and Work-based Learning,” is a wealth of information, reflection, and evidence of the coalition’s collective impact, with a number of key lessons for the field:

  • Summer youth employment programs can, and should, be seen as spaces to simultaneously engage youth people socially and emotionally while also developing vital skills that can support equitable futures.
  • While there is no silver bullet to remote work-based learning, careful consideration around key program features—staffing, curriculum, technology, synchronous and asynchronous engagement, scale, and youth agency—can result in powerful learning experiences.
  • Youth leadership and voice is key in determining work-based learning policy and practice, and stakeholders like adult advocates, policy makers, and intermediaries should intentionally approach and support inter-generational deliberation and collaboration.
  • Civic coalitions can mobilize quickly through rapid response designs, provided there is long term investment in field-level infrastructure and intermediaries.
  • Community-led program design within work-based learning can result in models that are more robust, have greater buy-in, and better attend to local conditions.

These lessons should inform future work on summer youth employment programs and the ways the field might imagine civic responses to learning and support for children.