On January 25, 2017, United Neighborhood Houses brought staff, allies, and nearly 300 youth to Albany for the 17th annual Youth Action Day, where youth spoke (sometimes sang, sometimes laid down verse) about the importance of the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) in their lives. Then, youth and chaperones went from office to office, meeting with more than 160 legislative offices and explained how summer jobs helped their family make ends meet, how summer jobs showed them new career possibilities, how summer jobs showed them whole new ways of interacting with their communities.
SYEP is a statewide program that funds summer jobs for youth between the ages of 14 and 20. In New York City, state funds supplement City, federal, and private funds for a program that is open for 14- to 24-year-olds. The jobs are wide-ranging: youth work in summer camps, offices of elected officials, chain stores, parks, the fashion industry, cultural institutions, health care, and more.
Organizing Youth Action Day is a lot of work. Before the main event I was joined by colleagues as we trained hundreds of teens so they could be prepared to tell their personal stories, speak with elected officials, and explain the program. Hundreds of meetings were scheduled for the teens with elected officials as schedules were balanced and organized. Then, on Youth Action Day, it all came together. Youth explained to legislators that their jobs taught them how to handle adult responsibility. They talked about using their SYEP money to pay for school supplies. Teens elaborated about how they discovered passions for education, healthcare, and community service in general.
Statewide and citywide, demand for the program is higher than the supply of jobs. The State funded 18,746 SYEP jobs last year. New York City used its funding for 10,777 jobs, which combined with other funding sources to create 60,113 jobs in the summer of 2016. Approximately 6,000 youth outside of the City, however, were turned away from the program in the summer of 2015 (the year for which the most recently available statewide statistics are available). In 2016, while a record number of NYC youth took part in the program, 79,506 youth applied but didn’t get to take part. The program is not funded to allow every youth who wants a job to get one.
UNH has been successfully advocating for increases in SYEP funding for 17 years. Until the beginning of this century, the federal government funded the majority of summer jobs. That funding ended in 1999, giving birth to UNH’s tradition of Youth Action Day—nothing builds support for a program quite like hundreds of youth descending upon the State capital and making impassioned arguments directly to their lawmakers that the government support their desire to be productive in the summer.
With the support of thousands of youth through nearly two decades, UNH and allies have created reliable funding for SYEP from State and City funding sources. In 2012, the program was funded to provide 29,416 jobs to NYC’s youth. This summer, the City is projecting enough funding for 65,000 jobs.
Each year I find Youth Action Day inspiring. It is one of many signs that, with some organizing and trust in the ability of young people to do serious advocacy work, we can make serious social change.