In May, Senator Kristen Gillibrand introduced the Urban Jobs Act, a bill that would provide federal funding to nonprofit organizations dedicated to preparing young people for job training and opportunities, particularly those who have dropped out of high school or have been subject to the criminal justice process.
And last Tuesday, August. 16, the senator stopped by the Make The Road (MRNY) headquarters in Jackson Heights, where she and local elected officials presented the bill to the community.
If passed, the act would authorize the Secretary of Labor to provide grants for Urban Job Programs geared toward youth at risk, allocating $20 million the first year and $10 million each year after that, for four years.
Local community-based organizations that apply for the program can use those funds to provide job training to the most challenged seeking a job.
Youth ages 18 through 24 years of age and not enrolled in school can receive job skills training, mentoring, and GED preparation, which is not only for dropouts but also young people with criminal backgrounds.
“I think this is the kind of legislation that is common sense,” Gillibrand said. “We need people of good will to come and do the tough work of creating a growing economy now in Washington.”
As the recession still lingers, African Americans and Latinos continue to be disproportionately affected. Both groups have the highest unemployment rates among minority youth; 39 percent of young blacks and 36 percent of young Latinos were unemployed in urban communities in July, according to an estimate by Gillibrand’s office.
State Senator Jose Peralta noted that schools with the highest amount of African American and Latino students have the least experienced teachers, while their dropout rates are “devastating.”
“We need to capitalize every opportunity to help keep our youth in school,” he said.
With these alarming statistics, a $20 million grant may not be enough to spruce up urban youth employment, but Gillibrand assures it’s the first step to show the program works and that the selected organizations can handle the job training.
One model non-profit guiding at-risk youth is Make The Road, with a presence in the low–income communities of Bushwick, Jackson Heights and Port Richmond.
MRNY plays an integral role on youth ages 14 to 21 by helping them develop critical skills in leadership, literacy, group work, community organizing, and self-expression.
Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of MRNY, knows that youth can easily become disconnected from school and work with no support.
“Our schools have failed them again and again, [and] the economy has failed them,” she said. “It is really the job of our community that those stories are turned around.”
One of those stories comes from Giovanni Matos, 22, who joined Make the Road 9 years ago.
Before graduating Bushwick High School, he was discharged twice because of tardiness and decided to dropout. He later found himself in trouble with the law, and that’s when he realized a diploma was a necessity. Before serving his time, he decided to finally finish high school.
“I can move forward and leave my mistakes in the past where they belong,” he said.
At MRNY, he was given responsibilities and valuable interactions with community members. He engaged young people to fight for issues such as a quality education and police accountability.
“[MRNY] trusted me to grab a task and run with it and that’s where the key to learning came from,” he said.
After having gone through a troubling experience, Matos gained an understanding for disconnected students. “I work with youth who aren’t so different from who I was,” he said.
Despite a hopeful legislation to aid youth, with high unemployment ranging on the job possibilities are hardly overflowing.
“Young people living right here in Queens are frustrated with obstacles not of their own making, but the harsh economic times were in,” said Assemblyman Francisco Moya.