The author of this op-ed, Ishrat Jahan, is a senior at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science and a member of Generation Citizen's Student Leadership Board working towards advocating for change on local and systemic levels.
For as long as I can remember, my first days of high school began with a symphony of the many engaging activities my classmates embarked on the summer before: helping out at a nursing home, tutoring elementary school students, serving constituents at a local politician’s office or, in many cases, gaining unforgettable skills. Each of these fulfilling experiences that wholesomely captured our attention for two entire months had a common thread I observed very early on: the Summer Youth Employment Program.
As the nation's largest youth employment system, SYEP provides many low-income, underrepresented New York City youth from ages 14 to 24 the opportunity to hold meaningful jobs, gain essential career-readiness skills, support their family, build healthy professional habits that can prove necessary for their college and careers, and most importantly, come closer to leveling the playing field in a deeply segregated school system.
Despite the program's stature and value, however, the city announced it will suspend and ultimately cut the program’s funding on April 7th, causing approximately 150,000+ prospective applicants to be left vulnerable and disappointed. While it is agreeable that what once stood as a well-treasured safety net has been lost, it has become more evident that it is not too late to save it.
Almost every change in history -- on both large and small scales -- has been backed up by a special tool, an admirable endeavor: advocacy. Amidst these unfortunate times, as well, it is the exact skill that, through an abundance of support, will champion us along.
As a participant in the Community Change Fellowship of Generation Citizen, an organization dedicated to empowering young people in becoming actively engaged citizens through Action Civics, I, as a young person, was provided with that invaluable support to sharpen my advocacy skills. Through learning about the facets of civic involvement with weekly workshops, channeling my voice by interning at a political office, and connecting with people who are at the forefront of change, it became precisely clear that to tackle any problem -- especially one as significant as the suspension of SYEP—extending a chance at advocating should be allotted to everyone.
From reaching out to local representatives, contacting organizations who are at the frontlines of ensuring the safety, security, and well-being of communities, and sending letters to decision makers, these advocacy efforts should accumulate to a reinstatement of SYEP (remotely if needed) and its funding to provide sufficient financial, developmental, and youth development and engagement during a critical moment in our city.
With such a goal in mind, many questions emerge: how can this possibly be done? Why is it even necessary? How can we serve so many students equitably at once? In many ways, such organized changes have already been done. As voiced by Teens Take Charge, a student-led coalition fighting for academic equity in the city’s public school system, when Mayor Bill de Blasio abruptly announced school closures, 1.1 million students were quickly shifted to online learning in a mere week by the efforts of teachers, administrators, Department of Education employees, and political leaders. That same collective push would be incredibly effective for bringing back SYEP for a fraction of that number in a lengthier three months time.
Reversing the decision to suspend SYEP and restoring its funding is fundamental for countless reasons, one being that it maintains integrity and retains belief in political leaders. At a time where representatives are reminding their constituents of their unwavering efforts in alleviating the stress caused by COVID-19, eliminating programs like SYEP contradicts those statements and adds little value to them.
Another significant reason follows: students need to supplement their extensive academic classes with personal, extracurricular, and professional development. As hectic and mentally exhausting remote learning has been, it is imperative to give us the platform to take a step back and ground ourselves. Above all, amidst parents losing jobs, siblings needing to be cared for, and students requiring as much support as they can get, it is more than critical, as the wealthiest city in the world that's home to the largest school system in America, to continue providing access to SYEP, where youth can purposefully pave their path to success and knowledge.
These are unprecedented times indeed. Unemployment rates are doubling, the economy is plummeting, we are losing loved ones daily, and young people especially are being required to adjust to difficult, overwhelming changes --one being the suspension of a program that has been life-altering.
As a young person myself, the actions (or lack thereof) we see undertaken, the events we see unfold under uncertainty, and the divisive decisions we see made on our behalf are indicative of how little we are being listened to, understood, and taken earnestly.
To safeguard the voices that are pivotal to the ideal democracy we strive for every day, I urge those reading to contact your local representatives encouraging them to support SYEP, sign a petition to amplify our fight, utilize social media to spread our message, and be an ally in protecting our future to ensure we continue having the chance to tell tales of those meaningful summer opportunities.