I met Ebony Beatty at Hillhouse High School in a class four Yale students were teaching last spring. I could write a whole column about the uniquely horrifying circumstances she has triumphed over, but that is not my point today. Ebony was the shining star of our class. She is passionate, articulate, persuasive, poetic, responsible and intelligent. A senior this fall, she led her track team to seventh place in the nationals last year, has earned a 3.5 grade point average and is well-respected by everyone who meets her. Who wouldn’t want to hire Ebony Beatty?
Yet, this summer, Beatty was unable to find a job.
She started looking for work last May when she learned that the job she’d had in previous summers — as a camp counselor for New Haven Parks and Recreation — no longer existed due to budget cuts. She traveled by bus every day in June to job-search, submitting applications to over twenty businesses that said they were hiring. She never heard back from TJ Max or Gap or Marshall’s or Shaw’s or Save-a-lot or Filene’s or Lady Footlocker or J. Silver, or from a number of other small and large businesses that just didn’t have the time to interview a black high-school student from a New Haven housing project.
Ebony spent her summer unemployed and depressed. She ended the summer by earning some money staffing a week-long sleep-away camp at Junta for Progressive Action, a local non-profit, which she describes as the best part of her summer because she loves “helping kids.” She immediately deposited the $250 she earned at Junta in her savings account. But Ebony remains anxious about her ability to navigate the world once she leaves high school and needs to start paying for college.
Since Saturday, 2,000 youth leaders, government officials, scholars and development officials from over 140 different countries have been meeting in Alexandria, Egypt at a conference co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton and Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. The conference aims to address the global phenomenon of youth unemployment and under-employment.
The goal of the Youth Employment Summit 2002 is to “develop and promote programs and policies which will create sustainable employment for young adults.” According to summit officials, there are about one billion youth in the world today, 85 percent of whom live in developing countries where they have few skills and fewer opportunities for productive work. The conference is the beginning of a ten-year campaign that aims to employ at least 500 million additional young adults by 2012.
Commenting on this week’s summit, Clinton remarked, “In every region of the world, but particularly in developing countries, young people are in desperate need of productive employment. They want and deserve opportunities to contribute to their communities and to develop their skills.”
And that goes for right here in New Haven, in the richest state in the richest country in the world. Ebony’s situation is far from unique. We have thousands of young people in our midst in desperate need of productive employment who want and deserve opportunities to contribute to their communities and develop their skills. Young black men in New Haven face even greater obstacles to employment — one reason they often begin earning money through illegal activities, which they get into only after profound frustration with their inability to acquire a real job. Ebony says it is difficult to find a male peer who is not involved in some illegal form of money-making. She stresses that she has witnessed friend after friend — including her best friend — try in earnest to make money in a legitimate way and find it impossible.
Unemployment in Connecticut as a whole is a major problem — the state is the 13th worst for employment growth between 2000 and 2001. But New Haven’s young people need jobs more than the average American high school student, since they come from very poor and often non-traditional families. Two-thirds of the students in the New Haven Public School system are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches and one third are poor enough to receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Some of their families need them to contribute to the household income. High school students in non-traditional families, such as those living with an aunt, step-parent, grandmother or older sibling, are often expected to pay their own way.
This summer, over fifty Yale students were paid well to work at a New Haven non-profit or city agency through the President’s Public Service Fellowship and the Dwight Hall Summer Internship. Both programs are designed to teach Yale students to be active citizens of New Haven.
If you ask Ebony what she wanted to do this summer, she’ll tell you she wanted to work at a community center for kids because she wants to open one when she graduates from college. If you ask any of kids in the class we taught, you will hear dreams of improving their communities and apprehension about how to begin. Kids in New Haven want to change the world, too, and they deserve — even more than us, arguably — the chance to learn how to change New Haven. When we are long gone, to China or California or Nicaragua or law school, many of New Haven’s young people will be beginning to raise their kids in these same neighborhoods.
If Yale and Yale students really want to help New Haven, we need to start helping New Haven kids learn how to make New Haven better and address the significant problem of youth unemployment. Every summer, not only do we waste the opportunity to help young people develop their skills and ideas, we also force many of them into illegal ways of making money. The city of New Haven can’t solve this problem alone — New Haven is already facing another budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.
We need a Youth Employment Summit of our own that involves a commitment from all of us — major institutions like Yale, the city of New Haven and the state of Connecticut, large corporations, small businesses, youth leaders and the non-profit sector. We can help New Haven’s young people develop their potential and earn the money they need through fruitful, challenging and satisfying employment. Do you remember what “happens to the dream deferred”? Nothing good.
Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College.