Leah Eggers, Program Manager, and Jacob Grobe, Manager of Post-Secondary & Workforce Success, work in Youth Workforce Development, guiding youth through the hellish sector that is the post-grad career path. Project Prepare is a program that sets teens up with resume workshopping, interview tips, job fairs, and maybe a foot in the door to begin their next steps forward. With underprivileged youth receiving little to no support on where to begin, no less how to sustain and develop career-building skills, Project Prepare is the ultimate resource in navigating that journey.
Leah and Jacob, nominated by Chief Program Officer Will Hobart, went to NYC for a weeklong training for emerging workforce development fields. The topic: how to get more young men of color into the workforce. The task: how to solve the problem of POC unemployment rate, which is statistically lower for a variety of complex reasons — at the cornerstone of politics and policy, Leah described the problem-solving as “developing economic advantages to gain the trust and respect among a population who hasn’t received it.”
Collaborating with members from the North Lawndale Employment Network, Chicago Center for the Arts & Tech, OAI Inc., and LeadersUp, Leah and Jacob were part of a 7-person team. The project assigned to the group was open-ended: the teams returned home to their respective cities (Detroit, New York City, Baltimore, Tulsa, and Chicago face similar socio-economic disparities), and deliver a project that reflected their training.
The “Step Into Your Future” youth summit was born. “It would be the step between a job fair and job readiness,” Leah said. “The gap between experience, training, and knowing what or where to explore is big, and we wanted to bridge that.”
“Why would you even bother with low wages, discrimination, [and] a dead-end future? With no inspiration to work, you might as well join a gang, get more money, and get respect,” Jacob said. “The important questions are how do we get them to take action? How do we inspire them to work and give them the drive to do so?” Leah echoed this sentiment as well. “How do you engage youth who are not engaged to begin with or are unaware of what resources are available to them?”
Instead of offering patronizing platitudes about a can-do attitude makes anyone’s dreams come true, Leah and Jacob found dynamic speakers. Speakers “who didn’t say ‘I worked hard and got a million dollars!’ but inspired the young professionals on how to get past systemic oppressors,” as Jacob put it. When hiring practices tend to ignore minority applicants, no less be actively discriminatory against them, the project team had to think outside the box. Gathering together around 20 different non-profit organizations, honest (“real and raw,” as Jacob described) guest speakers, and workshops with the bare minimum to get noticed (e.g., how to dress professionally and how to make a great first impression), their event actively strove against the basic job readiness fair. It was about empowering their youth to be independent, motivated, and knowledgeable about systemic oppressors that might make their search more difficult. The event’s provision of community resources proved to be a modest success, as attendants provided positive feedback through a follow-up survey. Hopefully, “Step Into Your Future” will become an annual event.
“We had our hiccups. There was sometimes… uneasiness in how ambitious we made this project, but we got it together,” Leah said. “We called in all our favors, volunteers, donors…a good amount [so] we could provide a thoughtful, curated event with souvenirs. It was magical,” Jacob added. “When something is uncertain, people are reluctant to do it. But putting ourselves out there made people rise up for the youth.”