A Conversation on Youth and Workforce Development with New York City Council Member, Althea Stevens

This week, Gregory J Morris, CEO of NYCETC sat down with New York City Council Member, Althea Stevens to discuss critical issues impacting youth and our community.

This week, Gregory J Morris, CEO of NYCETC sat down with New York City Council Member, Althea Stevens (District 16-Bronx) to discuss critical issues impacting youth and our community, including the pressing need to reimagine workforce development for young people and the investments needed in human services to support and sustain the sector and its workforce. 

Editor’s note: This feature was originally included in NYCETC’s NYC Workforce Weekly newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about workforce development in New York City. Subscribe here.

Gregory J Morris, NYCETC CEO: A report that came out today from the Center for Urban Future says the City has done a great job of making it possible for 100,000 young people to find summer youth employment opportunities but that the worksites don’t represent fast growing, high paying occupations like business and tech. How are you feeling about summer youth employment this year and what would you like the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) to look like in the future? 

New York City Council Member, Althea Stevens (District 16-Bronx):  We really need to be reimagining workforce development for young people. There’s never been time to stop and evaluate the program… We haven’t done a good job of exposing young people to those jobs and careers – we’re not exposing them to the jobs that are going to be relevant, so I think we’re just failing all the way around.

GM: In terms of your specific district, the data that came out related to the report from the Community Service Society and JobsFirstNYC indicated, pre- and post-Covid, there has been an increase in the number of out of school and out of work (OSOW) youth. Are there untapped opportunities for workforce development and job training in your district? 

CM Stevens:  My district is always a magnifying glass because we have high numbers of (households in) poverty. It hasn’t seen a lot of investment for years… And so I think that is a microcosm of what’s going on in the city…. Everything that you see in my district is typically extreme because we have all these other outstanding factors that haven’t been addressed. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of services in our district… I think it’s a lack of actually connecting to the young people who need the support… There are so many resources and things and programs that are not only in my district but throughout the city. But I say it all the time- Are we going where the people who need to be connected to the support? Are we going there or are we waiting for them to come to us?

I’ve worked in programs with a lot of OSOW youth… and it is a hard task because they are disconnected. Right? They are disconnected from us. So that means it takes a special person to be like, ‘Hey, where are these kids at? If they’re in a corner, I’m on the corner. If they’re on the basketball court, I’m on a basketball court. But that’s just not the model that is often followed and that’s not what most providers do…’ We need to make an effort to make sure that we’re reaching the kids who need the services the most… My district has a lot of students who just aren’t connected to anything. And so we aren’t doing a job about going out and reaching out to them.

GM: I was at an Adapting to the Future of Work event recently that was focused on the trends with young adults. A specific provider talked about the need to reach out to create safe spaces for engagement, coaching, guidance, and support. He was focused on mental health services and mental health support as particularly important right now. Is that something you’re seeing? 

CM Stevens: I’ve been talking a lot about mental health. We literally had a panel discussion with some young people (recently).  They are really leading the way on mental health. Even in the sense of being able to say things like, ‘I have anxiety. I’m depressed.’ But we know that in this city that’s something that we just don’t invest in, not in the city, the state or across the country… Young people are really saying, ‘Hey, this is something that we find important.’ I have a youth advisory board.., and that is what the young people said that they wanted to focus on. They’re like, ‘We don’t have enough mental health services.’ And I thought that that was really courageous of them to take that on as an issue. 

GM:  Do you want to say a few words about your history as it relates to working with young adults? I mean, what inspiration did you draw from that? What lessons have you learned and how does that influence you as a legislator now?

CM Stevens:  Folks who know my story know that I ran for office because young people said that they didn’t feel heard, and they didn’t feel seen. And they really didn’t feel like there was anyone in government representing their views and their values. I really make it my business to make sure while I’m in government, I’m always highlighting young people and bringing them up and talking about the importance of having them be part of the decision. It’s prevalent in all the work that I do, and that’s really my focus. I use the time that I’ve worked with young people in programs to really guide and educate the things that I’m doing in government. Nonprofits are a backbone of these programs… the backbone of the city. And it’s important for these programs to be funded because they really supplement the education system, because a lot of times the education system doesn’t have time to do career readiness and workforce development.

I was able to gain patience working with young people. I was able to gain a lot of innovative thinking. Being able to think on my feet. All of those skills I developed while working with young people… That’s why I fought so hard to be the youth services chair, because to me, I felt like I’m an expert in that and that my expertise could be used to really amplify the needs in these communities and the work that the nonprofit sector is doing. I used to go to the hearings and I remember just always feeling frustrated (with city agencies) because it was like they clearly didn’t know the program… I find myself saying that a lot in these hearings. It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s not my experience. So when did it change?

GM:  What’s the right strategy for an audience that’s part of a coalition who wants to stand up for the ideas that you’re putting forward. What do you feel like makes a difference with this council, with this administration in this city right now? How can folks be most effectively speaking out and advocating?

CM Stevens: I think it’s important that we are educating people on the work that we do and the impact that we have… I have been trying to explain to people that it’s not helpful when we pick a single issue out. Like for example, last year we were championing 3K and I’m like, That is not helpful that we’re campaigning solely for 3K. Most nonprofits run a 3K program, they run a senior center, they do all these things. And so understanding that we need to be advocating for nonprofits as a whole, right? How are we advocating for procurement reform?

But social media is a thing that really influences where people spend their time and focus, right? If things are trending or if someone is being shamed… and unfortunately, a lot of the work that we have been focused on has been reactionary to not looking bad or, you know, pushing back. We’re going to keep fighting for our COLA. How are we going to make sure that #JustPay is trending? How are we going to make sure that (nonprofits) are not going to take pennies anymore? And even thinking about, you know, there’s going to be a number of RFPs that are coming out and also how are we going to say we are not going to take contracts that do not benefit us anymore because it is a disservice to our community? 

I think that people just really don’t understand this work and it’s going to take us to educate them. I’m the procurement person. I’m trying to have reform. Most of my bills have been around trying to fix the procurement system… The Mayor’s Office had an announcement (about discretionary awards reform) saying it was a win… No one asked (them) to do anything about the discretionary funding because that’s not the issue. Sheltering Arms did not shut down because they didn’t get their $5,000 from the City Council. They were owed millions of dollars. That’s why they shut down… If we really wanted to have reform, it is about how we are getting this money out to the agencies in a timely manner and not trying to nitpick at the $5,000 that a Council Member is giving a local agency. Let’s think about how we really make sure that people are getting their money up front and how about we actually do things like not have contracts sitting for months and years? I get really worked up around procurement because it really pisses me off.

GM: Specific to workforce, I did want to ask about municipal jobs. As you know, the city made an effort to try to think about municipal hiring. There were a lot of hiring halls. I have a lot of thoughts and reactions to what I saw at the hiring halls.

CM Stevens: That’s one of the issues that I’ve been having. And even when we’re thinking about workforce development, young people don’t know about these (municipal jobs). I had a bill and I got a lot of pushback from city administration where I was really trying to ensure that city agencies were taking participants into their agencies as part of SYEP, because part of the issue, I believe, is exposure. If I’m in high school, how do I know about the Department of Buildings? I’ve never been exposed to it, I’ve never heard of it, right. And so, like, we are not even doing a good job at exposing the young people in our city to what the city has to offer. 

The first year I was in council, I found out that only 10% of the agencies were taking SYEP interns. And the 90% was going to nonprofits and private businesses. And to me that’s disgusting. How do we have an internship program? That’s what SYEP is, and we ourselves are not even being a part of the process. I was really pushing back on that in a real way.  How are we making sure that not only through SYEP but through different internships and different opportunities, we’re exposing young people to this work? If the young people are saying they aren’t coming to work right now because there’s no benefit, then we need to figure out how we are going to reimagine what it looks like because they are pushing back and they’re not playing. 

I think it’s about us really talking to young people. And that’s the other piece, talking to young people, having them be part of the conversation, and asking them what makes sense. How are we partnering with the private sector also to get the information out to young people about the jobs that they have and how are we collaborating? I think that it’s time for us to take a deep, deep dive and just reimagine the workforce. We know that kids aren’t getting jobs at McDonald’s and Foot Locker, so how are we creating programs and internship opportunities for them to get the experience that they need so that when they are adults, they can be productive citizens of society?