Imagining what could be: COVID-19 and community-youth development 2020

Students in SYEP Program
Students in SYEP Program

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to completely eradicate Summer Youth Employment Programs (SYEP) and city-funded camps while increasing funding for law enforcement has been widely criticized (see Teens Take Charge,Girls for Gender Equity, Jumaane Williams, Gayle Brewer, along with 28 city council members amongst many others). 

In her blog post last week, Dr. Elizabeth Bishop of the CUNY SPS Youth Studies Program asked us to imagine what could have been if lawmakers had gone a different route. What if they valued the fact that youth-workers and the organizations that employ them have an ear to the ground in neighborhoods across the city? These youth-work professionals know who is hungry, who needs tech, who has to move because there is a sick person in their house, who struggles with online learning, and who doesn’t feel safe at home. These workers have been trained in the value of building caring relationships, using a trauma-informed lens, and most importantly seeing young people as assets and active citizens of our city. Of course these professionals could develop creative ways to engage youth online even as the summer heat calls them outdoors—they have been innovating online for the past few weeks. 

But what if youth-workers had also been activated to partner with young people to build NYC back better? Young people could help safely deliver groceries or meals so that those who are in need don’t have to despair in their homes or wait for hours online at food banks or churches. Youth could call and check in on those who are elderly or sick, engage younger kids this summer in fun activities online, get tech into the hands of those who need it, and help peers prepare for college. There are pages of requests for food and medicine deliveries on mutual aid sites across the city (see Bed-Stuy Strong for a good example of a vibrant mutual aid network). Utilizing the organizational infrastructure of local CBOs, partnerships between young people and youth-workers could be just what NYC neighborhoods need to get back on track (see the rapid response of The Brotherhood SisterSol).  The strategic move would have been to preserve or expand SYEP along with letting self-selected CBOs reinvent themselves this summer to become community revitalization engines with youth at the helm.

The COVID-19 crisis has real implications for the Youth Development field that will reverberate past summer 2020. In addition to the dire straits our city will be in if we lose a committed and caring workforce, the type of work that some youth-serving professionals will need to do in the next period of time may also be transformed. It is highly probable there will be other crises due to virus or environmental catastrophe. We are facing a severe recession and are a city on the brink of bankruptcy. We are going to have to pivot to an economic paradigm centered on meeting local needs through community engagement and collaboration based on shared strengths and solidarity.

In addition to meeting immediate community needs in partnership with mutual aid networks, young people and youth-workers could help build local food systems (see the work of Raymond Figueroa Jr and the Bronx Micro-Food Hubs); Community WIFI (see Redhook Wifi Initiative); time-banks where everyone’s time and expertise is valued (see The Community Connections TimeBank); local energy and water infrastructure (See Uprose Community Solar project); and do research to help develop worker-owned cooperatives that supply large public institutions in their neighborhoods (see the work of Community Care Brooklyn). Cities across the country have demonstrated the benefits of moving towards greater democratization, localization, sustainability and collectivity (see the inspiring work of Cooperation Jackson in Jackson Mississippi, The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland Ohio, and the Wellspring Cooperatives in Springfield Mass). Instead of being short-sighted our city should be forward-thinking. 2020 is the time to promote a community-youth development model where youth-workers partner with youth throughout New York City to increase neighborhood resiliency, self-determination, strength and power. Why shouldn’t young people be the ones to move us into the next chapter post COVID? The future is theirs.

Sarah Zeller-Berkman, PhD is the director of Youth Studies Programs at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, where she also directs the Intergenerational Change Initiative, a youth participatory action research project involving tech and participatory policy making. She has spent the last two decades as a practitioner, researcher, evaluator, and capacity-builder in the field of youth and community development. Trained in social-personality psychology, she has worked in partnership with young people on participatory action research projects about issues that impact their lives, such as sexual harassment in schools, incarceration, parental incarceration, child welfare, and school discipline.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Kimberly Flores

    I loved this post! Thank you so much for giving us a vision of how young people’s creativity and desire to contribute could be tapped in this moment. Even though the city has stopped funding summer youth employment, I hope this will act as a challenge, igniting other stakeholders’s buy-in and support!

  2. Judith Clark

    This critique of the city’s current policy is so powerful because your visionary alternative is so concrete and possible. Thank you for helping me infuse hope in my chronic outrage. Brilliant!

  3. Dawn

    This article is making my brain explode! The whole paradigm shift to it should be so obvious youth-focused employment to solve youth and community needs! And provide real capacity building and leadership development to youth so they have the skills to put their knowledge solving some of our city’s toughest, most intractable problems.