Thousands of kids across New York City depend on the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) to occupy their time every summer. SYEP, which has operated every year since 1963, provides minimum-wage jobs and internships to youth aged 14 to 24 over a six-week period. Last year, 151,000 kids applied for just 75,000 slots. The program, however, was in April, the program was canceled due to coronavirus concerns. On April 7th, Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong sent an email out to SYEP providers, writing “Unfortunately, the uncertainty over how COVID-19 will continue to affect social distancing guidelines, worksite availability, and provider and site staffing as we head into late spring and summer makes it difficult to ensure that SYEP can be operated safely and efficiently.”
One of the SYEP providers, a youth justice organization exalt, says they are ready to go remote. Exalt told Bushwick Daily that they are about, “catering to our youths desire for change and love of learning while acknowledging the barriers they face – including the disconnect they feel between school and their lives.” Their curriculum is influenced by the teachings of Paulo Friere, a philosopher of education. The program works with justice-involved youth to keep them out of the trouble with the law and put them on an upward trajectory through the educational system, assisted by engaging in paid-internship opportunities to facilitate entry into the workforce.
Exalt was founded in 2008 by Sonja Okun and its current executive director is Gisele Castro. It “was created to provide a voluntary (versus mandated) option for system-involved youth that is truly transformative, and that inspires youth to understand how education plays a powerful role in self-development,” exalt told the Bushwick Daily. While exalt is not a direct SYEP provider, it works with other organizations to connect its graduates into summer employment through SYEP. Exalt’s programming went virtual in April and has continued that way ever since. They conduct classes through Zoom and Google Classroom and the attendance rate has remained around 92%.
As the July 1st budget fight looms, however, along with recent calls to “defund the police” and for City Council to make a $1 billion—16%—cut to the NYPD’s budget, it has become more likely that SYEP will be fully reinstated. Mayor Bill de Blasio called SYEP a “central issue” amid budget negotiations and he said he feels “confident that we’re going to figure out a way to do something substantial for this summer” during a press briefing and on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Teens Take Charge, the youth organization leading the fight to save SYEP, however, said words simply aren’t enough. In an email to supporters, they said “Mayor de Blasio is using SYEP and youth programs as pawns in his budget negotiations with the City Council.” It continued, “If he really cared about young people, he would have announced the immediate restoration of the program weeks ago, as so many other mayors around the country have already done.”
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