STEP-UP creates opportunity for youth today, prosperity for all of us tomorrow

Seven years ago, in the gym at Edison High School, I told a group of 9th graders about what was then a new summer-jobs program called STEP-UP.  One of the students who heard me was Hashim Yonis. Hashim applied and a few months later, he had a STEP-UP job at the downtown law firm of Faegre & Benson.

Yesterday, it was my turn to watch Hashim on stage — at the White House.  He and I were invited to attend the day-long kick-off of the Obama Administration’s new Summer Jobs Plus initiative, for which STEP-UP serves as a model. Hashim spoke on a panel of young people who have benefited from meaningful summer employment and skills training, and this extraordinary, 23-year-old man told his extraordinary story:

Born in a war zone in Somalia, Hashim lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before coming to Minneapolis 10 years ago, speaking no English. After finishing Sanford Middle School, he enrolled at Edison,  got that first STEP-UP job, then another one in the Minneapolis Public Works Department before finishing at the top of his class. He went to graduate from St. Olaf College. Today he works as an administrator at Wellstone International School in Roosevelt High. (Check out this great MinnPost story about Hashim and STEP-UP.)

Hashim was the rock star of President Obama’s summit on summer jobs — impressive, when you consider that Jon Bon Jovi, a member of the White House Council on Community Solutions, was in the audience … along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, other presidential advisors and leaders of some of the country’s top businesses and nonprofits. Secretary Solis tweeted, “Hashim Yonis, a #summerjobs participant from Minneapolis, just shared an amazing story of perseverance and the power of opportunity.”

And when Hashim was done telling his story, President Obama hugged him.

Hashim is one of a kind — but he’s not alone.  He’s one of 14,000 young people who have held a STEP-UP summer job since we started STEP-UP with our nonprofit partner AchieveMpls. Many of these 14,000 young people have also taken advantage of the two other pieces of the Minneapolis Promise: planning their futures at college and career centers in every Minneapolis public high school, and financial help for college at the University of Minnesota and MCTC.

One of the best things about STEP-UP is that it’s there for young people who haven’t always gotten the opportunities they deserve: more than 50% of STEP-UP interns come from immigrant families, 86% are youth of color and 93% come from families living in poverty.

It’s no coincidence that since STEP-UP began, graduation rates in Minneapolis Public Schools have climbed from 53% to 78%.

The success of STEP-UP has only been possible because leaders of 211 employers in the private, public and nonprofit sectors have funded STEP-UP jobs, with help from the state and federal governments. I cannot thank them enough — and I want to extend special thanks to U.S. Bank Chairman and CEO Richard Davis, a strong business champion for our youth, who co-chairs STEP-UP with me.

The jobs these employers have provided are huge gifts from this community to these kids. In 2011 alone, these jobs put $3 million in payroll into low-income families. 

But make no mistake: these new young leaders are also a huge gift to our community.  Hashim, for example, speaks seven languages, and many STEP-UP interns speak at least two. Think of it this way: no other city in the country is training a workforce that is as globally savvy. These young people will make the Minneapolis of tomorrow a global economic powerhouse. 

Hiring promising young people from disadvantaged backgrounds for high-quality summer jobs and putting them on the road to success is the right thing to do. But it’s more than the right thing to do: it puts money into our economy today and it prepares our economy for the future.

Here’s where you can help: by hiring a STEP-UP intern where you work. Our community has done much to grow STEP-UP but we need to do more, because we have a waiting list of 2,000 deserving young people who are ready to work hard and give back. And if your workplace already has a STEP-UP intern, you already know how good they are — so you can help by hiring another.

If you or your employer is willing to help, contact Tammy Dickinson at the City of Minneapolis or Jane Austin at AchieveMpls.

Since that day seven years ago when I met Hashim at Edison, I have been promoting STEP-UP and the Minneapolis Promise at 9th-grade assemblies at every Minneapolis high school, every year.

This year at Roosevelt, I was introduced to the 9th graders by Hashim, now an administrator at their school. He told them that he once sat where they are and if he could make it, they could too.   

From my vantage point on that stage, I looked out at all those young faces from so many backgrounds, and I saw a very bright future for Minneapolis.


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