Students of color speak out on employment, school obstacles

Jessica Davis December 3, 2013 0
YWIG members identify their obstacles. * Photo by Shann Thomas

YWIG members identify their obstacles. * Photo by Shann Thomas

More than 200 people packed Seattle’s Jumbo Chinese Restaurant on the evening of November 12 to listen to and discuss the problems currently facing young students of color. The discussion was part of “Environmental Justice, Jobs, and Education: Seattle’s Young People Speak Out,” the Young Workers in the Green Economy (YWIG) Project community report back.

The YWIG Project is a place for young adults of color from immigrant families and low-income backgrounds to further the debate about the economy and the environment.The project was launched in January 2013 by Got Green, a Southeast Seattle-based grassroots organization led by people of color that works to ensure the benefits of the green movement and green economy.

For 10 months, a YWIG committee of young adults (18-35), held discussions about the impacts of the recession with their peers in south and central Seattle through 146 face-to-face surveys and three community roundtables. At the report back event, YWIG members reported the overall results of the surveys to the attendees, which included community leaders, peers, and elected officials (King County Department of Transportation Director Harold Taniguchi and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, among others).

Included in the event were a series of theatrical vignettes, based on real-life experiences and problems facing young adults today concerning transportation, education, and employment. A group of young adults who participated in the report acted out the various scenarios. The goal was to show the obstacles that the young people surveyed (75 percent people of color) said held them back from achieving their goals.

“Yet, in the face of economic hardship, the survey found young people of color in Seattle still hold deep environmental and social justice values,” said Mo Avery, lead organizer for YWIG. “Our city has an obligation to make sure this potential does not go to waste.”

In the first vignette, two people missed the bus and discussed their complaints about expensive and ineffective transportation. They mentioned that a 17-minute drive could take 1 hour and 20 minutes on the bus. Possible solutions offered by research participants included a low-income bus fare rate and to “bring college to the people” in Southeast Seattle.

Florence McCafferty, 23, who performed in the vignette, could relate to a number of these problems firsthand as she lives in low-income housing and takes a few buses everyday to work a part-time job in the University District.

“I just feel like so much time of my life is spent on buses,” said McCafferty. “I feel like I’m wasting my youth away.”

Transportation to school and work was the third most-often-cited barrier by young adults (42 percent African-American or East African, and 79 percent people of color overall) in the report.

“I had to drop out of school because I couldn’t afford the fare to get there,” said Oliver Williams, 22, who also participated in the project and the vignette.

In the second vignette, a scenario of a job interview illustrated the few opportunities for paid work experience and access to living wage jobs.

Khalil Panni, 22, a volunteer with Got Green (who also serves on the Board of Directors) and a member of the steering committee for the YWIG, knew college graduates who, when they applied for positions that their major matched, were turned down because they lacked work experience. He said they ended up having to get jobs at places like Home Depot, Shell, or Guitar Center, if they could find them.

In the vignette, Panni played the young interviewee, who had an education, volunteer experience, and a dedication to his field, yet he was told he must have two to three years of paid experience and that he should do an unpaid internship (which he cannot afford).

“These issues are real. These issues exist,” Panni said.

Thirty-two percent of young people surveyed report being “unemployed, but looking for work”; another 24 percent are working part-time; and, for the wage-earners in the survey, 75 percent earn less than the Washington state living wage for a single adult ($16.13 an hour).

The final vignette illustrated the lack of financial access to college and vocational training. In the vignette, Claira Le, an 18-year-old Vietnamese American woman, reenacted some of her own personal struggles with finding financial aid. When she met with a college admissions counselor about her interest in learning about a university’s application process and cost, she was not given the guidance she needed and was denied a financial aid application in Vietnamese that would be accessible to her and her family.

According to the report, of the 146 young people surveyed, 63 percent described having some college or post-secondary education under their belts. Yet fewer than 30 percent have received a two- or four-year degree, or completed a one-year certificate program, while 14 percent lack a high school diploma or GED.

“Our city will have to focus attention and resources on access to higher education if our young people are to reach President Obama’s goal of 60 percent of 25-34-year-olds earning some type of post-secondary degree by 2020,” the report stated.

After the vignettes, attendees participated in table discussions about their thoughts on what resonated most from the barriers noted in the survey results, their own personal or professional experience with the barriers, and what issues Got Green should tackle. Topics included unpaid internships, school loan debts, a tight job market, and problems with transportation.

To read the report and for more information about Got Green and the YWIG Project, visit gotgreenseattle.org.

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