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Getting Paid to Dream

by Jacob Hey & Jan Christensen

Take seven kids between the ages of 16 and 19, add the usual suspects of Riverwest activism, put them all to work on neighborhood projects for the summer, and you’ve got some interesting alchemy. You can be sure you’re going to break boundaries, expand viewpoints, and clash cultures.

That’s just what’s going on in Mayor Tom Barrett’s Summer Youth Internship Program.

The program was started in 2006, when it helped place close to 1,000 young people in summer jobs. They included more than 200 paid internships at City Hall for high school juniors and seniors and 435 jobs with 84 non-profit and faith-based organizations. The remainder are with Milwaukee companies in the private sector.

This summer, state money is allowing the summer youth program to continue. These jobs last for six weeks in July and August, and pay $6.75 per hour for 20 hours of work each week.

Every Monday, seven of the “mayor’s kids” working on projects in Riverwest (see sidebar) meet to set individualized work schedules, planning around summer school and other summer jobs. Overseeing this organizational task falls to crew leader Lisa Spencer, AmeriCorps worker Michelle Jones, and community organizer Jan Christensen. The mixture of strong women in authority and young male workers occasionally strikes sparks.

As 17-year-old Matt puts it, “Sometimes I think I’m working for a secret society of feminists. There’s a lot of tension.” He says he sometimes feels like “they’re downgrading males, and they don’t understand what they’re saying and I don’t like it.” Matt keeps it in perspective, however.

“It’s OK because it’s just a summer job.”

For their part, the crew leaders know that it is more than just a summer job. “They probably don’t even realize how much they’re learning,” said Christensen.

Sixteen-year-old Ivory likes working at the Riverwest Co-op. He said, “I’m learning a lot about vegan foods, and I’m meeting lots of new people, nice people.”

How has the job affected him this summer? “It’s keeping me occupied and out of trouble.”

And will it affect him in the future? “I want to volunteer at the Riverwest Co-op in the future, just because of the people at the store – it’s a nice place. I can learn more by volunteering after the job is over.”

Vegan food is not universally popular, however. Mark, a 17-year old who was born in East St. Louis, has this to say: “[People at the Coop] are vegetarians and vegans – they don’t eat no meat – which I found difficult because I love meat. On record – I love meat.”

Mark has had other experiences to expand his horizons. One of the health-related team-building activities involves joining neighbors for an hour of yoga on Friday mornings in Greenfolks Garden.

“You know,” he said, “I tried to do yoga – it hurts! It hurts like hell! But when I was there, I saw the wonderfullest thing in the world. This lady, she just started breastfeeding her son.”

Mark’s favorite part of the job, and learning about the neighborhood of Riverwest? “The girls! I want this on record – the girls.”

And how has it changed his life? “I work in the community now. I care about how the community looks somewhat. I mean, I’m not a tree-hugger or nothing, but I learned a lot about invasive plants and all that.”

This program is viewed by both Mayor Tom Barrett and Governor Jim Doyle as important to our community. At a July 23 public discussion of the City Budget in Miller Park’s Uecker Room, Mayor Barrett spent much of the time complaining that the city can’t spend its money until it knows how much the state has allocated. In the case of the summer youth program, however, the two levels of government were able to cooperate – even while Madison legislators continue to fight over this year’s budget. On the strength of a letter from Governor Doyle’s office guaranteeing that the funding would eventually be there, the city decided to front the money.

“Not every kid is going to love the job,” Barrett said, “but everyone in this room, I’m sure, has had jobs they liked and jobs they didn’t like. We tell the kids, ‘We want you to experience working, put a few bucks in your pocket, and keep you out of trouble.”

“As a community,” he concluded, “it’s part of our responsibility to allow kids to dream.”

Jacob Hey is an employee of the Summer Youth Employment Program in Riverwest. He is working on several creative projects to document the program.

Teenagers Summering Near You…

This summer, as part of the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program, the YMCACommunity Development Center hired ten youth workers and one crew leader.

Two of the students work with Melissa Herguth, community organizer at the John C. Cudahy YMCA, and one works with Mario Hall, community organizer at the Northside YMCA. The remainder work with Jan Christensen, community organizer at YMCA Holton Youth Center.

The program in Riverwest includes a variety of community projects. Marina Lee of Beginning Dreams Forever helped design a program to care for Snail’s Crossing park at Burleigh and Bremen Streets. She has also created a public art project called Scattered Truths that will involve the youth workers and others in the community.

Greenfolks Garden volunteers are working with the students to maintain and water the garden, as well as work on the rain garden and the creation of a new stone wall.

Sister Clara is working with the group to plant and maintain a garden at the Gingerbread House at 1st and Center Streets.

The students also work at the food pantries at St. Casimir’s Church and Gaenslen School. They help out at the Riverwest Food Co-op and Café. They are creating artwork for an antilitter campaign spearheaded by the Riverwest Neighborhood Association. In addition, some of the students work on projects to document the program, and on office work. Team-building, self-improvement and health awareness activities are also on the agenda..

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2007