Despite its great cultural and economic contributions to Chicago, Bronzeville is still recovering from decades of disinvestment. To address the existing inequities, a local non-profit is making long-term plans to revitalize the community through its workforce.

To spur lasting change, Bright Star Community Outreach invests in Bronzeville’s future —  its youth.

By expanding on a citywide, summer youth-employment program, the community non-profit is laying plans for an employment pipeline that connects local youth to summer jobs and internships and prepares them for higher education and/or rewarding careers. 

“We believe that if we can begin with the young people and set them on a trajectory of success, then we can impact the landscape of the community,” said Nichole Carter, director of community strategy and development for Bright Star Community Outreach.

Community tackles inequalities through workforce development

Bright Star Community Outreach (BSCO) is the lead agency of the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network, a coalition of 13 community partners supported by United Way of Metro Chicago. The partners —  including social service agencies, schools and healthcare providers — work together to offer solutions and services aimed at reducing poverty and violence by enhancing employment and career opportunities for its 42,000-plus residents.

For decades, the city’s investment in Bronzeville has been disproportionate to other communities. Presently, the neighborhood has 19 percent unemployment rate and $29,500 median income. In 2013, the city closed 50 public schools, primarily in communities of color. A handful of schools in the greater Bronzeville area were shuttered or reconfigured during the process.

“The message that was given was ‘education is not that important in Bronzeville.’ Now, what do we do for some of those young people who may become disenfranchised or disconnected from education?” Nichole asked.

To answer that question, BSCO is filling the gap through youth training and employment opportunities.

“We believe that if we can begin with the young people and set them on a trajectory of success, then we can impact the landscape of the community.”

Summer jobs train youth in new fields

In just a few months, 250 Bronzeville youth ages 14 to 24 will kick off their six-week summer program with BSCO community partners.  As part of the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program, BSCO pairs students with job and internship opportunities that closely align with their interests. There, they will enhance their skillsets and build professional connections.

This year, some 14-to 15-year-olds in the program will be placed with partners who provide leadership and advocacy skills training, while others will work on a community project to collect their neighbors’ oral histories and research leaders in their community. They’ll receive a stipend for their participation.

Youth ages 16 to 21 will be placed in one of four cohorts —  property management, civic engagement, leadership and pharmacy —  where they’ll earn an hourly wage by providing administrative, maintenance and resident services support to a management company; completing administrative work in local government officials’ offices; participating in a leadership and entrepreneurship training; or serving under technicians at a local pharmacy.

They’ll also join their fellow cohort members for community building activities.

Building a pipeline from summer jobs to careers

Though the summer employment program is short-term, BSCO envisions it as a pipeline to a rewarding career and a brighter future. The summer jobs and internships are the youth’s entry point.

At the end of the summer, Nichole’s team at BSCO encourages students to nurture the professional connections they’ve cultivated and pursue further opportunities with the partners.

“We’re hopeful that some of the relationships that we build will result in mentoring relationships that will extend to support that youth will have during the school year and also in the years to come,” Nichole said. “We’d like for youth to come back to us next summer with some different skills and experiences that we can build upon.”

For those who have graduated high school, BSCO is hopeful the summer placement will catapult them to living-wage career opportunities. As an extra layer of support, BSCO works to connect youth to partners who can provide additional employment services.

“For students who may not plan to go to college or can’t afford college, this program gives them a certain experience that helps them obtain a job that sustains a household and not just a job where they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” said Kathy Cullick, BSCO community coordinator.

“College is not for everybody, and that’s okay,” Nichole added. “But a pathway towards success should be available to everyone.”

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