ABOVE PHOTO: Last year Aug. 2017, WorkReady Philadelphia, managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), held the second annual WorkReady Celebrations Tour to exhibit participants’ achievements and lessons from their summer work experience. Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend speaks to the audience during the event. (Photo courtesy: PYN)
By Amy V. Simmons
SUN: How important is the support of parents, guardians and extended family to the program participants and to you as president and CEO?
CFT: It’s critical — a basic need for young people, whether they’re in our programs or not. The reality of it is that some young people have an abundance of support. [The supporters] might look like parents, they might look like coaches, they may look like teachers. So while the support is there, some kids need more.
What we do in our work is to make sure that they have at least one [supporter]. A caring adult is essential to the navigation process of our services. The caring adult may be helping you to get prepared for work, or they may be helping you figure out what your next steps will be. They may be helping you rethink going back to school.
What I love about our work is that we are doing both. We’re in the “and” business, not the “or” business. We do education work and we do employment work. But our aim is to help young people transcend poverty and to get over the hurdles created by inequity.
We want to change the story for young people. And caring adults who are willing to commit to that are essential. We would not be able to reach the scale we do if we didn’t have committed adults who are on the same page with us.
Nobody gets there alone. Even to this day, I have a social network; that’s what we’re trying to teach young people to build. They know about social networking, but we’re trying to teach them how to build a social network — a support system. Sometimes it’s going to come from peers…that’s helpful too. Coupled with a positive relationship with a caring adult, that’s critical to their ability to thrive in this process, because it’s hard.
SUN: You were honored by the Obama White House as one of nine “Champions of Change” in February 2016. What did that experience mean to you personally?
CFT: To go to the White House and be recognized for doing work that you truly love, and to be offered that platform, was transformative for me. I believe that to whom much is given, much is required. The second part of that which people often forget is that to whom much is required, more will be asked. I went to the White House with a lot of nervousness. I actually forgot my name when Valerie Jarrett introduced herself – I mean, like literally forgot my name. I was on the second panel, and I was very nervous…I could feel myself shaking. I said a prayer to myself that was, “God, when I open my mouth, let what you want people to hear come out.”
I wish I had a recording of the panel, because there are probably a lot of things I said that I don’t actually remember. Folks were very receptive to my comments about young people and pushing them towards the future. I remember leaving feeling incredibly grateful, not just for the acknowledgment, but for the ability to have identified what I was really passionate about and what I love to do every day, and for the awesome responsibility of doing it…
It changed my paradigm about our experiences. I said [to myself] ‘I want young people to find their passion.’ I don’t feel like I go to work every day; I just do what I love every day. I feel like if you can do that, your gift will make room for you. Your gift will bring you before great men. I’ve seen it happen in my own life. The White House [honor] was an example of that…it helped me grow in a lot of ways.
SUN: A partnership between PYN and the City of Philadelphia’s latest workforce initiative was announced recently. What are PYN’s hopes for this program?
CFT: We have been in the partner process from the very beginning, and we’re grateful for that. There are a couple of things I hopeful for and excited about.
This [City] administration brought together so many different people. Employers are there. Philanthropic investors are there. Government officials are there. I’m there. To include us all on the path to the next phase I thought was really remarkable.
We are committed to helping the City achieve the goals outlined in the plan. We thought the recommendations were really important.
The other thing I’m really excited about is that it wasn’t just the “youth plan” or the “adult plan. It was let’s look at our city, talk about what Philadelphians need, and create a plan to accomplish that encompassed youth and young adults. It encompassed different kinds of youth and young adults — not just the kids that are in school, but also the kids that are out of school, or have gotten their high school diploma and are still struggling with what to do next… let’s talk about families of immigrants, let’s talk about returning citizens.
It was also an opportunity to talk about the arc, not just the piece. That was probably what was most exciting. I really believe that our greatest solutions are going to come when we work together.
SUN: What are your long-term hopes for the city’s youth beyond realizing or surpassing the goals of “2020 Vision”?
CFT: That’s a great question. Ultimately, we’re trying to interrupt intergenerational poverty…[I hope] that young people will be able to advance academically and professionally so much so that they’re able to transform their communities and their families. That there is better family stability and long-term success in high school graduation, college matriculation and workforce entry, or matriculation into learning programs.
Everybody doesn’t have to follow the same path, but my hope is that they will be able to identify what is the best path for them and follow it to completion. I think they’ve learned that in our programs…you now have folks that are ready to climb that ladder as they go, because they know there’s no limit to their success.
SUN: Thank you for speaking with us today.
CFT: Thank you for coming and sharing with the world what we are doing. We appreciate that kind of help, because we want young people to know about it so they can take advantage of what’s happened here.
The application deadline for this year’s pilot programs is April 15, 2018. There are a limited number of slots.
To access the application, and for more information about the Philadelphia Youth Network and its programs, visit: www.pyninc.org. They can also be reached at (267)502-3800.