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Student showcase caps off a summer of work

Photo: Greg Windle

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

One group of students spent the summer compiling information about dangerous working conditions in Vietnamese nail salons. Another made a documentary called Mending Bridges highlighting the heroism of police and firefighters, as well as social workers. A third group created a community outreach program to inform young people about HIV prevention.

These students were among 8,000 who had summer jobs or internships through WorkReady Philadelphia, the city’s summer employment program. They presented their projects at the culminating event last week, the WorkReady Expo, held at the Convention Center.

The program, managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, contracted with more than 60 organizations to give students summer jobs and help them design and complete a project. An additional 120 employers hosted student interns at their own sites or subsidized internships at other sites around the city.

Each group of students designed a six-week project and created a plan to continue that project. The winner of the Expo’s “venture capital challenge” was given the funding needed to keep working on their project over the next three years.

Sinefah Hewett’s group started by doing research to answer their own questions about HIV. They found they had a lot of misconceptions about contracting the sexually transmitted disease.

Another student in her group, Steven Simmons, was surprised to learn that HIV is not just transmitted through sex. “You can get it from things other than sex, like blood and breast milk.”

The students broke up into teams based on their interests. A research team compiled answers to the students’ original questions. A street team did interviews with people diagnosed with HIV. A media team created a short film. A sponsorship team organized an event – a play telling the stories of three people who contracted HIV: one through sex, another through breastfeeding, and a third through a tattoo done with a dirty needle. The play was used as an opportunity to distribute condoms and information about STD prevention.

“I didn’t know much about it – not as much as I know now,” said Hewett. “Be protected. Get tested.”

At the expo, another group of four students watched as adults donned headphones and picked up iPads to watch the trailer for their 12-minute documentary, Mending Bridges.

“My co-workers wanted to shoot a documentary, so we pitched the idea to the kids. They were excited about it,” said their site adviser, Miguel Vargas. “So before we shot, we had them make a silent film.” He used the production of the silent film to teach students technique.

“We watched a bunch of films with them – from Braveheart and Malcolm X to documentaries like Food Inc. and Supersize Me,” Vargas said. “They learned the emotion behind the shots.”

The students formed six teams, each with one student conducting interviews, and another filming. The teams went to neighborhoods like Hunting Park to find role models such as police and firefighters “to show people why they should look up to them,” in the words of one student.

But the teams cast a wider net for their "heroes" than law enforcement and firefighting. One group profiled Carmen Muniz, a social worker and counselor for people with drug and alcohol addictions.

“Firefighters and police defend,” said Joandrie Delgado, “but we need social workers to help people get back on their feet.”

The students were so thrilled with the experience they are planning to make a sequel in the fall during their free time after school.

A group of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American students did an anthropological study of the working conditions in Vietnamese nail salons in Philadelphia.

Many of the students don’t speak Vietnamese, while other students speak Vietnamese but little or no English. This made them the perfect group to conduct 60 interviews with Vietnamese nail salon workers, many of whom don’t speak English.

They started their project with a three-week forum on Vietnamese history, and then developed hypotheses before conducting the interviews. Their site adviser, Jonathan Luu, said the students met with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to learn how to analyze the data they gathered in interviews.

Two students, Toan Uong and Mi Phange, cringed as they described the commonly reported health issues from the workers – skin conditions, respiratory problems, back pain, and perhaps most egregious: many woman reported being given no breaks, not even for lunch.

The students found many of their hypotheses to be supported by the data.

“I expected workers to be working every day for 10 hours, with some speaking English, but some not,” said Uong.

They found that many women worked between 9 and 11 hours a day for six days a week. One finding that surprised Uong was the age of the workers – all of them were young.

“Most of the people I interviewed were in their 20s.”

Mi Phange said that workers who spoke no English were at a particular disadvantage.

“The majority of people don’t speak fluent English. That can cause problems between the worker and their boss,” said Phange. “They want to hire someone that can communicate with the customer,” which means “they offer more money to workers who speak English.”

Another student in the group, An Nguyen, pointed out that “most workers get paid under the table,” which means “you can’t sue them," she said. "The bosses can take advantage.”

But none of these projects won the venture capital challenge. That honor went to a group that designed an app called Philly Phinds, which helps students find extracurricular activities around the city that aren’t sponsored by schools.

During a time of budgetary uncertainty, schools have been cutting back on what’s available after school. The app lets students search for activities they can get involved with instead. It can also be used to find opportunities to volunteer and build a résumé.

As the winner, Philly Phinds will receive their requested funding for the next three years.

For WorkReady, the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition is one of the largest provider organizations. At a coalition event on Wednesday, program coordinator Klint Lee explained that 1,169 students were employed by nonprofits and more than 400 others did internships with corporations. The students were from District, charter, and parochial schools.

“Early employment is a critical steppingstone on the pathway to financial security,” explained Bank of America’s Pennsylvania and Philadelphia market president Tom Woodward. This summer Bank of America was WorkReady’s largest individual employer, supporting 73 interns.

Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, said that each year, the organization has to raise the money to cover the following summer’s roughly $13 million investment in WorkReady.

“Just a few months ago, we were projecting a $2.5 million gap in order to match the same number of summer opportunities as last year, and I am happy to report that we met this challenge through the help of our city and statewide partnerships,” she said.

WorkReady’s website reports that the Wolf administration created a $7.5 million program that was expected to create 3,700 summer jobs across the state. Philadelphia received more than $4 million of that funding.

PYN also relies on funding from the local level. The city of Philadelphia invested more than $5 million in summer employment programming, with funds from both the Department of Human Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

WorkReady estimates that it raised $13 million, which supported 8,000 students. But District Superintendent William Hite said that is not enough.

He said that while 8,000 students had jobs, “18,000 are seeking summer employment,” meaning “there is more work to be done."

Greg Windle is an intern at the Notebook this summer. Additional reporting by contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.

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