“I’m from D.C., the home of mumbo sauce, go-go and the Summer Youth Employment Program,” a young D.C. native proudly proclaimed when asked where she was from. “Ben’s is all right, but SYEP is the real thing for those of us who grew up in D.C.”
The young woman said, “I got my first job” during the SYEP program, as thousands of D.C. residents often say, and this summer, she is the employer of several D.C. high school and college students who learn about the city, meet its influencers and explore journalism and media as a career.
Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry is most likely smiling from above upon hearing and knowing that the program he started more than 40 years ago remains a positive legacy celebrated by D.C. youths and adults alike, the majority of whom the program has touched in some way.
In 1979, the Barry administration kicked off the summer with considerable fanfare, as it did every year after, announcing the businesses that supported the local government-subsidized program and encouraging others to “hire a youth.” It was his answer to keeping young people off the streets and allowing them to earn much-needed income during the summer break. Every D.C. youth between 14 and 21 was encouraged to apply. As a result, thousands of youths received summer jobs making D.C.’s program a national model.
Over the years, the program hasn’t operated without its critics, however, whose complaints include its lack of meaningful work experiences, non-D.C. residents from surrounding jurisdictions who received jobs and times when its young workers didn’t get paid. And the program hit several bumps in the road, including bank cards that didn’t work and not enough jobs for young people who wanted one. Yet, every mayor that succeeded Barry continued the program and sought to find ways to make the program and experience better.
In 2015, Mayor Bowser expanded SYEP to serve 22- to 24-year-olds. And as she seeks reelection to her third term in office, she consistently announces that 14,000 D.C. young people have been hired by the program this summer.
In its 43rd year, SYEP continues to thrive despite a pandemic, thanks to both public and private sector employers willing to ensure D.C. youths have a safe and productive summer.