Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ronella Williams lives in Ward 7 near the Deanwood Metro station. She’s 22 and says that for “people in my age range, it’s kind of hard for them to find work, especially if you don’t have education.”

Williams has a two-year degree, but wants to go back to school this fall for a bachelor’s. In the meantime, she’ll work at the Downtown Business Improvement District near Metro Center for the next six weeks. She’s one of thousands of young residents ages 14 to 24 participating in the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program—named for the late mayor and in its 37th year.

“I’m using this program as an opportunity, because they don’t turn you [away] unless you live out of D.C.,” says Williams, who has participated in the program twice before. “I’m using it to help me get my foot in the door to expand my career.”

MBSYEP has for decades served as a kind of a rite of passage for thousands of D.C.’s youth of color. But this summer, participants 22 to 24 are eligible to enroll, after Mayor Muriel Bowser lobbied for the extension, and the D.C. Council unanimously approved it this February. More than 12,000 young people older than 14 are expected to take advantage of the program. Proponents say it provides key professional experiences for many who aren’t otherwise able to access them. Critics don’t necessarily disagree with that position, but have expressed worries about the program’s administration, long-term benefits, and costs: approximately $20 million this fiscal year alone.

All the same, municipal politics appeared far from the minds of those beginning their first official day of work at the BID.

Williams said she’s interested in becoming a criminologist, and aspires to find a job as an evidence technician. She’ll be collecting data on retail and doing market research for the BID this summer, using Excel and other skills she’s picked up in previous MBSYEP stints. Williams added that she plans on participating in the program next year, between semesters.

Other participants—the majority of whom hail from Wards 7 and 8—are working at District government agencies as well as private firms. MBSYEP’s proportion of non-government jobs and funding were concerns raised by the D.C. Auditor in a report released in April, as part of a series of reviews into the program. So too was its relatively high burden on local taxpayers: The District funded 99 percent of MBSYEP’s costs, whereas other major cities like New York and Los Angeles contributed less than 75 percent of their summer jobs programs’ costs by leveraging federal, state, and private monies.

Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden says the District has already started to incorporate many of the recommendations contained in the audit. “The Council tested us last year and I think there’s some debate from the auditor’s report, but what we know is at least 247 of those young people [ages 22 to 24] got connected to year-round employment, and we’re proud of that,” she said. “We’re going to work hard to improve how we report that data and also increase the number of kids [that find] year-round employment… SYEP is the gateway young people come through.”

In remarks to the BID’s hires, Snowden recalled her own first MBSYEP experience at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, when she was 14. “It was a tough summer,” she admitted, but it’s when she learned how to act in the workplace.

For Williams, the summer’s challenges are just as personal.

“I’m always nervous,” she says. “I’m shy, so I’m trying to break that shell.”