Like a bridge spanning whitewater, Urban Alliance offers a path for striving, at-risk teens to build professional futures. There is a chasm between these kids and the world of opportunity they've been told exists; Urban Alliance is the bridge.
The currents and rapids are obvious and powerful within contexts of generational poverty: pervasive crime, violence, drugs, abuse. Now, about to graduate from overcrowded and under-resourced high schools in Chicago, Baltimore, and DC, many of these teens will be the first in their families to walk the stage.
The odds are not in their favor, to say the least. In their worlds, 49% of adults are illiterate1 and that more than a third of girls will have babies before their 20th birthday2. For a strong majority, the free school lunch is their only meal in a day. For these kids, the idea of ‘career’ is about as distant as farmers markets and full-service grocery stores. It’s not a matter of working just a little bit harder or advocating for one's self marginally more, but rather envisioning another world entirely and learning the soft skills necessary to succeed within it.
This is what systemic change requires. This is how we break cycles of generational poverty: Empowering one hard-working teen at a time.
Pathways to professional achievement need to be created in order for at-risk youth to have a working chance, which is what Urban Alliance does so uniquely and effectively. We can say “effectively” because of the 17,000 youth engaged in Urban Alliance, 100% graduated high school on time (compared to DC’s 62%), while 90% were accepted into college.
Statistics hold that 18.3% of DC youth (ages 16-24) are not in school and not working, which is well above the national average of 13.8%3. With DC’s violent crime rate 6x the national average (median)4, the local backdrop for Urban Alliance’s work is clear. We need path carvers and bridge builders to help the next generation go further, dream bigger, achieve greater.
From Intern to Director
No one knows the impact Urban Alliance has on the young people of DC better than Nate Cole. Ten years ago, Nate Cole was going through his first Urban Alliance internship as a senior at Schools without Walls. Today, he is Executive Director.
He remembers his mentor spending hours with him on an especially arduous scholarship application. That single act of solidarity and support remains an anchor memory and guiding inspiration. After graduation (Yes! Graduation!), Cole went through the internship program for alumni. Though expecting to emerge an aspiring lawyer, his experience with and belief in Urban Alliance propelled young-professional-Nate into the nonprofit world.
Five years after his first internship, Cole returned to invest his time as a program coordinator and slowly worked his way to Executive Director of Urban Alliance's D.C. location.
Urban Alliance began twenty years ago with the simplest of questions. Andrew Plepler (then working at the Department of Justice) asked a young man, “What do you need?” He wasn’t expecting the answer he got: “A job.” Plepler told him he could make that happen, so the young man asked if his friends could get jobs, too. And that’s how it started—with one question, one man with a professional network and six young men wanting to work.
Since that conversation, Urban Alliance has expanded to Chicago, Baltimore and Northern Virginia and created professional pathways for 17,000 youth. “We let them know what the options are and that it’s not always easy. But if you have that drive, if you have that energy, are willing to work hard and remain open, teachable, then really your possibilities are endless,” says Cole.
First, these internships are paid. High-school seniors devote their final year to professional development in the real world. Applicants need only apply, maintain a positive attitude and a 2.5 GPA.
Once accepted, students go through six weeks of training. For two hours everyday after school, students learn the fundamentals of professionalism. Program coordinators then place students at one of the partnering businesses to begin their internship. At the jobsite, the students are paired with a mentor—a professional who walks with them through the entire ten-month placement.
Mentors teach the essentials, what it takes to succeed in the professional world— everything from punctuality to email etiquette, writing a check to creating a budget, active listening to being proactive.
"To establish a real relationship with a 17- or 18-year-old you have to engage with honesty and transparency—they’ll cut right through the bull,” Cole says.
One of the most powerful aspects of the relationship is the space provided for mentors to lean into the lives of these young people to help navigate life during and after the internship. If a student wants to go to college, mentors will do what it takes for that student to complete the application process. If a student wants to do vocational training or work, mentors will do their best to connect them into that field.
Mentors unpack hopes and build futures. “We do life with our young people. We do life with our interns. It’s not just clock in, clock out,” Cole says. This level of dedication results in 80% of alumni remaining connected to a pathway (college, employment or a career training program) one year after completing their Urban Alliance program.
We are the bridge for young people coming from the toughest, most distressed parts of the city, connecting them to opportunities.
All of us are woven—influences and experiences entwined. In this photo essay of interns and mentors, photographer John Jacks captures this idea. "As I hand-wove these images, the portraits took on a new narrative dimension. Each tuck and overlap adds character and nuance. Never perfect, but always unique—like us. This process symbolizes the impact of Urban Alliance: A community coming together behind each intern, inspiring growth, curiosity and professional development. Each individual is layered and intricate—we play important roles in each other's lives and it's critical that we are intentional about playing our parts well." ~ John Jacks, Photographer
It Goes Both Ways
What interns don't know is that they are teaching as much as they are learning; the urban alliance experience is transformative and invaluable for job partners and mentors as well.
More than 80% of job partners renew their partnership with Urban Alliance. “D.C. is a part of a region that has some huge challenges, and one is employment,” Cole said. “If you are bold enough to do business in this region, be bold enough to host a student and stand as a mentor with them.”
Bittersweet spoke to some recent interns, mentors and corporate partners to hear about their experience in their own words:
Ellice & Chelsea
“I had only worked at a flower shop before and I really wanted the 9-5 office experience to put on my resume and to prepare me for the future work world. Working with Urban Alliance helped me become more organized, especially our Friday workshops on managing money, which helped me create a budget. Working on NRDC Action Fund’s social media and utilizing the feedback my mentor Chelsea gave me really bolstered my interest in digital communications and messaging,” says Ellice Ellis, a current high school student interning with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Her mentor at NRDC, Chelsea Phipps, offered genuine vision and hope for Ellice: “Working with Urban Alliance has helped me become a better mentor and manager. I hope that [after this internship] Ellice is more confident and driven to achieve big things with her life; that she felt supported and that this experience made her feel like she had more female role models who eagerly want her to succeed.”
Priscilla & Gwen
Gwen Blackwell works at the United States Patent Trademark Office (USPTO) and mentors Priscilla Frimpong. “In working with Urban Alliance and Priscilla, I have gained a new respect for mentoring and the joy that comes from helping and working with others. The positive impact that you can have on a student that is starting the next phase of their life is tremendous. Mentoring can help provide the push to go towards something or open a conversation to other possibilities. My hope for Priscilla is that she will see that I probably learned more from her than she did from me and how special she is.”
Priscilla gushed about her mentor: “Ms. Gwen is the most amazing and inspiring woman I know. I have learned so much from her in the time that I have been working with her. She has taught me to be strong and I think that I have also taught her to make the best out of what you perceive as a bad situation. Urban Alliance is a great program and I would recommend it to any of my rising senior friends.”
Randy Hill, another mentor at the USPTO, shared: “I get inspired when I see the lights come on when a task is completed by the student. My intern sees what I do on a daily basis and he understands my challenges of running a business. This has provided him insight into knowing that a good education is extremely important. Mentoring is not easy but it is so important. You can make a difference in someone’s life and you get to watch it happen."
Similarly, Garikai Beverly, a mentor at Clark Construction, decided to become involved with Urban Alliance as a way to “pay it forward” as he was greatly influenced by his high school mentor. “I have had the opportunity to work with some very bright students, who have made me very proud to witness their professional and academic achievements. I was extremely impressed with how well the organization is run and its leadership works together to create a positive experience for their interns.”
Urban Alliance stands alone as the only yearlong, paid internship program advancing the professional futures of at-risk youth in D.C.
Build a Bridge
Need an intern? Want to mentor? Make your organization or company an urban alliance job partner. It's a true win-win if ever there was one.
“Do it! It’s an amazing experience! We often underestimate how much positive impact we can have on a young person by putting in the time to mentor. Seeing them go off to college and put the skills you’ve taught them to work is truly remarkable.” - Maria Martinez, a mentor with Natural Resources Defense Council
“It is a very rewarding experience that you will not regret. To witness that ‘a ha’ moment when the light bulb goes off is one of the most illuminating feelings you can have as a mentor. Make that investment in today’s youth and it will pay dividends in the future.” - Garikai Beverly, a mentor at Clark Construction
1 Washington Post. Illiteracy Aid Found to Lag in District.
2 Child Trends. Location Matters: Geographic variation in teen childbearing within Washington, D.C.
3 Opportunity Nation. Opportunity Index - District of Columbia 2015.
4 U.S. DHHS. Center for Disease Control. Information for Improving Community Health.
Everything about Urban Alliance is professional—the staff, the systems, the expectations. I recently visited the UA offices to observe their Friday training with a couple dozen interns and instructors and was tremendously inspired by their optimism and energy. A single morning of teaching spanned from presentation and public speaking skills to professional use of social media (included creating a LinkedIn profile). We recapped resume-writing and registering to vote, just before diving into professional etiquette at a mock networking lunch. This is most definitely immersive learning at its best.
I'd like to say a special thanks to Sokeng Leng (Director of Special Projects) for her invaluable and generous help as we researched for this feature, coorindating our efforts with mentors, interns, alumni and staff. Also, a big thank you to each of our story participants for their time and insights!
It's my hope that by sharing this story, our readers will be inspired to become job partners—playing a vital role in creating professional pathways for one of the most vulnerable (yet promising!) populations in our city.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly