For Inner-City Boys, an Internship Can Lead to a New Path

By Anne Williams-Isom

For the 13,000 children we work with at the Harlem Children’s Zone, an internship is often a life-changing experience.

Our goal is to make sure our young people are ready for college – academically, emotionally and socially. But we do so in order for them to have a real shot at the high-skills job market and escape the gravitational pull of generational poverty.

To make the transition from college to employment, students need to be able to navigate the new culture of the workplace – everything from the dress code to the language to the etiquette. For many kids in low-income neighborhoods, the workplace is foreign territory, one which they have little experience of or access to.

For low-income boys of color, the difficulties in securing an internship are exacerbated by the terrible employment situation of the adults around them. The black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites. The by-product of living in a community with chronic unemployment and underemployment is that children often do not have the ability to access family networks to get an internship. At the Harlem Children’s Zone, we foster relationships with organizations to find places for our students. In addition, we ourselves hire many interns so they can still become acclimated to the demands of a workplace environment.

A well-supervised internship offers several important learning experiences for our students. They can get to “road test” their dreams of working in law, fashion or marketing. If their passion is a good match to the placement, students gain invaluable knowledge that they can’t get from books or in the classroom. They learn the soft skills of collaborating in an organization, managing time and being accountable. They also learn to network – getting savvy advice from coworkers or even getting invitations to apply for a job when they graduate. At an internship, the adult world that they are working toward in school suddenly becomes very real to them.

A great example was a young woman – I will call her Janelle – who came to one of our after-school high-school programs while she was living in a shelter with her mom. Despite the difficulties in her life, she was determined to become an attorney. We eventually helped her get an internship at a major corporation’s in-house legal department and it was a perfect match. They loved her and she shadowed attorneys, learning to think critically, ask incisive questions and improve her analytical writing. With their encouragement and advice, her dream coalesced and she got herself through college and law school. Today she works for a large insurance company, and is well on her way to a life she scarcely could envision when she first came to us. Years later, she still confers with the attorneys with whom she interned.

Breaking the cycle of generational poverty for millions of black and brown boys is an enormous, complex job – but a critically important one for our country. For these boys, an internship can literally be a way to step into a new world and begin to blaze a promising career path toward achieving the American dream.

Anne Williams-Isom is CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone and a member of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Advisory Council.