When Hashim Yonis’ family arrived in Minneapolis 12 years ago, he couldn’t see far beyond day-to-day survival. Born in war-torn Somalia, Yonis grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where food and water were the major concerns of his parents, who had no formal education.
This morning in the company of his mentor and friend, Mayor R.T. Rybak, Yonis, now 23, is telling President Barack Obama and a White House audience just how far he has come since then, and how many people made a concerted effort to help him broaden his horizons.
“I was born in a country that has had no government for the last two decades,” Yonis said. “My mother, rest in peace, never went to school in her life. My father never went to school in his life.
“Where I am right now is the last place you would think for someone who comes from wondering where food will come from and how you are going to survive.”
Update: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (@HildaSolisDOL), tweeted this from the event: “Hashim Yonis, a #summerjobs participant from Minneapolis just shared an amazing story of perseverance and the power of opportunity.”
Yonis and Rybak are attending an all-day meeting about youth employment at which Obama is announcing Summer Jobs+, an initiative for businesses, nonprofits and government to work together to provide pathways to employment for up to 250,000 low-income youth ages 16-24 in 2012.
Obama could not have selected a better poster-youth for the proposed venture. Yonis was an honors student at Edison High School when he got involved with a program called STEP-UP Achieve.
Most simply described by its parent organization, the nonprofit AchieveMpls, as a summer job program, STEP-UP places impoverished youth in jobs with top Twin Cities employers. The interns are paid, but they are also exposed to the opportunities that can come with a diploma, a college or professional degree and a social network.
Before graduating at the top of his class in 2006, Yonis [PDF] worked first for the law firm Faegre & Benson and then in Minneapolis’ Public Works Department. At City Hall, he got to know Rybak, who asked him to work in the mayor’s office during the following three summers.
An exposure to possibility
The mentors he had on the job helped him acquire workplace skills, Yonis said, but more than that they exposed him to possibility.
“They inspired me to think outside the box, to think about college, to think beyond high school,” he said. “I knew I needed four years of college at least to get where they were.”
Today, Yonis is the administrative manager for two MPS high schools, Roosevelt and Wellstone International, which share a building. He handles the schools’ daily operations so their principal can focus on instruction.
He has a BA in education and American history from St. Olaf College and is slated to receive a master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Mary’s University this spring. He wants to be a high school principal.
“I want to make a difference on a larger scale,” he said. “I want to show youth in the African-American community, the Somali American community that regardless of where you come from you can make a difference.”
Interns placed with 140 employers in 2011
In 2004, STEP-UP placed 200 young people with 50 local employers. Last year, the program made 10 times as many matches, placing interns with 140 employers, including U.S. Bancorp, Best Buy, Boston Scientific, HealthPartners, Allianz and Wells Fargo, where they earned a combined $3 million.
Virtually all of the program’s participants come from low-income families. A third are asked to stay on the job after their formal internship ends, two-thirds stay in touch with their mentors and 71 percent continue their educations past high school.
The program fills a vital workforce development role. In the next five years, employers here and nationwide expect to experience a shortage of skilled workers. By 2030, some 45 percent of the workforce is expected to be comprised of people of color, the very population most schools are failing.
Half are immigrants
Half of STEP-UP interns are the first in their family to go to college, half are immigrants and 86 percent are minorities. Training and matching each student costs just $500; wage subsidies that average $1,500 apiece are returned to the economy by their needy families.
Little wonder, then, that the White House wants to hear from Yonis and Rybak.
It was easy for Yonis to figure out what he wanted to tell the president: “When you learn, you grow, you expand your horizons. And you share and distribute knowledge to those in need.”