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STEP-UP youth program returns the love to ‘chief cheerleader’ Mayor Rybak

Several students whose lives were transformed by their participation honored the mayor, recognizing his role as one of the program’s founders.

Mayor R.T. Rybak with Hashim Yonis and other STEP-UP Achieve alumni.
Photo by Larry Retzlaff

Upon R.T. Rybak’s announcement last month that he will not run for re-election, MinnPost’s Karen Boros asked the Minneapolis mayor to name his proudest accomplishment.

“No question,” he replied. “The single thing, more than anything else, that means the most to me is that we put 16,000 kids — 86 percent kids of color, 50 percent immigrants, 90 percent kids of poverty — through our STEP-UP Summer Jobs Program.”

And then, in case he wasn’t clear: “If a piano fell on my head as I walked out of City Hall, I could die happy because of STEP-UP.”

Well, STEP-UP loves Rybak right back.

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Friday morning, several of the students whose lives quite literally were transformed by their participation in its Achieve program presented the mayor with an award recognizing his role as one of the founders and “chief cheerleader.”

The mayor, who thought he was showing up at a breakfast banquet to thank the Twin Cities employers who have embraced his favorite cause, was momentarily, uncharacteristically tongue-tied. 

“The toughest thing in this job is to hear all of this and not start crying up here,” Rybak said. “What’s so profound about this program is the personal connection with a young person. These are not one-way relationships.”

Now a financial analyst at General Mills, program alum Miles Swammi was an intern in Rybak’s office in 2008, while at Patrick Henry High School.

“I don’t want to date you, but you’ve been mayor for a significant portion of my life,” he told his mentor.

During that time, Rybak changed lots of lives, Swammi said.

“The amount of work the mayor does for the city is phenomenal,” he said. “I remember asking him how he managed such an intense schedule of activities — training for marathons, speaking engagements, listening to constituents, endless meetings. He told me this takes a lot of hard work, and you always try to do your very best.”

STEP-UP Achieve is a partnership between AchieveMPLS, a nonprofit that works to draw outside support for Minneapolis Public Schools, and the city of Minneapolis. In its 10th year, the effort has placed 16,000 students in paid summer internships. The program provides training and preparation for the students, who must apply and interview to be considered for their jobs.

Each intern has a professional mentor who helps with the long view — that being college-ready is only the first step on a path that includes applying to college, attending and graduating with career goals in mind. Many come from families with no experience with college, so the mentors are also the first link in the students’ professional networks.  

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More than 450 employers, including the city, have provided jobs. Representatives of some 250 were on hand this morning to cheer as Rybak accepted his award.

“I’m here because of the mayor as well,” said Richard Davis, STEP-UP co-chair and chairman, CEO and president of US Bank. “Almost 10 years ago, he called me and said, ‘I have this idea.’ 

“This idea is brilliant,” Davis added. “There isn’t another city that has anything like it.”

STEP-UP’s combination of workplace experience and ongoing, personal mentorship helped propel Swammi to go on to college at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and to stay there until he earned a degree. His personal bond with the mayor informed his decision to pursue a double-major in business and political science.

“The mayor has always poured a tremendous amount of passion into this program,” he said. “He was able to take the time to really be a personal mentor to me. … He understands that this is an investment in young people and in the community.”

Alumnus Hashim Yonis met Rybak in 2002, two years before STEP-UP was created, when the mayor visited his freshman classroom at Edison High School. “He asked our class, ‘Is there anyone here who speaks a language other than English?’ ” Yonis recalled. “Almost everybody raised their hand. 

“‘Is there anyone here who speaks more than two languages?’ Several students stood up. ‘Three languages? Four languages?’ Soon I was the only one left standing.”

Yonis was born in Somalia and 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. He speaks seven languages.

“Then the mayor said, ‘In downtown Minneapolis there are many companies that are shopping for individuals who are talented when it comes to language and people skills,’” he said. “That really was a ‘Wow!’ moment for me.  I will never forget it.”

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Half of STEP-UP interns are the first in their family to go to college, and half are immigrants. Training and matching each student costs just $500; wage subsidies that average $1,500 apiece are returned to the economy by their needy families.      

Today, Yonis is an administrator for MPS’ Roosevelt and Wellstone International high schools. He has a B.A. in education and American history from St. Olaf College and a master’s in educational leadership from St. Mary’s University. He wants to be a high school principal.

After the program came to the attention of the White House last year, Rybak invited Yonis to travel to Washington, D.C., with him to meet Barack Obama. They told the president pretty much the same thing Rybak told Boros:

“A decade from now, the workforce in Minneapolis is going to be dramatically more diverse, tremendously more globally savvy and the employment gap between communities of color and the rest of the community will have closed because of the work we did in STEP-UP.”

If his honor is having second thoughts about leaving his job as chief cheerleader, he might take some comfort in the knowledge that the next generation of leadership he has helped to prepare isn’t going to let anything happen to the effort. 

“If we really want to pay tribute to his legacy,” Swammi told the audience, “we should continue to strengthen this program.”