At 18, Ketorah Brewster is an experienced hand at community organizing.
Later this week, the Boston Latin senior will join hundreds of her peers in a march on the State House in support of a cause close to their hearts: summer jobs.
“Having a job is like having a voice,” said Brewster, a member of the Youth Jobs Coalition, a Dorchester-based organization. “Taking away a job from someone who wants to work hard is like taking away their voice and their ability to advocate for themselves.”
The picture most people have of kids and jobs is of working for pocket change. But that’s not necessarily the case. Brewster is an extreme example — her mother died in 2009, and she supports herself partly through her after-school work with the coalition.
“I’m on my own,” she said.
The coalition, and its current push for more jobs, is largely the brainchild of Lew Finfer, the longtime Dorchester community organizer. Finfer said the issue of jobs is best appreciated by listening to young people themselves discuss it. It quickly becomes clear that jobs are far more than just a way to buy sneakers or clothes.
“The teens speak movingly about using the jobs to help support their families,” Finfer said. “It’s really an economic necessity.”
The march Thursday will start at Old South Church in Copley Square and end on Beacon Hill. But along the way, the kids plan to visit at least a couple of prominent firms that have thus far declined to take part in summer jobs programs. Part of the reason for the current campaign is to preserve the $10 million a year state government now invests in summer jobs programs.
The push for summer jobs is not new. It was a longstanding priority of former mayor Thomas M. Menino, who considered it a useful public safety strategy. Last summer about 9,000 Boston youth found jobs through a patchwork of private employers, government agencies, and nonprofits. The Walsh administration wants to at least equal that number, while expanding the age limit of those who are eligible.
Felix Arroyo, the city’s head of health and human services, is slated to speak at the rally and is urging major companies that have shied away from hiring kids to participate in the program.
“I’m going to let the young people know that they do indeed matter and that they deserve these opportunities,” Arroyo said. “And I want to send a clear message to our private sector partners that the Walsh administration is ready and willing to work with them.”
The call for more summer employment seems especially timely as the city experiences a spike in violence. The value of investing in young people working to build productive lives is obvious to those who work around them.
Finfer said about only a quarter of the teens who seek jobs find them. That’s partly because many businesses believe they don’t have useful skills. That’s a notion Finfer rejects.
“They may be camp counselors, they can do administrative work in a nonprofit,” he said. “They can do data entry work, they may work on a cleanup crew in public sector jobs. Some of them work in labs. It’s really a range of things. The skill level of some of them would surprise people.”
If nothing else, the campaign is already teaching teenagers some very useful organizing skills as they advocate for themselves. They deserve the attention of those in power.
As for Brewster, who graduates from high school this spring, she believes she may have found her voice working on projects like this one.
“Hopefully, I’m going to college,” she said of her future. “I want to study sociology or anthropology, learning about movements and continuing my social justice work.”