Flipping the Equation – Ciara Wade, Program Director – New Door Ventures

“If we are going to help underserved youth in America’s cities, we have to flip the equation,” Ciara Wade, program director at New Door Ventures, says. Instead of paying the price downstream, in social costs through punitive programs like locking kids up, Wade believes we need to invest in improving our city school systems and creating meaningful workforce training programs for disconnected youth. At New Door Ventures, flipping the equation means seeing young people as assets, not problems. To leverage those assets, Wade says, “Work is critical. It’s a learning experience, and a place where teenagers define themselves as young adults. We have to harness their energy and their contributions toward the economy of the future.”

That’s exactly the message New Door Ventures gave to more than 50 mayors from around the US, who visited while attending the United States Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting in San Francisco June 19-22, 2015. New Door Ventures, a San Francisco based non-profit founded in the mid-1980s, has dedicated its resources since 2005 to meet the needs of transitional youth. Today New Door Ventures runs social enterprises including a bike shop called Pedal Revolution and screen print production facility Ashbury Images that provide meaningful employment, education and life-readiness skills. In addition New Door Ventures runs Ally, a paid work experience program which last year found jobs in San Francisco for 120 young people.

In the course of four days the mayors met to discuss the future of American cities, energy independence, the water crisis, criminal and social justice, vacant properties, and workforce development. To see workforce programs in action, the mayors visited one of San Francisco’s success stories, screen printer Ashbury Images, which last year employed 28 young people in its jobs program.

There they participated in a panel discussion led by Executive Director Tess Reynolds, and heard from Angela C. Johnson, the Director Product Strategy and Marketing Operations at Habitat for Humanity International – one of Ashbury Images’ largest customers, explain why buyers want to work with social enterprises like Ashbury Images. “It’s not a charitable donation, it’s a quality product.” Johnson says, “When we’re competing against low-wage factories, we have higher costs, so we have to work even harder to deliver a quality product.”

The response from mayors was enthusiastic. Following the New Door Ventures tour, Mayor Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, exhorted his fellow mayors with a call to action: “Let’s get operational to bring this work into our own communities.”

As the mayors headed for their home cities, Wade has several pieces of advice for them:

First, she says, stop paying for punitive programs like jails downstream, and start investing in programs that make a difference upstream. “The communities where these mayors are working are already paying the costs of youth being disconnected. They’re locking up kids instead of investing in programs that can put them to work. The numbers on this are ridiculous,” she says. “When you look at the raw dollar figures, we could take the money we are spending on imprisoning young people and instead send thousands a year to four-year universities.”

On a practical level, Wade suggests beginning by putting capital resources toward developing a future workforce. Start by identifying business in each community to get young people to work. Find an organizing body that can figure out ways to incentivize action. Look at the industries in different communities that will have to replace their aging workforce. Focus on the critical jobs that must be done in a community that provide basic services, then create meaningful vocational training programs to develop that work force. At a policy level, provide tax breaks so that local businesses have a concrete incentive to partner with community-based organizations to provide jobs.

Nationally, Wade points to work by Senator Cory Booker (a former mayor himself) and his sponsorship of the LEAP Act, which provides a federal tax credit for employers who hire new apprentices. But Wade says it is important for mayors to look at the local level and see how they can provide meaningful jobs in their community.

Flipping the equation won’t be easy, Wade admits. “It’s going to take guts to change the system so we are investing on the front end instead of the back end.”

-Ciara Wade is the Program Director for New Door Ventures, a community-based youth development organization that provides jobs, work readiness training, and supportive case management to at-risk, low income youth in San Francisco.  Ciara participates in many local forums that emphasize creating multiple pathways of opportunity for disadvantaged youth. From 2008-2014, she held an appointed seat on the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s Youth Council, a body that advocates for the educational and employment needs of youth.  She has been a co-chair for the San Francisco Youth Employment Coalition (SFYEC), and represents the needs of transitional-aged youth on San Francisco’s Workforce Investment Community Advisory Council from 2011-2013.  She currently leads a sub-committee on business development for the SFYEC.