Tragic incidents of youth violence in Albuquerque, New Mexico, including the death of a 14-year-old, spurred one city councilman to propose a controversial youth curfew last summer, a policy previously deemed unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court.
Youth and community members responded by fighting the proposal tooth and nail, and Hope Alvarado was no exception. A junior at the University of New Mexico, Alvarado had lost a friend to local violence in the past year and firmly believed the curfew would negatively impact youth-- especially those working late hours or homeless.
Through her summer internship at the New Mexico Youth Alliance, a local advocacy group, Alvarado had learned the importance of getting youth involved in issues that affected them. She also connected with others who felt the same. One of her projects focused on determining the reasons youth felt disconnected from the community and how those sentiments could lead to school dropout or run-ins with the law.
Alvarado’s internship was one of 89 positions provided through the Youth Employment Summer (YES!) Institute, a program that places young people ages 14-24 at paid internships with civic organizations in New Mexico. The program, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and managed by the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), provides trainings and meetings that coach youth on everything from resume writing to leadership development.
“At SWOP, we believe young people are the solution, not the problem,” said Patrick Barrett, SWOP youth rights organizer. “One of the key things we’re trying to do through the program is to invest in our emerging leaders by giving students the skills necessary to shape the future of New Mexico.”
The YES! Institute is one of WKKF’s investments aimed at creating jobs for young people and strengthening communities through their work – both in New Mexico and in all its priority locations. WKKF also invested in a summer jobs program through the Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute, a think tank that addresses policy issues impacting the native tribes of New Mexico. The Leadership Institute placed 75 interns in the 22 Pueblos of New Mexico, ranging from positions at tribal education departments to senior centers.
The benefits of the program extend to both the interns and their employers, said Carnell Chosa, the Leadership Institute’s co-director. Interns perform work that fills a community need, as most of the employers would not be able to afford interns otherwise. Not only that, but the program also helps young people realize there is a place for their new skills and talents back home in their communities, he added.
Cynthia Aquilar, director of the Santo Domingo Pueblo Library, has been passionate about giving interns hands-on experience where they recognize their impact for the past two summers. Each summer, interns have worked on projects that include: creating a documentary film about the native Pueblo language of Keres, repairing bikes for community members, writing articles for the tribal newsletter and reading books to children, among others.
“We’re not just a library by way of shelving or checking in books. We pride ourselves as being a community-oriented library site,” said Aquilar. “Rather than putting our interns in a box here, they get an opportunity to collaborate with local tribal programs and government agencies where they learn to identify community needs that they can someday support.”
The internships have already impacted some of the participants’ life choices.
University of New Mexico sophomore Reyes Crespin said she changed her major after her internship. Crespin worked at the Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation in Santa Ana Pueblo last summer, teaching children about exercise and how to make healthy food choices. Recognizing that her mentoring could affect lifelong health, Crespin decided to pursue exercise science and nutrition as a career path.
For others, like Esteban Cabrera, a 19-year-old sophomore at Swarthmore College, the internship program not only reaffirmed his interest in community advocacy, but it also showed him how his academics could advance those goals.
Cabrera, who interned at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said he felt disconnected from some of the lectures in college that focused more on theories than practical applications. By working alongside attorneys to help low-income immigrants and their families through his internship, he saw firsthand how a law degree could make a difference in people’s lives. Cabrera is now considering pursuing a career in education policy and the law.
By giving youth hands-on experience that shows them how they can impact people’s lives, the program motivates youth to get more involved in their community beyond the summer internships too.
Recent college graduate Cecilia Frescas Ortiz is among them. Walking the halls of her old high school, Frescas Ortiz feels much has changed in the past four years since leaving home.
Frescas Ortiz, who participated in the YES! program over the summer, interned at Generation Justice, where she helped produce a radio show and blogs on issues like school discipline reform and health care access. She recently returned to her old high school as a curriculum coordinator to help teachers integrate lessons on progressive values into classes and mentor students to apply those principles to their lives.
After her YES! program experience, Frescas Ortiz said it has been somewhat challenging to work through the school system to change things, as change can be slow. If nothing else, though, the internship has given her more drive to continue working on issues she cares about.
“It’s been pivotal for me to become involved and realize what I should be fighting for. I think a lot of it has to do with my own experience as a young, undocumented woman of color from a low-income community,” she said. “Social justice is not just about social justice [for all] but something I have to do for myself and those around me.”