Internship program breaks barriers for young people most affected by inequities

King County is helping to break down barriers to well-paid jobs and career success for young people through an innovative internship and mentorship program that intentionally prioritizes young people with the greatest needs.

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The Lift Every Youth Employment & Mentorship Program aims to help youth and young adults who are disproportionately affected by discrimination, bias and oppression. These conditions lead greater barriers to meaningful employment, post-secondary education opportunities, and impact overall health and life outcomes.

“One of the meta-goals is to ensure the county is playing its role as an employer to help disrupt the school to prison pipeline,” said Arun Sambataro, the Equity Strategies Manager for the Office of Equity and Social Justice in King County. “We specifically partner with organizations that serve youth who are exposed to higher vulnerabilities that range from being out of school, evictions and homelessness, and intergenerational poverty, to domestic violence and juvenile probation and detention.”

Sambataro explained that through paid internships and mentorship to the County can engage young people in public service while helping them see employment as more than a paycheck: as a learning, supportive, and welcoming experience where they can explore a wide range of careers.

“It important they learn about their strengths, their potential, and their capacity to be leaders,” said Sambataro.

The program, which began in 2017, was developed by the very groups that engage in the program, ensuring that groups most affected by the inequities helped design approaches that work for them. Even some of the youth who participated in the first year were involved in focus groups that helped design and enhance the program.

For applicants to be eligible they must be at least 14 years old and participate in one of the following programs: The King County Superior Court’s Education and Employment Training Program, community partner Choose 180, King County YouthSource, King County’s Zero Youth Detention Peacemaking Circle Pilot, or be a returning participant from the year prior.

Applying is the first step for anyone that wants to be involved in the program. King County goes through a competitive application, interview and hiring process facilitated by case managers and King County employee mentors. Once selected for the program by the employee mentors, the interns engage with a team of three mentors, one primary and two supportive, in a field of work that they are interested in pursuing. These mentors help them identify short- and long-term career goals as well as strategies to achieve their goals, which include completing a specific internship project with the employee mentors.

“We intentionally recruit mentors who actively engage in racial equity work and have some fundamental competencies to be able to prepare these young people to navigate our workplaces and institution effectively. From there, mentors go through 12-15 hours of additional skill-building and preparation,” said Sambataro. “The mentorship is the most heavily weighted part of this experience. The trust and relationship that is built between the interns and their mentors is likely stronger than most lessons learned from doing a project.”

The interns also attend job readiness training, complete King County’s Restorative Justice Conflict Mediation Training and Certification for Youth, and attend King County Equity and Social Justice trainings as part of the program.

Lift Every Youth is also changing the way that internships are perceived at King County and other similar institutions.

“When I mention the word “intern”, our organization, our codes, and people have a very consistent stereotype of what that means – and to reframe these stereotypes was at times challenging,” said Sambataro. “Our usual internship opportunities are designed to work really well for white, college-educated, well-connected and well-to-do students, and less well for our youth and young people of color, regardless of education and income. But actually anyone can be an intern and should have the opportunity to be exposed to what an internship offers.”

Sambataro says that she is looking to expand the program next year to allow for 15 interns. Agencies are expected to build in the internship funds within their existing budgets to take part in the program.

“I do this program because I really love connecting with the mentors and the youth,” said Sambataro. “It is one of the highlights of my experience. This is something that is really obvious – it’s directly impacting our communities with the greatest needs, where we are wanting to prioritize our investments, time, and resources to see better, more equitable outcomes.”