Report finds youth left behind in new Northwest economy

Youth including Nan Mukungu (second from left) posed for photos displaying priorities of the Young Workers in the Green Economy Project. (Photo by Shann Thomas)

Grassroots environmental group Got Green released a startling survey citing barriers to economic employment for immigrant youth and people of color.

The Arab Spring, the student protests in Europe and Canada, and the Occupy Movement all have one thing in common: they’re driven by a cohort of intelligent and ambitious, yet underemployed young people.

That same spirit was in the air earlier this month at Jumbo Restaurant, an unassuming dim sum eatery tucked into a strip mall on Rainier Avenue, where over 200 people gathered to hear from the youth of the ‘Young Workers in the Green Economy’ Project.

Got Green, a grassroots organization based in Southeast Seattle, hosted the focus group and published the report following previous projects covering food, transportation, and other urban issues that intersect with the environment.

The survey focused on immigrants and low-income youth of color, debunking the myth that all Millennials are white hipsters or entitled loafers.

Though the audience for the event included non-profit heads, elders, and public officials like Mike O’Brien and Adam Smith, the entire show was run by people like my table captain: 18-year-old Claira Le.

Le was one of the 36% of young people in the Got Green survey who came from immigrant families, and one of the 79% who identified as a person of color.

She echoed the unique experience of immigrant youth facing the three main challenges cited in the report: lack of access to education and training, limited job prospects, and inadequate public transportation.

Le had hoped to already be attending a four-year college by now, but has had to put schooling on hold because it’s just too expensive. This was a common experience of many lower-income young people surveyed: the cost of school was cited in the report as the primary barrier to participants reaching their stated goals. Le spoke to her own experience with struggling to navigate the education system with little help from her Vietnamese immigrant parents.

“It is hard to explain to them,” said Le, who is the only person in her family who speaks fluent English. “I would go by myself to these [college readiness] events… There was nothing I could bring home to my parents that they would understand”.

With the rapid rise of Washington-state tuition and decrease in available financial aid displayed in the report, it’s clear that attending college has become cost-prohibitive for youth across the state.

“When I see young people in school, I get jealous. It’s a challenge,” said Le, who hopes to start at Seattle University this spring.

Sunny Kim (left) and Mijo Lee listen to youth presenters from the Young Workers in the Green Economy Project. (Photo by Shann Thomas)Sunny Kim (left) and Mijo Lee listen to youth presenters from the Young Workers in the Green Economy Project. (Photo by Shann Thomas)

The report urged lawmakers to support policies and programs that increase financial access to college, like the ‘13th Promise Year’ a private program subsidizing the first year of community college, as well as vocational training for young adults of color. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed were not in school.

But if you swear by the “it’s not what you know, but who you know” proverb, then access to education isn’t all you’ll need to make it in today’s economy.

Nanyonjo ‘Nan’ Mukungu, 23, talked of her lack of connections in Seattle, having arrived from Durham, NC, via Walla Walla where she attended Whitman College, majoring in history. Following graduation Mukungu participated in Americorps, a federal community service program that has increased in popularity as job prospects for young people have dwindled.

She observed many of her peers leaning on family support for food or housing while living on the program’s meager stipend, and relying on well-established networks for job searches.

“I was spending 60% of my income on rent,” said Mukungu, who watched other people stay with family or friends while looking for housing. “It’s not sustainable.”

Mukungu, who identifies strongly with her Ugandan immigrant roots, says she’s frustrated with being perceived as a ‘model minority’, because of her pursuit of higher education. Even a degree from a  four year college wasn’t enough to land her where she wanted to be. She spent months unemployed or working in retail rather than with youth, her chosen field.

Despite frustrations finding meaningful and sustainable work, Le, Mukungu, and the other youth behind the report said that they have found solidarity in connecting with other youth and allies organizing for change.

“I have a community behind me,” said Le.

With youth speaking out about limited opportunities, and voters demanding laws like the $15 minimum wage floor that was recently passed in SeaTac, policymakers would be wise to take notice of these recommendations. Otherwise, like in Tunisia, Cairo, Dublin and Rio, disenchanted youth in Seattle might have to take to the streets.

The post has been updated since its original publication.