Timely Series Explores Labor Issues Facing Youth-Workers

Photo of the hands of five young people clasped together

The CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) youth studies program, in collaboration with the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, hosted a two-part series this Fall entitled Youth-workers Unite! that explored current dilemmas and possibilities for youth-workers in the labor force.

“The pandemic has shown us that it is more critical than ever to address the needs of youth-workers as they enter the labor force, particularly since so many of them end up serving as essential workers,” said Sarah Zeller-Berkman, PhD, director of the CUNY SPS youth studies program, who organized the events. “This panel series offered a rich space to present possibilities for collective consideration related to building youth-worker power in the sector and then explore some of the opportunities and challenges related to those possibilities. I was personally thrilled to participate in these crucial and incisive conversations, which allowed us to push each other’s thinking and imagine the future of labor in the youth-services sector.”

The first convening, “Possibilities for the Future of Labor in the Field of Youth Development,” held on October 12, focused on some of the issues exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed an unquestionable reliance on youth-workers (mainly those who are not DOE employees and work in afterschools and youth/community centers) to care for the children of essential workers. During the pandemic, these youth-workers were sent into spaces deemed unsafe for workers who were unionized. They were considered both essential and disposable. This shift has propelled youth-workers to think more about their rights, protections, and compensation, as well to understand how to gain more power at work and to navigate the dilemmas that may arise.

Panelists who joined this conversation included Bianca Cunningham, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE); Kim Medina, special assistant to executive director of DC37 NPP (Non-Profit and Private Sector Division); Maida Rosenstein, The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW); and Ruth Milkman, chair of the Labor Studies program and distinguished professor, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Althea Stevens, city councilmember from District 16, delivered the panel’s opening address with longtime colleague in the field, Oswald Araujo from Queens Community House.

During the two-hour online event, speakers examined different models of organized labor, shared their own personal labor struggles and experiences, and posed questions about how to advance labor protections for youth going forward. The talk concluded following a half hour breakout session in which small groups discussed some of the ideas more in depth.

At the second convening “Worker-Owned Cooperatives,” held on November 23, a separate panel explored the growing interest in worker-owned cooperatives and discussed how to make community-based organizations (CBOs) in the youthwork sector more transparent, democratic, and equitable as well as support young people to own their labor.

Panelists included Brian Cohen, executive director, Beam Center; Kamau Franklin, founder, Community Movement Builders; Rebecca Lurie, founder, Community and Worker Ownership Project, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; Alethia Rael, worker-owner, Shadow Work Media; and Addison Turner, founding member, Worcester Youth Cooperatives (WYC) and Sankofa Cooperatives.

Throughout the two-hour discussion, speakers focused on the possibilities and complexities of incorporating worker-owned cooperatives into the youthwork sector, and described some of the work being done now to build youth-led coops or move towards a governance structure of a worker-owned cooperative. In the final half hour, attendees once again broke into small groups to address some of the questions posed during the presentations.

The youth studies program will also be hosting its annual Community and Youth Organizing Speaker Series, a three-part lecture series on youth and community organizing, in January 2022. Find out more and register for these upcoming events here.

Recordings of the Youth-workers Unite! panel events are also available for viewing.

About the MA in Youth Studies program

The CUNY SPS MA in Youth Studies, the first program of its kind in New York, was established in 2017 with the goal of supporting the needs of individuals ages 12 to 24 by training qualified frontline youth-workers, directors, and administrators. In addition to offering a high-quality degree, the youth studies program has a research agenda that uses youth-adult partnerships and a critical participatory action research approach to inform youth policy and practice in NYC. Current projects include partnerships with ACS and DOE and Amplify, a set of new and innovative research tools designed to engage young people in city-wide policy making and drive local action.

About the CUNY School of Professional Studies

For over 15 years, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) has been leading online education in New York. Notable for offering the most online bachelor’s and master’s degree options at the City University of New York, and for serving transfer students as the University system’s only undergraduate all-transfer college, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor’s degree, progress from an associate’s degree, earn a master’s degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers.

The School’s growth has been remarkable, with twenty-four degrees launched since 2006. Enrollment has risen by more than 30% in the last four years to over 4,000 students in the credit-bearing programs. Thousands more are enrolled in non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs. In addition, the School has an active alumni network and has established the CUNY SPS Foundation, which offers multiple scholarship opportunities to current students.

CUNY SPS has consistently been named by US News & World Report as one of the country’s top online institutions. This year, the School was ranked in the top 2% in the nation on the publisher’s list of the 2021 Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs.

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