YMCA CEO Glen Gunderson's Perspective on Engaging Youth in Workplace Development Opportunities

My first paid job was between my junior and senior year of high school. Along with four of my best friends, we landed the night-shift on an assembly line. 

We had to be responsible: We’d meet up each night and carpool 40 minutes to the plant, where we worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. with just two 15-minute breaks.

We made tape dispensers, and we learned about productivity and teamwork, and reporting to a supervisor.

It was enlightening, and the job paid nearly double the minimum wage at the time — significantly more than most of our other friends.

That job provoked us to say: We want to go to college. But we had lots of fun, hanging out at a local beach during the day and earning — and saving — money.

So how did we get such a great job?

A friend’s dad was a company executive.

This was about our personal network. Would we have been installed in that night shift without him?

Absolutely not.

The people who are in your path as you transition through middle school and high school can either help you aspire to something significant or become a barrier.

I believe some kids are trapped in an environment where the people around them are tamping that fire or, worse yet, squashing hope.

The caring adults who get placed in the path of youth early; they make all the difference.

According to MN DEED, while the unemployment rate among white Minnesotans was only 2.9 percent in 2016, it was 5 percent for Hispanic Minnesotans and 12 percent for African American Minnesotans.

According to Wilder Research, only 6 percent of white youth are disconnected from work and school, compared to 17 percent of youth of color.

Those figures reminded me of a powerful analogy from a two-day, dismantling racism training I recently attended in Charlotte.

With a three-hour block for a class, a professor tells the students they will play Monopoly. But there’s a catch: All the white students are not allowed to start the game for two hours.

The students of color pick the pieces and start right away. They earn money and buy utilities and properties.

When the two hours expire, the white students are allowed to join the game, except they must make their own game pieces because none are available. They grow frustrated because most moves land on property someone else owns. Some become so disenchanted they would rather sit in jail than pay others any more money.

In the history of the study, no student who started two hours late has won the game. Hmmm…

We often talk about equal opportunity and equity. But, in truth, we’ve been effective in allowing white privilege to carry the day; there’s a systemic, calculated way in which we have prevented equal opportunities.

In Minnesota, prosperity is not distributed equitably — there is a 13 percent disparity between white community members and those of color.

We are determined to change these alarming figures.

I love how Jenny Collins, our executive director of the University Y, describes providing students of color a “spark.”

For me, that first job demonstrated to me that I could communicate with adults and inspired me to attend college.

I’m encouraged by Sharifa Abdirizak, who had an internship through the University Y.

“Just being at the U Y, I can see the big picture of what my degree provides, and I’m thankful that I have the opportunity and continue to have the opportunity,” she says.

These experiences build on itself and these students gain confidence then see themselves as leaders.

Sharifa is now a graduate apprentice and site lead for our Global Innovators program.

I’m hungry for the Twin Cities YMCA to do more.