By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO

New York-based actress/writer/producer/curator/dancer Chelsea Harrison may have completed the beloved Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program more than a decade ago, but she credits it with teaching her how to research historic figures she portrays in her one-woman shows. 

The program placed Harrison, 28, at the National Portrait Gallery during the summers of 2007 and 2008 where she learned there’s plenty of history and context you need to research about historical figures from the archives and other primary sources. And while you may think you know these people, researching them and understanding why they came to prominence is an illuminating experience, she told the AFRO

The Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program is celebrating its 40thyear. (Courtesy Photo)

“It’s really helpful to have those detective skills, to find other sources of information that are just not Google,” said Harrison, who graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2009, New York University in 2013, and is now researching the Amazon warrior women for her forthcoming play. “If I hadn’t done that SYEP, I don’t think I’d be ever interested in that history or in researching as I am.”

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s popular MBSYEP employment program turns 40 this year, and in the years since, the city has most recently extended its reach to help some of its alums offset the cost of education or military service.

This summer, the Mayor’s Opportunity Scholarship will dole out 75, $2,000 scholarships to adults 18 to 24 years enrolled in the program now. 

To qualify, applicants need a high school diploma or its equivalent, and must be enrolled in post-secondary education, the military or trade school. The deadline to apply is July 16.

“It’s a small scholarship to bridge the gap,” says Unique N. Morris-Hughes, director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Employment Services that manages the program. “Sometimes we find our students need a little bit of money to … start their post-secondary education.”

This summer, MBSYEP has brought on roughly 11,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. Roughly 90 percent of its participants are of African American descent, Morris-Hughes says. 

The locally funded program, which partners with hundreds of D.C. employers, gives District youth opportunities to work paid jobs through subsidized placements in the government and private sectors — this year, roughly 18,000 people applied and during these six week summer placements, youth typically make minimum wage, now $14 an hour.

Job opportunities range from working as a camp counselor to working for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, an independent bureau within the United States Department of the Treasury. 

“Youth employment is so important because we have an opportunity from the early stages to build the next generation of our workforce,” Morris-Hughes told the AFRO. “And those are foundational experiences and so if we are introducing young people to careers early on, perhaps they will not only find value in work and vocation in work but they’ll find their place in this world as it relates to a career.” 

Barry launched the program in 1979 for high school seniors.  In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser widened it to include adults between 22 and 24 years old, who account for nearly 900 people. Many come from Wards 7 and 8 where unemployment rates are the highest.  

The program’s overall goals are helping youth earn money through meaningful work experiences, helping them learn and develop skills, attitudes, and commitment needed to thrive today, giving them exposure to multiple industries, and letting them interact with career professionals in a positive work environment. 

Beyond getting paid to do what she loved at a top museum, Harrison learned practical skills on the job, like how to create a resume, build a portfolio, and budget.

“You need the work and I feel like young people in particular are employed in the summer and learning these skills,” she told the AFRO. “It just sets them up so much better for life.”