Can the humanities make workforce development better? Yes, says Penn’s Netter Center.
With the relaxed bustle of a weekend barbeque, teens bottlenecked the first floor of a West Philly rowhome once owned by the late Paul Robeson, famed African American athlete, performer, and civil rights advocate. His face beamed at the crowd from photos and exhibits as enthused students held up poster board presentations and chatted with peers and adults about ideas for start-ups and their recent internship experiences. Steaming plates of tacos, beans and rice made the perilous journey from chafing dishes on the front porch through the happy melee to seats in the rear of the house.
This “Internship Finale” brought together those hardy youth who completed Teen Reading Lounge at West Philadelphia High School. The out-of-school time (OST) program held regular meetings on campus but also had a four-hour weekly internship component — a challenge to balance with all the demands of school and life. The capstone celebration at the Paul Robeson House was a day for project presentations, sharing work experiences, and some well-deserved recognition.
The students were part of a new twist on Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Teen Reading Lounge program. At over 80 sites across the state, the program’s model has focused on young people deeply discussing both traditional and contemporary literature, inspiring creative and civic engagement projects. Youth experiencing poverty in both rural and urban communities have had a particularly strong connection to the experience.
The Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to take that approach and try something a little different at West Philadelphia High School.
Instead of focusing on Young Adult novels, comic books, and other literature, the teens dug into the New York Times business section, debated the ethics of soda tax regulations, and watched inspiring TED Talks. Deep, engaging discussions were still there but the creative projects were focused on business or social entrepreneurship plans and there was an added internship experience at a local business.
“I have been working in nonprofit education in Philadelphia for about 10 years and haven’t seen this type of partnership,” said Joseph Brand, Sayre University-Assisted Community School Site Director for the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “It gives students an opportunity to not only create projects that build 21st century soft and hard skills through humanities, but also connects those skills to the real world — I think that is amazing.”
With the support and guidance of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the core humanities spirit of Teen Reading Lounge remained in place: reflective conversations and engagement with ideas and stories were still key to the experience. Best practices for effective youth development were also in place.
This wasn’t the first time Teen Reading Lounge has been used as a platform to develop workforce skills. Carla Christopher, former York City poet laureate, worked with Martin Memorial Library in 2015 to develop a program that built entrepreneurial skills
But the incorporation of an internship experience was new.
“This was a fresh approach to Teen Reading Lounge,” said Jen Danifo, senior program officer at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “Not only did it allow participants to build skills employers cite as essential to a well-rounded job force, it allowed the young people to unpack their own experiences on the job and explore possible next steps for future careers.”
A recent independent analysis of Teen Reading Lounge by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit found that nearly 75% of youth participating in the program reported improvement with communication, social awareness, and collaboration — skills identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as needed by young people in order to be successful in the new economy.
Because of Teen Reading Lounge’s knack for building high-demand “soft skills,” executive director Laurie Zierer says the Pennsylvania Humanities Council is interested in continuing to explore the possibilities of future workforce development applications.
“We are excited by the potential,” Zierer said.
Alexandra Garney, an Americorps VISTA volunteer, was part of the group selected by the Netter Center to facilitate the program, along with Rosie Jacobson, Netter Center Facilitator and Education Specialist and Lucas Vanarthos, Netter Center Facilitator. Margaret Zhang assisted with curriculum creation as a Netter Center Silverman Fellow.
Garney says that she wasn’t much of a fan of the humanities back when she was in school but this experience has put things in a new light.
“If there had been programs like this I would have been a lot more excited about it,” said Garney. “The students had an opportunity to have a real world application of the humanities.”
Brandon Sampson-Brown, a 10th grader at West Philadelphia High School, is one of those students. Teen Reading Lounge helped him land a dream internship at Toyota, an experience that supports his career goal of becoming a mechanical engineer. He says he learned a lot about airbag safety and got hands-on with the inner workings of the office.
Sampson-Brown credits the program for providing a supportive environment to build skills he says he will need when he heads into the workforce.
“It helped me with speaking and helped me with my writing,” he said. “I appreciate Teen Reading Lounge because everyone is so positive — Miss Alexandra talked to us like a peer.”
The weekly Teen Reading Lounge meet-ups had included fun ice-breakers, discussions about justice in the workplace, writing and reading assignments, internship reflections, and some traditional humanities fare. The group read Robert Frost and Malala, an Afghan novelist and Nobel Laureate. They listened to music from John Cage and the French pianist Christophe Chassol.
This approach provided opportunities to think about the working world in new ways, providing a greater appreciation for context and the range of human experience.
“Students were able to think deeply about the concepts that we were learning about through a variety of different mediums,” said facilitator Garney. “Sometimes the practical experience of an internship is too practical and doesn’t allow for the in-depth learning and reflection of the humanities.”
Site Director Brand says it was the engaging conversations and hands-on experiences that helped keep the teens interested and coming back week after week — not an easy task for some OST programs.
“We were able to maintain a consistent group,” said Brand. “The ability to apply what they are learning to real world experiences has really helped bridge some challenges that we would have had with retention in some of our other programs.”
There were no signs of retention challenges at the packed Internship Finale. The smells of Latin American food on the porch of the Paul Robeson House beckoned students and guests inside to hear about the final projects and talk about internship experiences.
There were some understandable jitters about presenting the projects.
“At first I was really, really nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Sampson-Brown. “After people started talking to me I felt pretty good.”
His final project was called “Nothing But Net,” a 3×3 basketball program designed to provide an outlet for kids in his neighborhood.
“Where I’m from, the teens smoke, they do bad stuff, but I know a lot of them like to play basketball,” said Sampson-Brown. “If they play basketball and do positive things, they probably won’t do that bad stuff.”
The projects aren’t just imaginative. Sampson-Brown has obtained funding for the idea from Rebel Ventures, a youth-driven healthy food business supported by the Netter Center, along with another donor who was inspired by his presentation, to do the tournament at a YMCA this summer.
Other projects included business startups, like a chic cupcake bakery, as well as creative nonprofit ventures. Indya Fields came up with The N2KO, or The Need to Know Organization. She wants to build bridges to people who feel isolated or trapped in their lives.
“The N2KO was created to give people in the shadows a voice,” she said.
Presentation time came to an end when Garney and Brand invited everyone to the rear of the Paul Robeson House for the final ceremony. The faces of young people lit up as Garney called each student up to the front and detailed their accomplishments while Brand handed them an oversized envelope with a certificate of completion from the Netter Center.
The farewell address was delivered by Vernoca Michael, Director of the Paul Robeson House, member of the Netter Center Community Advisory Board, and niece of Paul Robeson.
“My counselor told me that the only thing I could do was work with my hands, on the floor scrubbing someone’s floors. But then I was accepted into Harvard and MIT and went on to do my grad work after that,” she said to a big applause from the teens. “You can do it.”
Thank you to the Netter Center, who helped with the creation of this article. Learn more about the Netter Center’s comprehensive University-Assisted Community Schools (UACS) program, which brings academic, human, and material resources from Penn to schools during the school day, after school, and in the summer: https://www.nettercenter.upenn.edu/what-we-do/programs/university-assisted-community-schools