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Somali refugee promotes Minneapolis jobs program in D.C.

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER
  • Star Tribune
  • January 6, 2012 - 12:44 AM

WASHINGTON - President Obama greeted Hashim Yonis warmly. "It's good to see you, my East African brother," Obama told the Minneapolis man.

Then, the leader of the free world hugged the former Somali civil war refugee.

Thousands of miles separate the White House from the Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps where Yonis once lived. He was in Washington on Thursday to help promote Minneapolis' jobs and mentoring program, called STEP-UP. The program, which operates in partnership with a group called AchieveMpls, brings together businesses, nonprofit groups and public agencies to find jobs and professional role models for poor young people at risk of dropping out of school or struggling to find employment.

'Because of STEP-UP'

STEP-UP is being considered as a model for part of a new national plan called Summer Jobs+ that aims to provide at least 100,000 paying jobs and internships to disadvantaged young people by the summer. Yonis and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spent Thursday in the Executive Office Building explaining how the Minneapolis program succeeds at a meeting of federal officials and people from jobs programs around the country.

"It is because of STEP-UP that I am at the White House," Yonis said after appearing on a panel of young people who used jobs programs and mentoring as springboards to college and professional employment. "It is because of AchieveMpls that I had a chance to be mentored by professionals who were inspiring."

Without these opportunities, Yonis said he would never have attended St. Olaf College, where he graduated. He would never have landed a job working with immigrant teens as a school administrative manager at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.

"Programs like STEP-UP or this new [White House] initiative are something that individuals who have no access to education, who have no access to employment, who have no access to the corporate world need," Yonis said.

High jobless rate

Only 48.8 percent of Americans ages 16 to 24 were employed in July. That compares with 59.2 percent five years ago and 63.3 percent 10 years ago, the White House said. The numbers for minorities were worse. In July 2011, just 34.6 percent for blacks ages 16 to 24 held jobs. For Latinos, the number was 42.9 percent.

Meanwhile, since 2004, about 14,000 disadvantaged and minority students have gotten paying jobs through STEP-UP, Rybak said. "What the president is proposing is trying to get all the different people who do programs like ours or nonprofits or businesses to work together to do anything possible to get more kids working this summer," the mayor said.

Rybak said the Minneapolis program, which includes a competitive selection process, should be a national model, and his reception at Thursday's summer jobs summit only reinforced his belief.

"The work you're doing is fantastic," Alan Krueger, the chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, told Rybak after the meeting adjourned.

Rybak hoped such praise would attract more businesses, nonprofits and public employers to participate.

"If Jon Bon Jovi hadn't been in the audience," the mayor said, "STEP-UP would have been the rock star of the day."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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