Three years ago at age 16, Cole Stevens received a call from his father saying he wasn't sure how he was going to pay his bills. Stevens was living with his mother at the time and made the difficult decision to move in with his dad, continue working while finishing up high school, and help his dad pay off his debts.
That experience in persevering through hardship prepared Stevens well for his senior year of high school.
The coffee shop where he worked closed shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Stevens was initially paid by the state for lost wages, but just after he'd used all the money to pay bills and put food in the fridge, he learned that high school students in Minnesota were legally barred from receiving unemployment assistance. He was asked to repay the money.
The wrinkle stems from a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) interpretation of a 1939 state law that prevents students from collecting unemployment. State officials applied the earlier law to all federally issued unemployment aid related to COVID-19.
Stevens felt the interpretation was shortsighted and didn't reflect current realities. Many students, like Stevens, were helping their families financially, or were paying for their own living and school expenses.
He quickly became an activist, joining forces with other teenage workers cut off from deeply needed pandemic assistance.
With his friend Walter Cortina, Stevens co-founded a youth-led nonprofit called Bridgemakers. Its mission is to give low-income and BIPOC youth the mentorship and tools necessary to become future leaders.
But the young activists also tapped the other end of the age spectrum, seeking guidance from experienced nonprofit leaders, legislators and other professionals who understood the system and how to navigate it.
"Older adults are the ones with the most connections and know-how," said Stevens. "They helped us not just be a bunch of angry kids, but to be really clinical and precise in how we came at the issue. By putting us together," he said, "we can do really huge things."
Last year, youth groups lobbied at the State Capitol for a change in state law that prevented high school students from receiving federal pandemic unemployment assistance. When lawmakers couldn't agree, local nonprofit Youthprise filed a lawsuit and, in December 2020, they won — making millions of federally funded benefits available to young workers.
AARP Minnesota got word of what the young people were accomplishing, and reached out to form a partnership. Through that relationship, Stevens learned that many recipients of Social Security were being similarly cut off from unemployment benefits.
"It was age discrimination happening on both ends of the age spectrum," said AARP Minnesota's Erin Parish.
Bridgemakers, AARP and Youthprise co-hosted a virtual town hall March 17 with local legislators, where people came together to talk and listen.
"I was hearing all these stories from people who had worked their whole lives and contributed to the economy," Stevens said, "only to lose their jobs during the pandemic and then struggle to make ends meet.
"And it just hit me: This is how generational poverty persists."
Bridgemakers and Youthprise continued their fight to repeal state unemployment law beyond COVID, working closely with AARP Minnesota, lawmakers and legislators to introduce and advocate for legislation that would assure that secondary students and older workers receiving Social Security were no longer ineligible to receive unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.
The UI bill reflecting this change received bipartisan support and was recently passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. It will go into effect in July 2022.
"I'm very happy to say that in our joint efforts with AARP, not only did we eliminate discrimination against young people, but we eliminated discrimination against Social Security recipients," Stevens said. "We've both received justice, and intergenerational collaboration was key to our success."
He hopes their multigenerational efforts will continue.
"The media in America has been so hellbent on dividing us," says Stevens. "But these are the stories we should be hearing about — positive, unifying efforts, where diverse voices are coming together to try and leave the planet better than we found it."
Sarah McKinney Gibson is a storytelling and media specialist at Encore.org, a national nonprofit focused on accelerating intergenerational solutions.