BRATTLEBORO—The admonition for poor people to “get a job” to improve their circumstances ignores a central reality: employment with good pay and dignity is sometimes out of reach for those without support or housing, or for those with a history of incarceration.
Emilie Kornheiser, who was hired six months ago as director of workforce development at Youth Services, has put together a plan to help the organization’s clients not only get jobs, but also start and operate businesses.
The nonprofit organization will also provide the extra support the program’s clientele will need to thrive, said Kornheiser, because many of Youth Service’s clients “are people with many barriers” to employment.
Youth Services can offer help navigating the “benefits cliff” — the precipitous loss of social-safety-net services that for many people makes it impossible to climb out of poverty.
The program will help participants find transportation and child care, and it will work with them to communicate with employers, caregivers, and school systems.
First business: screen printing
The workforce development department’s debut program is a youth-led, business-to-business screen-printing company, operating out of Brattleboro Printmakers on Elliot Street.
While the current initiative, slated to begin sometime this month, is geared toward people aged 12 to 24, the larger workforce-development goal for Youth Services is to support all of its clients’ needs for steady work and to partner with other social-service entities to offer the same for their populations as well.
Youth Services doesn’t only serve youth. Clients include children, young people, and adults, and the agency offers supports such as mentoring, family mediation, transitioning to independent living, parenting skills, counseling, and court diversion.
Founded in 1972, the private, non-profit organization is “dedicated to helping families thrive,” says its website. Its mission “is to provide transformative prevention, intervention and development programs for young people and families in Windham County communities.”
The agency, according to its website, “help[s] people learn how to grow, both as individuals and as a family, so they can solve their own problems.”
Leveling the playing field
Workforce development is a new sector of support for Youth Services, and Kornheiser told The Commons she was hired specifically to launch this program.
The organization received grant funding, including funds from the United Way of Windham County, to create the youth-led businesses program for ages 12-24. The 18-24 group members receive a regular paycheck, and those in the 12-17 group receive a stipend.
Youth Services also recruits adult mentors from the community to work with the youth on a volunteer basis.
Kornheiser recently began researching national models for youth-led businesses. The most popular sectors were bookstores and coffee shops, she said.
While she admitted she’d love more places to buy books and drink coffee, Kornheiser acknowledged that that need is fully met in Brattleboro.
“I wanted something that people could exit with good skills, and here, the screen-printing market is not saturated,” she said.
James Primrose, who runs Brattleboro Printmakers, is the first established business owner who is both working as a mentor for the program and also providing a venue.
Primrose, who also brings a long history of working in the social-services field, told The Commons that printmaking and screen printing “are user-friendly, low-fi, inexpensive businesses.”
“James brings expertise and equipment, so we just have to provide our clients with supplies,” like ink and T-shirts, tote bags, and other items on which to print, said Kornheiser.
She pointed out a clear distinction between most of her clients and wealthier youth: The latter have the resources to take advantage of work experience and connections through unpaid, or very low-paying, internships. Youth Services’ clients cannot typically afford to work for free, thus putting them at a disadvantage.
Bringing in mentors — and paying them — will help her clients establish the deeper relationships that wealthier youth often get through internships, said Kornheiser, who likens it to an apprenticeship and notes that people “from age 18 to 90, in all sorts of businesses,” including artists, can be mentors.
More than a paycheck
One major goal of the youth-led business initiative is for the participants to “get more than just a paycheck,” said Kornheiser, who explained, “it’s an opportunity to connect across class lines with other caring community members.”
The Brattleboro area “is awash in artists and small business owners who simultaneously struggle with a workforce shortage and are looking to their legacy,” says the workforce development department’s summary document. “Many of our community members know that something needs to change in our town, and yet don’t have an avenue for that change.”
“It’ll be easy to get people to participate in this,” said Primrose, who added, “It’ll be really fun.”
It’ll also help pay the bills for some business owners.
“Part of the business model here is that we pay owners and help them stay open,” said Kornheiser.
Primrose noted Youth Services is helping cover some of Brattleboro Printmakers’ rent and other expenses, which sustains and enhances the operation for his existing members, who pay a “time-share” fee to gain access to the shop and its equipment.
With all of the new activity in the print shop, “there’ll probably be someone there all the time,” said Primrose.
Building a business
Kornheiser, Primrose, and the cohort of youth working on the screen-printing business have met for the last few months to develop the business — and the culture they want it to embody.
“People in Brattleboro want to be conscious shoppers, and will support a business offering a living wage and better life opportunities,” Kornheiser said.
The 20 participants, consisting of about half mentors and half Youth Services clients, are putting together work schedules, writing policies, establishing rules for paid time off, writing a final business plan, and finalizing the budget.
They are also working on the “beyond setting up” phase, Kornheiser said, such as determining next tasks: bookkeeping, creating a sales and outreach plan, and working to find mentors to teach the youth these skills.
Establishing a solid structure in the beginning is important for reasons not often experienced in other companies: Kornheiser expects high turnover in this business.
“It’s designed for them to come in, learn skills, and then go forth,” she said.
Youth Services will oversee the business for the time being, said Kornheiser. Eventually, “we’re looking to hatch it into a social enterprise, where we let clients run the business in a social-services model,” she said.
The business will always have a case manager operating in a “strong, human-resources capacity,” she added. To that end, Youth Services is adding to the workforce in one other way: the organization will soon hire a part-time staff person to help support the program.
From the general public, “right now we’re looking for mentors, mostly in sales,” Kornheiser said. “People with small business experience.”
“But anyone is welcome,” she said, noting that young people are also welcome to take part in the youth-led business, even if they are not Youth Services clients.
“We also need customers!” Kornheiser added.
Although the business is still in its infancy, Primrose and Kornheiser both said other business owners are already interested in becoming customers — especially those who own retail shops.
Kornheiser noted that Brattleboro’s recent ban on plastic bags has spurred shop owners’ interest in canvas tote bags customized with their name and logo.
Another market, she said, is t-shirts “for all the activists” in town.
But for now, “We’re going to start with just business-to-business sales,” said Kornheiser. Once that’s established, the operation can expand into more individual, creative endeavors, like pop-up shops and shows, she said.
“There are so many small creative possibilities there: little businesses printing record covers, T-shirts, and art prints for galleries,” said Primrose.
Empowering youth to make the business their own
Lately, the business meetings have focused on values, structure, and accountability. “This is a youth-led business, not a business owned by someone else with youth as employees,” Kornheiser said, and noted that giving the participants a sense of justice, and their rights, isn’t often found in the low-wage jobs typically available to young people.
She said that she is already seeing the results of making space for youth to develop their own business and workplace culture.
“It’s been extraordinary what comes out of the group when we ask them what they want for their future,” she said.
“They come in excited because they’re not at work, being told what to do,” said Primrose, who noted, “they’re the bosses.”
Many of the youth are “stepping into leadership roles and doing things without me asking them,” Kornheiser added.
“They’re asking good questions. They’re inspired,” said Kornheiser. “I’m inspired, too. I leave the planning meetings feeling like we’re making some magic.”