Planting the seeds of leadership

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June 10, 2014
By: Eric Best
Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel and her urban scholar Faith Jackson work together to plan events.
Photo by Lisa Sartwell
Eric Best
Minneapolis’ growing internship program hopes to replenish the city’s vacancies with young faces.

When Jamil Corbin interned in Minneapolis’ Fire Department last year under the Urban Scholars program, he didn’t see a future there.

This year, however, the Mankato State University student returned to the department and said he hopes to work for the city when he graduates next year.

Corbin’s experience started with the city’s Urban Scholars program, which seeks to get college students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in full-time summer internships and, hopefully, replenish Minneapolis’ aging public workforce.

“It’s a step up to doors that normally wouldn’t be there, Corbin said. “It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Corbin is just one of 39 scholars this summer, an increase from 17 in 2013 and just 8 in 2012. By 2017, the goal is to have 200 Urban Scholars, with positions in every city department, nearby counties and private partners.

Urban Scholars started out of a partnership between a few city departments, but Karen Francois, director of the city’s Employment Equity Division, and Velma Korbel, director of the Department of Civil Rights, led the charge and continue to grow the program.

“This is not a regular internship,” Francois said. “We are preparing leaders for tomorrow.”

The program places college students into jobs paying $12.24 for undergraduate scholars and $15.75 for graduate student scholars through an Urban Scholars Fund. Scholars work with the city of Minneapolis and partner organizations, such as Minneapolis Public Schools, United Way and the Metropolitan Council. Scholars may also earn college credit.

One motivation for the program, Korbel said, was the need for more young public employees and a more diverse workforce. She said the city is dealing with more and more vacant positions as people retire.

“The government workforce is going to get leaner as these older people retire, so we need to refresh that,” Korbel said. “This is one way to do that.”

The other need of the program is racial equity.

While 40 percent of Minneapolis residents are people of color, only 23 percent of the workforce is people of color, according to statistics from the Employment Equity Division.

Francois said leadership positions in Minneapolis are even worse when it comes to racial disparities, which is one reason why the Urban Scholars program doesn’t just focus on job placement, but also leadership development.

Scholars go through training with communication skills organization Toastmasters International and the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute, in addition to working with other public employees. Scholars learn public speaking, how to dress for the workplace and how to become more effective leaders.

Some scholars will also participate in community development projects. Last year, some scholars helped register voters and taught them about ranked choice voting.

But a majority of the time scholars are in their departments or offices working directly with directors, supervisors and other organization leaders. Unlike other city internships, a group has to submit a proposal of what they’d like the scholar to do in order to hire one. As a result, scholars are often doing specific projects or work that fits their preferences.

Jeremiah Osokpo, a Hamline University senior studying legal studies, philosophy and sociology, is an Urban Scholar in City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden’s office. He said he’s gaining skills for policy making and thinking about going to law school.

Glidden isn’t the only policymaker Osokpo will meet on the job. Mayor Betsy Hodges is hosting a roundtable with this year’s scholars this summer, just as R.T. Rybak did with previous scholars.

With events like talking with the mayor and other networking, Korbel said the program is about demystifying public sector work for young people who may not be familiar with it.

Osokpo is also part of a Facebook group of other Urban Scholars. With dozens of other college students buzzing around city hall, scholars also find time to network or just have lunch.

Through networking and meeting other public employees, some scholars have already gone on to work for the city.

Aaron Brink-Johnson was a scholar as a Macalester College student and now works with Francois as a program assistant in the Employment Equity Division to support the program.

“It was a really great experience,” he said. “I hit the ground running.”

Korbel and Francois plan to grow the program fivefold by 2017 to have 200 scholars, which they said depends on getting grants and additional private partners.

The program is gaining national acclaim and is even getting international applicants.

Francois said the city of Seattle has been in touch with them about starting its own Urban Scholar program.

In Minneapolis, the Urban Scholars have already had an impact in just three summers.

“Scholars are doing work benefiting the city. The research, the program implementation, it’s actually benefiting the city.” Francois said. “This is not your regular internship program.”