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Labor, Youth Development, and Democracy

July 19, 2013

A smiling woman in a green shirtFor the past year, Bonnie Prestridge has interned at the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Her previous professional experiences have included working with bilingual students as a Spanish-language reading interventionist and as the founder and director of a Spanish-language summer camp. During college, she also held several leadership positions in the Berkeley Student Cooperative, the largest student-owned housing association in the United States.

Bonnie holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she concentrated on contemporary Latin America. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and basic French, and plans to pursue international careers in bilingual education, cooperative business development, and social entrepreneurship.  She is completing her Youth in Development (YIDA) internship at the National Democratic Institute, which works to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.  The YiD internship program, launched by USICD in 2013, has brought seven students and recent graduates with disabilities from across the United States to complete summer internships at various international organizations in the Washington DC area.   Here, Bonnie draws upon both her current YiD internship at NDI and also her previous internship at the US Department of Labor to discuss the interactive effect of labor, youth development, and democracy.

Connect with Bonnie Prestridge via her LinkedIn profile at

Having interned at the US Department of Labor (DOL) for a year prior to my current position at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I’ve recently found myself thinking a lot about the relationship between labor and democracy. One of the most visible examples of this can be seen in the role that worker-led organizations have played in advancing democratic movements around the world, such as the Solidarity trade union in Poland and the Workers’ Party in Brazil whose leadership was key to ending authoritarian rule in their countries.

In addition to this well-known example, there are many other areas in which individuals, institutions, and practices related to labor and democracy influence one another. Given my interests and experience, the one I’m most curious to explore is in youth development. Throughout the world, NDI and its partners work to increase the political participation of youth, with the understanding that this will help ensure that their issues are addressed and that they have the foundation they need for a lifetime of civic engagement. However, what I have yet to see mentioned in the literature on youth political participation is the role that these types of experiences can play in helping young people successfully transition into the workforce.

During my time at DOL, where I worked on the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP) Youth Policy Team, I was exposed to a variety of research on the factors that contribute to successful transitions for all youth, including youth with disabilities. What these studies found is that some of the biggest “a game-changers” in young people’s lives are:

  1. Having access to meaningful development and leadership activities;
  2. Developing “soft” skills (e.g. problem-solving, networking, communication, etc.); and
  3. Learning how to set goals and make plans to achieve those goals

As it turns out, although civic engagement is rarely ever billed as workforce development, it can be an effective vehicle for granting young people access to these three types of game-changing experiences. For example, advocating for an issue that they find important can help young people learn how to work with people who may be different than them, make strategical decisions, lead a group towards a common goal, and communicate their ideas in a variety of ways. Working with other youth, government officials, and civil society leaders also expands their professional network

But democracy assistance providers aren’t career counselors, so why should they be thinking about workforce development at all when designing youth-oriented programs? I would argue that there are two reasons why: First, because it opens up the possibility for new types of collaborations. When the political participation of youth is framed as part of a wider set of capacity development experiences, it creates a space for economic development organizations, public workforce agencies, and even the private sector to contribute. Secondly, because helping youth acquire the skills and abilities they need to obtain safe, stable, and well-paying employment, actually reinforces their continued political participation. It’s hard to find time to read up on current issues — let alone conduct advocacy or run for office — when you’re working three jobs or are vulnerable to reprisals from an employer who holds great power over you.

Because the nature of the youth programs that NDI and its partners are involved with vary significantly around the world, adding a workforce development approach could not be done the same way everywhere and may not be appropriate in all instances, but in an age of extraordinarily high youth unemployment, I think that it is an idea worth considering.

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