Born and raised in Englewood, 21-year-old Joshua Barker has seen the streets snare young people who graduate high school without skills, resources or job options.
After graduating from Urban Prep Academy in 2018, Barker was fortunate to be hired by the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) — one of six organizations PepsiCo has joined with in an effort to create career pathways for 3,000 young people on the South and West Sides over the next five years.
“I was blessed to get this job. It keeps me busy. This new program is really important because a job keeps you motivated. Helping them work and put money in their pockets will keep a kid out of the street,” said Barker, a public health ambassador with SWOP.
In the Fortune 100 company’s shift to an equity-centered model of community engagement, the $5 million “PREP by PepsiCo | Stronger Together” initiative launching Monday is the result of months of roundtables with Chicago community organizations on how best to uplift Black and Brown youth in disinvested areas.
Some 12% of African American youth ages 16-19 were neither in school nor working, compared to 8% of Latinos and 5% of whites in that age group, according to a December 2019 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, based on U.S. Census figures.
Within the age 20-24 population, 38% of African Americans were neither employed nor in school, compared with 20% of Latinos and 7% of white peers.
PREP aims to boost workforce readiness within those age groups, helping organizations now doing that work to provide skills training, career exposure, paid work experiences and career-track jobs to the young people they serve.
Besides SWOP, other program partners include Imagine Englewood if, North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC), UCAN, Chicago Jesuit Academy, and the Cubs Scholars program of Chicago Cubs Charities.
“We recognized that addressing systemic barriers to career opportunities is probably the single greatest challenge Chicago — and certainly the South and West Side — faces. It is critical to address that,” Neil Pryor, president of PepsiCo Beverages North America Central Division, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Then came the realization that we needed to listen, to learn the best way to do that. Culminating many months of work, this is critical not only to level the playing field, but also for our business, because we have such a large foot print here. We need the talent pipeline,” Pryor said. “The scale of this is unparalleled, as we’re working across our entire business.”
The investment by the $214.5 billion company is to be made over the next five years. PepsiCo hopes to hire many of the young people who will be served by the organizations.
In Chicago, century-old home of its Quaker Oats subsidiary, PepsiCo has 5,000 employees spread through its corporate headquarters; its regional headquarters for Quaker, Tropicana and Gatorade here; several suburban manufacturing, research and development facilities; and Chicago’s only remaining beverage manufacturing plant, in Back of the Yards.
Following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer, PepsiCo was among the wave of corporate entities promising to combat the racial and economic inequity highlighted in the reckoning that followed.
Its June 2020 Racial Equality Journey outlined a $570 million commitment to creating opportunities for African Americans and Latinos in the company’s hiring and promotion and business contracts, as well as investments in impoverished communities nationwide.
Michelle Rashad, executive director of Imagine Englewood if, said allowing the groups to weigh in, and then tailoring PREP to the individual needs of each, was a game-changer.
“I feel like the community’s voice was centered. They were interested in seeing through the lens of those of us already investing in young people,” said Rashad, whose 24-year-old organization offers after-school, summer and mentoring programs for youth ages 6-18.
Through PREP, it will now offer career exploration workshops led by PepsiCo employees.
“Considering all that our young people in Englewood face, whether it’s issues at home or at school or whether it’s the community violence, we do our best to make sure the imagination of our children stays alive and well,” she said.
“The best way you can do that is through opportunities and experiences expanding their world view. Young people can’t be what they can’t see, or aspire to careers they don’t know.”
At SWOP, a collaboration of 45 community groups, schools and churches in Chicago Lawn, advocating in the arenas of education, workforce development and violence prevention, PREP will expand skills training and job opportunities for the young people ages 16-25 in its service area, including Gage Park, West Lawn, Brighton Park and Ashburn.
“The conversations have been fascinating, as PepsiCo sat down with us to listen to what is going on in the community, what work is being done, and ultimately, what are the gaps that exist in some of that work,” SWOP community organizer Joel Rodriguez said.
“We have young people in high school or who have transitioned out of high school, in need of employment. But some of them do not have the skills or capacity to be ready for that employment. Through PREP, we’ll be able to engage them, to train them, to get them ready to transition into those opportunities. We’re excited to hopefully do impactful work.”