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Ebony Campbell of the Chicago Housing Authority: Paving Pathways for Youth Empowerment

Ebony Campbell

Senior Director, Youth & Economic Independence

Chicago Housing Authority

Ebony Campbell, Senior Director in the Resident Services Division at the Chicago Housing Authority, brings a wealth of experience and a personal connection to her role. Her early career start in Mayor Daley's summer jobs program laid the foundation for her lifelong dedication to employing strategies and resources to help youth and families thrive. With over a decade at CHA, Ebony has focused on promoting education and youth workforce development programs that support well-being and increase financial stability. Her work is a testament to the power of lived experience in shaping impactful community services.

What is your role at the Chicago Housing Authority?

I’m privileged to serve as Senior Director in the Resident Services Division of the Chicago Housing Authority, overseeing a portfolio of opportunities that advance economic power, improve academic outcomes, and enhance the quality of life of our residents. My current focus is on relaunching our new Down Payment Assistance Program. This initiative offers 100 first-time homebuyers a forgivable grant up to $20,000 for down payments, PMI, principal reduction, and closing costs. Additionally, I provide leadership across our youth, education, housing mobility, wealth building, and digital inclusion programs.

What was your very first paid job, and how did your career progress from there?

At 14, I began working in Mayor Daley's summer jobs program at Kennedy King College in Englewood. This experience shaped my dedication to youth development, college access, and economic mobility. Starting as Director of Youth Opportunities at CHA over a decade ago, I've worked to design program models and interventions that helped youth access social capital and consider new possibilities. My time at the Department of Family and Support Services involved exposing young people to early work experiences, career connections and educational pathways to good jobs and credentials. As a former CHA resident, I am guided by my belief in an equitable future for those experiencing poverty and center my work around dismantling barriers to opportunity.

My goal is to ensure that every young person seeking a meaningful, engaging summer experience can access it.

What have been keys to your success?

I recognize that people are the experts in their own lives and have their own agency. In leading my teams, I emphasize systems and policies that uphold dignity and choice. This involves actively incorporating residents' perspectives and experiences into our strategies, engaging them in shaping and improving our programs. By not presuming to have all the answers and focusing on equity, we effectively support our residents in building their wealth and well-being.

What obstacles have you had to overcome?

In my work, a significant challenge is the imbalance between the high demand for youth employment opportunities and the limited funding available. Despite our efforts at CHA, we can't serve every youth in our portfolio. We address this challenge, however, by leveraging the collective impact of One Summer Chicago and honoring youth choice in opportunities that meet their needs. My goal is to ensure that every young person seeking a meaningful, engaging summer experience can access it. This involves continually exploring ways to expand our capacity, connecting youth to opportunities where they can build their skills and supportive relationships with caring adults and peers.

Tell me what it's like to work at the Chicago Housing Authority. What makes it special or unique?

Working at the Chicago Housing Authority, especially in the Resident Services Division, is unique due to its mission to support those on a pathway towards economic power. What stands out is the dedication of my colleagues and collaborators. They are not just talking about supporting residents; they actively engage in solving complex issues with respect and purpose. Their commitment to working with families, including seniors, as they strive to achieve their goals is evident on a daily basis. This collective effort to “get it right”' is what makes working at CHA truly special.

Tell me a little bit more about CHA’s youth employment programs.

CHA offers more than 10 paid summer opportunities for youth aged 13-24, engaging over 2100 participants. We collaborate with various partners to offer a diverse array of programs, ranging from visual storytelling to entrepreneurship and internships in multiple sectors. The programs are executed with youth-serving organizations and funded by HUD and our nonprofit, Springboard to Success. The investment per participant, ranging from $1000 to $2100, is tailored to the specific program model, providing substantial benefits to our community. These partnerships don't just offer employment; they create a safe, nurturing, and educational environment. Over a six-week period, participants earn $600 to $3600, while acquiring crucial experience and durable skills in their areas of interest.

Can you describe the support provided to youth in the employment programs by CHA and its partner organizations?

We understand the invisible barriers to attendance and make sure all youth can engage in programming. For the 13-15 age group, we offer a program that reduces summer learning loss and introduces college pathways, with school bus services for safe travel around Chicago. We also ensure that everyone has access to digital devices and gets nutritious meals, through partners like the Greater Chicago Food Depository. For older teens, we provide transit cards for easy commuting. And if any of our participants face personal challenges, we have counseling and support services ready to help.

What are CHA's goals for the youth employment programs in the coming years?

A key goal for us is to extend our youth employment programs beyond the summer, offering year-round opportunities. This way, we can maintain the skills and relationships the youth develop, while improving their work readiness and keeping them on a pathway to future economic success.

What are the major challenges CHA currently faces in maintaining its programs and achieving its goals?

One opportunity is sustainability and keeping programs going over time. Securing and integrating stable and flexible funding through a variety of sources is key to our work. Cultivating connections with public and private partners who can extend our impact is another opportunity. These factors impact our ability to maintain and expand our programs.

Could you discuss the satisfaction of your employer partners with the program? Do you conduct surveys or have a general sense of their feedback?

We use surveys to assess the skills development and personal transformation of participants. We also collect employer feedback through worksite visits. A key piece of feedback from employers is the need for enhanced financial capability among youth, particularly regarding understanding their paychecks and taxes. To address this, we embed basic financial coaching into our programming, and we're now expanding these efforts through strategic partnerships for more comprehensive and clear instruction. 

Job readiness is another crucial area highlighted by employers, especially for those entering their first job. Effective mentorship and coaching are essential here, helping these young workers adapt and learn. Our employer partners are enthusiastic about their involvement, viewing it as a way to create deeper relationships within the community and fulfill their corporate social responsibility. They bring invaluable expertise and insight into the skills participants need for future success in the workforce.

Could you describe the typical employer partners in your program?

We have a variety of employer partners, with Walgreens being a notable one. They provide numerous worksites for our Summer Youth Employment Program, where young people develop skills in customer service, cash handling, and inventory management. Besides these larger partners, we also collaborate with city agencies and smaller non-profit and community businesses like coffee houses, ice cream shops, and churches, offering diverse work experiences during the summer.

What is the most common challenge that employers bring to you or the youth-serving organizations?

An opportunity we've identified, more on our end than the worksites', is better preparing our youth to hit the ground running on their first day of work. Because of the volume of participants and the pace of summer placements, sometimes participants might not know what to expect on the job. Worksites want young people that are informed, have researched the organization, and show enthusiasm for their role. We see an opportunity here to collaborate more closely with those worksites to have engagement and job-specific orientation prior to the first day, ensuring a smooth start for both the youth and the organization in which they are placed.

Our young people are bright and eager to work, just seeking the right opportunities to develop their talents.

What are some common traits or practices shared among your most successful employer partners?

Our most successful employer partners build and nurture a culture of belonging and inclusion. They understand and respond to the aspirations and needs of our youth participants. They create a supportive environment where learning from mistakes is encouraged. These employers also emphasize mentorship, integrating it into the job experience and collaborating with us to address participation barriers.

Are there any specific types of employer partners you're looking to connect with for future opportunities but haven't yet?

We've noticed a strong interest among our youth in athletics-related jobs, which currently are limited in our summer programs. While we collaborate with the Chicago Park District for junior counselor roles, the top career interests we hear from youth include sports, music, culinary, and healthcare. There's a variety of roles in sports for non-athletes and having employers from this realm step forward would be fantastic for our participants.

Can you describe a situation where there was an issue with an employer or a youth at a worksite and how you resolved it?

One issue we sometimes encounter is behavioral challenges with our youngest participants at worksites. Employers may see them as older than they are, which can cause harm, and only have experience supervising adults. When issues arise, our team intervenes with coaching and discussion to ensure that these challenges don't lead to the youth being excluded from the program, recognizing our shared responsibility to support them in navigating these new experiences.

Do you have any success stories about individuals, groups, or employers that you'd like to share from the program?

Our partnership with DePaul University’s Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media has been notably successful, particularly in film. Funded by our nonprofit arm S2S, we've seen our participants excel in creating and showcasing their own stories, starting from documentary to narrative filmmaking. Their achievements include features at the Cannes Film Festival and support from Chaz Ebert. The program has also gained recognition in Variety magazine. It has opened career paths in filmmaking and production for our youth, highlighting opportunities in industries where black and brown people are often underrepresented.

What would you say to an employer reading this interview to encourage their participation in the program?

I'd emphasize that our participants represent their future workforce and are a vital pipeline for opportunities within these organizations. Our goal is to collaborate with employers to prepare youth and emerging adults for the opportunities ahead. We're eager to coordinate and align our opportunities with the employers' labor needs while centering the interests and lived experiences of our participants. Our young people are bright and eager to work, just seeking the right opportunities to develop their talents.

Why is working with youth in these programs important to you personally?

As a former CHA resident, I see myself in them. My own early experiences and challenges mirror what many young people without knowledge of college and career pathways or professional connections face today. I remember the supports that I needed then and I listen and learn from young people now to create the financial and social resources they need to have a good life. 

Interviewed by Dani Houchin on December 4, 2023 | Written by Maria Barannikova



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