Musician and global citizen Pharrell Williams just gave a graduating class of high school students in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood a major head start on their careers.
In a commencement speech for two Promise Academy charter high schools on June 26, Pharrell announced he’s launching a program to secure “A-List” internships for 114 graduates. The initiative is part of the effort to end generational poverty by helping students make connections in their respective fields to earn a livable wage to support themselves and their families.
Harlem Children’s Zone, the nonprofit organization behind the network of charter schools, will run the program with Pharrell to guarantee each student an internship the summer after their freshman year of college. All 114 of Promise Academy graduates have been accepted into college.
Parents in the audience at the graduation were very excited by the prospect of these internships, according to Harlem Children Zone’s CEO Anne Williams-Isom. She said the organization is deeply appreciative of Pharrell's gesture.
"Sometimes these kids don’t realize there are people outside that are watching them and that care about them," Williams-Isom told Global Citizen.
"For children who are growing up in poverty and are vulnerable, those kinds of opportunities mean even 10 times more, because they may not have those uncles that work at a law firm or aunt that’s at a corporation to make that connection for them," she said.
Promise Academy senior Brionna Pope felt relieved after hearing Pharrell’s news. Pope said her single mother is already struggling to try and pay for her student loans. A lot of Pope’s peers are experiencing financial hardship and internships can boost their window for opportunities, she told CNN. Now, students who are attending more affordable community colleges won’t have to worry that they won’t receive the same opportunities presented to students enrolled in four-year programs, Pope explained.
We are in the midst of the new Harlem Renaissance with education at its core. Which is why I’ve promised an internship next summer for every student of the @hczorg Promise Academy #ClassOf2019, all of whom were accepted to college. 🌍💛🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/P9IcvVA69a— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) June 27, 2019
Pharrell wants to see this generation usher a new wave of the Harlem Renaissance movement that sparked a black cultural rebirth in the 1920s. "The world is watching Harlem, but this renaissance will be different," he said in his speech.
"Believe it or not ... it's going to actually be better. The reason why is because the new Harlem Renaissance has education at its core,” he said.
Internship programs are crucial for students who live in neighborhoods like Harlem, where over half of the population is black. Black Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty as white Americans or Asian Americans due to education inequalities, discrimination in the workplace, high incarceration rates, and more.
One study found that participation in multiple college internships helps students secure employment or enter graduate school within six months of graduation. But for first-generation, minority, and low-income students, when accepting unpaid internships isn’t always an option, breaking poverty cycles becomes a bigger challenge. Without internships, low-income students often lack the experience needed to get jobs that allow them pay off their debt. Williams-Isom said Harlem's Children Zone will find a way to make sure that high school graduates involved in the internship program receive monetary compensation for their work.
The Promise Academy internship program is a part of Pharrell’s long commitment to underserved youth throughout his musical career. In 2008, the singer founded the organization From One Hand To AnOTHER to offer a free science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, and motivation (STEAMM) summer camp for thousands of students across the US. Pharrell started the camp to change the world one child at a time, by giving them the resources and tools they need to reach their full potential.
“It’s not just children in Harlem," Williams-Isom said. "All children need connections."