Q&A: ‘Our Piece of the Pie’

Alan MacKenzie served as director of Our Piece of the Pie, a job-training program for youth based in Hartford, Conn. Begun in 1996 by MacKenzie and two others, the program offers 12-week training cycles that match adolescents with entrepreneurs starting their own businesses. Youth are given key roles in developing and working in the businesses, and are paid a weekly stipend and a share of the profits. The program, which collaborates with the Conn. Dept. of Children and Families and Conn. Dept. of Labor, currently works with ten businesses in several sites around the state. OPP operates under the auspices of Southend Community Services and, in addition to its state collaborations, partners with several youth-serving nonprofits, including the Girl Scouts and various alternative education programs. This year it will serve between 700 and 1,000 youth, many from the foster care and juvenile justice systems. According to outcome evaluations the program conducts every three months, over 90% of youth who go through the program report that they are employed, in school, or both. We interviewed MacKenzie in Nov. 2002. 

Q: What was the genesis of Our Piece of the Pie? 
A: I got involved with a group of adults concerned about the kids of Hartford. We ended up doing a youth survey that identified issues kids had around work. One thing became clear: many kids were intimidated by the whole process of finding and keeping a job. We also found they weren’t aware of a lot of the jobs out there, and were interested in things we hadn’t anticipated: working with youth, working with seniors, and doing something entrepreneurial. So we decided to take a year to see if we could get some funding. Fortunately, we got some backing from Hitachi and the City of Hartford.

Q: Youth were deeply involved in writing the curriculum for the program. What did they bring to the table?
A: Youth were very practical; they wanted things that taught them about themselves, that would be relevant to finding a job.

Q: Like what?
A: Like interview training. They wanted to talk about clothes, they wanted to talk about communication, and lot of it had to deal with cultural issues they had. One of the things we concluded early on is that adults probably weren’t going to be effective communicating these issues, so we opted to use older youth who had been through the program or were in college or just out of college, and who reflected the same demographics as these kids. That’s always been the guiding principle – that we would put kids in the foreground and adults in the background.

Q: What evolved out of these discussions?
A: Initially, we thought the kids themselves could be turned into entrepreneurs, but we found they didn’t have enough life and work experience – they had very grandiose and unrealistic ideas. The real key was twofold: exposing kids to entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, and actually getting them out in the working world. So we attract young entrepreneurs who need mentoring and support themselves, and they in turn have our youth work with them to produce the product or service.

Q: Many of the entrepreneurs who run the businesses are young, but is age a criterion for selection?
A: There isn’t an age cut-off; the key is their interest and ability to motivate and teach youth about their product or service. They really must embrace the OPP philosophy of putting youth first and focusing on what works for them, not on what adults want. In addition, they must fit into a multi-layered management team, and be willing to integrate the life skills and pre-employment skills-training that OPP provides.

Q: You work with a boat-building business, a hydroponics business, a sound-recording business – what else?
A: We have “To the Hand,” which is run by a woman who has 17 years of experience as a nail and cosmetics professional. She wanted to stabilize her cash flow, so we found a way for her to do her business a couple of days a week, and work with youth a couple of other days a week. She knows everybody who has a salon in Hartford, so girls who go through her program are almost guaranteed a job in a salon that will help them pay for college or whatever.

Q: Many of your youth are from the juvenile justice system. A tougher group than youth off the street?
A: I don’t believe there is that big of a difference. We expect them to be a little more hardened and cynical, but really, they’re just as enthusiastic as anybody else.

Q: But youth who have been in the system a while are sometimes harder to excite, aren’t they?
A: We may see a motivation problem in the first weeks of a program, but soon kids become part of the team and get excited about doing it. The last report I got from Long Lane [a Conn. juvenile corrections facility] proves that. Girls there have the Drumming Full Circle group, where they each build a djembe drum, learn to tune and play it, learn all the rituals, how you respect a drum, where it came from in Africa, etc. They put on some fabulous concerts. (The girls make and sell CDs for profit.) Now to get to Long Lane, you have to have had problems in almost every residential program you’ve been in, but when you see these girls at their concerts, they look like teenagers anywhere. Two girls actually petitioned to be brought back to Long Lane so they could finish their drumming projects and be in the concerts. That’s the first time it’s ever happened there, as far as we know.

Q: One of the ways your program is different is that it’s actually profitable for youth.
A: We try to produce a product or service the community needs, so it’s something people value and will pay for. And having that profit pool at the end – selling the boat, or CDs, or whatever it is – is a great motivator.

Q: And what happens when the program’s over?
A: The youth business is really just the vessel to bring kids together with mentors and integrated training. But part and parcel of that is to build trust so they’ll work with us one-on-one to help them find a part-time job and be successful at it.