Meet Lisa Litsey, the Director of Workforce Development, who provides leadership and oversight to our skill-building youth employment programs. With our Employment Coordinator and Life Skills Coach, she engages nearly 100 young people annually in mentoring, life skills, and paid work experience that will set them up for first jobs and on the path to a living-wage job.
“I was ultimately drawn to SYS because I I loved the community. It’s a place that knows that relationships are the most important piece to helping young people move forward in their lives. It was the theme in my own life. I [also] felt like this was a place where community matters first. The individual young person matters––they’re seen, they’re chosen. The music, the jobs are tools we have to work with them. The relationship is what’s most important.”
Lisa grew up in Idaho and moved to San Francisco during her Sophomore year in college to intern for six months at the Oak Street House for her social work practicuum. After graduating with a Liberal Studies degree with an emphasis in social work/social sciences, she took a job administering job training partnership funds for Summer Jobs, connecting 14-17 year-olds with remedial math and reading, employment skills, and job opportunities.
Creating Partnerships and Funding Youth Dreams
“It was absolutely amazing,” she said, “My job was to give kids job shadow experience, so I created partnerships with organizations in Idaho to connect their dreams with experience. We had two kids who wanted to be pilots, so we paid for them to go to ground school, get their testing, and make the 15 hours of solo flights required to get their private licenses.”
Later she returned to Northwest Nazarene University where she worked as the Residence Director for 5 years, creating community and empowering RAs to help students manage their freedom away from home and school work in the learning lab of residence life.
Building a Nationwide Program to Promote Resilience
The death of a dear SF friend’s daughter crystallized her call to return to San Francisco and the community she’d called home while working at the Oak Street House. “I moved back in a temporary job with Schwab and moved into a self-designed position creating resilience-building resources for kids who learn differently. With an adult advocate who was dyslexic, we created a national school assembly program educating kids on how their brains work––knowing your potential and when to ask for help.” They traveled over 100,000 miles in 7 years, visiting over 20 cities and every public middle school in nearly every borough of NYC.
Connecting Kids to Inspiring Mentors
Nine years later, when Schwab switched its focus from its operating program to grantmaking, Lisa and several other colleagues took what they’d learned from Schwab about how kids learn and left to found Rocket 21––a youth development nonprofit designed to put young dreamers together with adult mentors in fields of interest to promote learning and provide shadowing opportunities.
“We were talking with an 8th grader and asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said, ‘I’m going to play in the NFL.’ ‘What’s your backup plan?’ they asked. ‘NBA,’ he said.” She looked reflective about the exchange, “You don’t know what you want to do until you’ve been exposed to it. We wanted to level the playing fields for all youth.” How do you do that without squashing the dream? “You show them what a passion for sports can involve: concessions, front and back office work, brand marketing, merchandising, facilities and team management.”
Developing a Vocational Training Ground for At-Risk Youth That job eventually led to the next, a nearly 5-year stint as the Managing Director of the award-winning Old Skool Cafe (OSC)––a youth-run social enterprise––where she managed day-to-day operations, supervised youth staff, and engaged young people in all phases of the nonprofit’s intensive training process: from pre-employment to employment and advanced leadership and management opportunities.
“Coaching is key. It’s not just giving a job listing and saying, ‘Here’s a job for you to go get.’ But it’s asking what are the barriers to getting out there? How do I start a new community? How do I show up if people are going to judge me? Having a coach who walks alongside them is vital.”
Empowering and Employing Youth in Community
She reflected on the unifying thread of those jobs and her work at SYS. “How many kids are going to be rap stars? But do you want a job that’s flexible enough to give you time to work in the studio on your music? We give them all the different options, so they can choose for themselves.”
Lisa hopes to expand the Workforce Development program by rolling out a new text-messaging system to get out the word about employment workshops to the broader youth community, creating new internship opportunities through partnerships with Dropbox and Outside Lands, and adding food handler’s certification training to Upstar Cafe’s restaurant-readiness program.
“We’re empowering youth to develop the grit and the mindset to think for themselves and choose their own path. They’re always welcome here. They’ll always be part of this family. And we want to give them the tools they need to lead the life they want to live.”