Gray (D) took questions on issues ranging from traffic problems to neighborhood violence, but concerns about youth unemployment dominated the two-hour discussion.
“I have a record, but I’ve stayed out of trouble, was a high school dropout, am now a college drop-in, but what jobs are there for me?” Ivan Cloyd, 21, said to applause from his peers. Cloyd said he has a 2-year-old daughter to support and studies business management at American University.
Gray recommended that he stay in school and reach out to the D.C. Department of Employment Services for student job opportunities.
“When you get your degree, you’ll have a lot more doors open than you have now,” Gray advised him.
Others told Gray that there were not enough job opportunities for young people in the city. One handed Gray about 10 pages of signatures she collected from youths in her neighborhood who were looking for jobs. Another said she did not think there was enough extracurricular programming to keep students productive when school lets out.
Gray listened to the grievances but stressed that every eligible youth who signed up for the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program was given a job.
The program, which pays 14- to 21-year-olds to work for six weeks in government agencies and local businesses, was scaled back this year, with the number of participants initially limited to 12,000. But the Gray administration announced additional funding last month and ended up placing 14,000 in jobs.
The number of participants is down 30 percent from each of the past two summers, when the program saw more than 20,000 participants.
“The people who didn’t get jobs, I’m inclined to believe it’s their fault,” Gray said. “They didn’t do anything to help themselves.”
Gray reiterated that his administration had publicized the program and that it began accepting applicants in February.
“We must meet each other halfway, and I’m not prepared to accept that it’s our fault,” he said. “As adults, we need to make kids be more responsible.”
Some youths who were listening to the conversation said students and the Gray administration could both do better.
“I think it’s not anyone’s fault,” said Shaquana Miller, 17. “We need to go out there and get jobs, but at the same time, they could come to our schools and make it easier for us to sign up.”
With the exception of a few rapid back-and-forth exchanges, Gray kept the tone of the meeting casual, congratulating and applauding students on their achievements and cracking jokes at times. Gray, who wore a striped polo and khakis, commended one sharply dressed teen in a dress shirt and tie on his attire.
Gray said his aides took notes on the young people’s suggestions at the town hall.
“The most important thing is to figure out what we can do quickly,” Gray said after the meeting.
Gray said he particularly liked one student’s idea of expanding and publicizing community service opportunities in the District. Several high schools require students to complete a set number of hours of community service to advance to the next grade.
“We’re in school all day and have to keep up with classes, and it’s stressful to be looking for stuff to do,” said Tarkeyia Peterson, 17. “It would be nice if they could spread the word about community service opportunities on weekends or something.”