Program helps youth and neighborhood businesses

PORTLAND — At a time when finding any kind of job is hard work, Zoe Ace is getting paid to do what she loves, a 10-minute walk from home.

But Mississippi Studios, where Ace is spending this summer learning firsthand about the music industry, isn't paying her. In fact, manager Samuel McCree said hiring an intern was out of the question — until he heard about a unique youth employment program called the Boise Business Youth Unity Project.

Now in its third year, the project pairs businesses in the North Portland neighborhood of Boise with the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, a nonprofit youth advocacy group that runs Rosemary Anderson High School.

The result: Mississippi Studios and other small businesses can offer paid internships without signing the paychecks. Instead, the money is drawn from a pool of funds collected by the OIC.

Ace earns $8.40 an hour, 20 hours per week, at Mississippi Studios, filling out band contracts and helping with advertising. The 18-year-old, who sells stenciled shoes on MySpace and wears a pair with the catchphrase "Why so serious?" scrawled across the toes, wants to work in music management.

Thanks to the project, she's getting a head start.

"A lot of folks were receptive to it," said Leigh Rappaport, project manager at the OIC who helped match Ace with Mississippi Studios. "Some businesses chose not to take a young person but they were willing to give funds to support us, and vice versa.

Thirteen Boise businesses donated and seven offered to take on an intern, Rappaport said. Six youths are participating this year, and plans to start a sister program in the Humboldt neighborhood are under way.

"In this economy, finding jobs is extremely difficult for adults, but especially for youths," she said. "Portland is close to top in the nation for youth unemployment, so unfortunately or fortunately I think the demand for the model is going to increase."

Shane Endicott, who founded the ReBuilding Center in the Boise neighborhood and helped get the program off its feet, said businesses that invest in internships will see big returns.

"The youths having this experience of their community supporting them, when they become adults, they'll do the same thing," he said. "It becomes part of the culture."

Joe McFerrin, OIC executive director, said rapid gentrification in the area around North Mississippi Avenue has left some local youths feeling displaced. In 1999, the city created the Mississippi Historic District to boost commercial development on the what had become a crime-filled thoroughfare.

"New business owners would talk about kids being disruptive," he said.

The project's goal was to change their relationship. "I think it's important if we're going to be a part of this community that we support it," said McCree. This is the first time Mississippi Studios has participated in the project, and McCree said it's been a great experience so far.

"It's refreshing, because typically in the music business you don't work with a lot of people who are younger," he said.

Ace, who just graduated from Cleveland High School, said her internship is helping her gain experience and make the connections she needs. "It's not likely that you'll get a job in the music industry by just putting in an application," she said. "It's way more likely if you know someone, or know someone who knows someone."

In addition to her work at Mississippi Studios, Ace volunteers at KBOO radio station and has booked shows for bands she knows at the Satyricon, an all-ages venue downtown.

"She knows the area really well," said McCree. "But for me it's really important that we're supporting the local neighborhood here."

Ace said her internship has given her a sense of familiarity with the neighborhood that she lacked in high school, which was a 45 minute bus ride away.

"Sustainability is the twenty minute neighborhood," said Endicott. "Where everything is within twenty minutes of where you live. We're just scratching the surface."

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