Sociologists and educators are in agreement: The environment in which young people grows up is the greatest determining factor in their success in later life.
For years, Harlem, New York, has been as synonymous with culture, jazz and great food as it has with limited opportunities and troubled housing projects.
Which is why Pharrell Williams’ recent commencement speech at a Harlem high school was so important. During a talk to 114 students, the ‘Happy’ singer and Grammy Award-winning artist promised graduating students a stage one or two internship.
This is of huge importance in the US, where going to university can range from anywhere between tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Competition for jobs — and therefore, an ability to begin paying this off — is fierce.
“So, let me be clear: Every member of the 2019 graduating class is guaranteed an internship waiting for them next summer,” he told the class during his speech at their graduation.
“The world is watching Harlem, but this renaissance will be different. And believe it or not, with respect, it’s gonna actually be better,” he continued. “The reason why is because the new Harlem Renaissance has education at its core.”
The singer reportedly promised these would be “A-list internships,” with the only condition being that students take up their places offered at university and at least finish their first year.
Pharrell’s actions are similar to those of Robert E Smith, the billionaire who announced plans to pay off the student debt of an entire graduating class at Morehouse University, one of the top historically black colleges in the country.
The school at which the kids were enrolled, Harlem Children’s Zone, says its mission is to do “whatever it takes” to get its students through college and “end the cycle of generational poverty in Central Harlem.” The school, as quoted in CBS news, later thanked Pharell for helping students become “leaders for justice and change in the world.”
One student set to benefit from the singer’s intervention, 17-year-old Brionna Pope, told CNN about her reaction on hearing the news. “I was surprised and shocked and relieved. A lot of us who were financially struggling … to at least know we had a head start in life because next summer we would be able to get internships and make connections.” She set out her hope to pair her degree in animation with an internship at a company such as Pixar or Dreamworks.
The singer has built something of a track record for philanthropy and supporting education initiatives. Earlier this year, he developed a technology-focused curriculum for under-resourced schools in partnership with Verizon. Through his charity, From One Hand to AnOTHER, he sponsors educational programmes focusing on STEAMM (science, technology, engineering, arts, maths, motivation) for at-risk communities. As reported in Thrive Global, Williams himself often attends the summer camps and after-school programs to speak to students directly as an active mentor.
In addition, he has organised galas to support the teaching of arts in schools, and in 2015, he joined up with the United Nations Foundation to encourage young people to pledge their support for climate change initiatives.
“Protecting our planet is fundamental to the pursuit of human happiness and that is why we have chosen to support Live Earth’s movement to raise a billion voices for climate action,” he said at the time.” We believe that happiness can change the world.”