Melynn Schuyler insists that the young people she serves are the true voice of ¡YouthWorks!—so much so that she’s slightly uncomfortable speaking on behalf of the organization she co-founded. Since 2001, the nonprofit has offered critical support to around 10,000 teens and young adults in the Northern New Mexico area. Nearly everybody who comes through its doors hails from a low-income background, most are people of color and many live precariously; they’re undocumented, or homeless, or ensnarled in the criminal justice system at a young age.

To date, the organization has put to use $4.5 million for "wrap around services" for young people. That's nonprofit-ese for programs that hit on various needs, from GED prep and apprenticeship programs with local businesses (wherein ¡YouthWorks! will subsidize a youth's wages) to on-site counselors who also work with public schools in Santa Fe. A lot of the stuff on offer stems from the partnerships ¡YouthWorks! has made over the years; for example, private catering contracts form the basis of a culinary arts program, and Bureau of Labor finances an arrangement where youth help build affordable housing. But the organization does little things too, like provide places to sleep and help with laundry.

Melynn Schuyler says the city’s economic development spending on her organization helps youth resist despair.
Melynn Schuyler says the city’s economic development spending on her organization helps youth resist despair. | Lilana Dillingham

Few would dispute the good intentions here, but in a

for the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Santa Fe County League of Women Voters appeared to question the city’s decision to pour a reported $1.2 million of economic development money into ¡YouthWorks! over the last eight years, making it the second-highest receiver of such funds. The league suggested in the piece that the city tighten its accounting.

But Schuyler, ¡YouthWorks!'s executive director, argues that the impacts on personal development are more important than what can be quantified on paper, and at a time when the country seems headed in a harsh direction for struggling people, she says that the work they do resisting despair is invaluable.

We dropped in to their office on Cerrillos last Thursday morning, after all the young people had fanned out across the city, and spoke to Schuyler and operations chief Heather Vigil Clarke about their current and future work in Trump's America.

SFR: How do you connect youth to local businesses?

Schuyler: We look at youth needs and business needs in the local economy, we study the current labor market trends in Northern New Mexico, and see what matches. Where are the job openings, where are they coming from, what's going to come down the pipeline, and what are youth interested in, and can we help them see that some of their interest might match those areas? So our intake process with any young person asks, 'What are you interested in doing now, in five years, in 10 years?' And, 'Can we help guide you toward the things you might want to experience so you can test-drive your skills and find that passion somewhere?'

Why do you believe the city's spending of economic development funds on ¡YouthWorks! is justified?

Schuyler: We meet and exceed all the performance measures that we have mutually agreed upon between the city and this organization to develop a workforce that is employable and that contributes to the economy. Each year of funding that we've received, we have gained another 20 percent in job placement, apprenticeship placements and successful youth outcomes, measurable from the day we started to receive funds nine years ago to this day. Throughout multiple administrations in the city, nothing has been able to compare to the work and impact that we've been able to demonstrate in human lives and changing trajectories and in meeting employers' needs.

What's ¡YouthWorks! relationship to the criminal justice system?

Vigil Clarke: We've always had a general relationship, in that the clients they serve are often those we serve, but now we're interfacing because there's been this big paradigm shift within the juvenile justice system that's less punitive and more focused on how you teach new skills and integrate young people instead of throwing them in jail. We're interfacing with the [Juvenile Probation Office] because they see the services we're offering and recognize that when we offer these services to young people it makes their jobs less intensive.

¡YouthWorks! receives money from federal community block grants, which the Trump administration has threatened to pull from self-declared sanctuary cities. How would it affect ¡YouthWorks! if those funds were pulled?

Schuyler: ¡YouthWorks! would be primarily affected by the impact on young people and their families who are already struggling to maintain housing, in a community that has less and less affordable housing options. Our partners like Habitat for Humanity would also be affected. ... ¡YouthWorks! won't go under, but we'll experience much greater need and much more homelessness—we already have families living on the edge, and young people living in tents right now. … The needs on the social services agencies are going to explode. And so other sources have to come into play. Private sources have to reassess how they are going to help maintain society if our federal government's not going to.

Many of the kids you serve are Latino and Native. How have they reacted to the racist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies emanating from the federal government?

Schuyler: There's a lot of fear of the unknown. There is some general feeling of lack of hope: How do you stay invested in your future and all the things we're espousing and pushing here? But there's also some rebellion: How can we fight back? As a smaller community, we have that power. We've survived this long. And young people bring energy and ideas and creativity, and we'll get behind them and support them in all of that. We won't give up, and they're not going to give up.