Kumon of Blaine, the tutoring center where I worked, switched to an online model in March 2020. The result? My layoff, which I had feared but expected when I first heard of the pandemic the month before.
The loss of income meant I no longer had a sense of freedom to shop for whatever I liked. This made me upset, because I had felt a sense of independence from the grasp of my strict parents, and now it was unfairly taken away from me. But I know I wasn’t the only student who was affected.
Up until December, students who lost their jobs due to the pandemic saw no financial relief. It’s hard to conceive how many of those students were left in a distressing situation, especially if their parents were also laid off. But that was before Youthprise filed a lawsuit that, eventually, successfully won high school students unemployment benefits.
Youthprise is an organization that seeks equity for Minnesota students, especially for Indigenous, low-income and racially diverse youth. Youthprise President Wokie Weah is a firm believer in success that is closely tied with aiding the young. She centered the organization around the belief that bringing together youth leadership and engagement with the pursuit of equity will always yield quality results.
Weah joined the cause when the issue was brought to her attention by students who were struggling during this strenuous time.
“A lot of the young people we were talking to, this money was important to them because they were helping to support their families, so if they did not receive unemployment benefits, then it had repercussions,” Weah said.
Youthprise did everything it could to bring awareness to the issue in hopes of pressuring legislators. They put up billboards around the state, circulated articles and posted on social media.
“Frankly, I think it would have been a little embarrassing if Minnesota had not come through,” Weah said, laughing.
What prompted Weah and Youthprise to fight with such resolve? She saw this case as “an opportunity to make some noise” — to force the state’s legislators to consider young people’s needs.
“I think legislators were not taking young people very seriously,” Weah said.
Filing a lawsuit is a large task. Fortunately, over the years Youthprise has received financial support from several organizations, such as the McKnight Foundation, Philanthropy Partners and the Minneapolis Foundation. Attorney General Keith Ellison was also an avid supporter; Weah called him “tremendously helpful.”
In December 2020, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that all high school students in Minnesota who have lost their job due to the pandemic can now access unemployment benefits.
Weah was pleased with the result. She noted how much awareness Youthprise’s campaign raised on the issue.
“I think that provided some incentive for the ruling to go in our favor,” Weah said.