Philly Rising: Teaching young people how to 'recode' their lives with Hopeworks

Alia Sutton-Bey is director of operations and youth development at Hopeworks Camden, which trains young people to pursue tech industry jobs.
Alia Sutton-Bey is director of operations and youth development at Hopeworks Camden, which trains young people to pursue tech industry jobs. Photo credit Hopeworks

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Through the pandemic, Alia Sutton-Bey has been uplifting the lives of local youth by teaching them how to "recode" their own lives and earn what she calls a livable wage.

"I've always been an outlier because I believed in kindness and compassion, and that's the approach I wanted to use in my work and that's not traditional workforce," said Sutton-Bey, Director of Operations and Youth Development at Hopeworks Camden (https://hopeworks.org). "That is what I think is our secret sauce."

The social enterprise provides education, technology training and work opportunities for 17-26 year olds.

"We know that tech can be a lucrative job. It's also a job that you don't have to have a college degree to get into. There are some entry and mid-level tech jobs that are available that pay a living wage that we can train young people to get into," she said.

The youth who enter Hopeworks generally make less than $1,000 a year. Generally, when they leave the program, they make, on average, $34,869 a year.

"Our mission is anti-poverty. How do we get young people out of poverty, and break the cycle of poverty?" she said.

But Sutton-Bey maintained they are more than a workforce program.

"We train young people in technology but we also hire them, and for many of our young people, become their first employment experience," she detailed. "We have a Geographic Information System (GIS) business, we have a web development and design business and a youth healing team. We go in and train other organizations on how to become trauma-informed and integrate trauma-informed practices into their business."

She added, "It's also about transformation, helping them transform their lives into whatever it is that they want to become — giving them the tools and the skills to live their best life."

Sutton-Bey has her own transformation story. She worked for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation for 20 years, but always found herself wondering what more she should be doing. Her mother's death eventually motivated her to make the change she yearned for.

"She had a stroke in 2014. I took care of her, I would not put her in a nursing home. My mother would also say to me 'You're underselling yourself. Think about your legacy and how you can do more. You can get paid to do a good job,'" she recalled.

One day, she received a call from Hopeworks Executive Director Dan Rhoton, with the opportunity she for which she had searched. To date, through Hopeworks Camden, she's helped hundreds of young people access education and meaningful work to change the trajectory of their lives.

"It's interesting because the same thing I'm training my young people to do, I had to do for myself because I had always had the same job," she shared. "I was with the city for 20 years. I watched a lot of videos on how to prepare for an interview, get my resume together and only focus on executive-level jobs."

Thankfully for many, her focus paid off. From partnering with food banks to help fight food insecurity to delivering laptops to make sure clients have internet access, Sutton-Bey helped the Hopeworks team make meaningful change through the pandemic.

"It has been rough but it also has created opportunities. The pandemic really showed us how resilient we are and how resilient the young people are," she said.

Sutton-Bey said she has more big plans in store, especially for recruiting more women of color into the technology field.

"It's important for the young people to see us in this space," she said. "They've got to see people of color in the tech space so that they know this is something that is possible for them.”

She hopes to expand Hopeworks' efforts to diversify the growing tech ecosystem in the Greater Philadelphia region — and the leadership.

"As African American women, we tend to hit a lot of glass ceilings and don't think we are deserving of moving up to C-suite or executive positions. The onus is on those of us who have broken those glass ceilings and have been able to move up in our careers to pass that information on," she said.