A teen and volunteer at last year's YouthPlaces college fair. More than 500 participants are expected at this year's fair. Photo courtesy of YouthPlaces.

When the nonprofit YouthPlaces launched in 1997, its founders were challenged by the digital divide.

The group provides free after-school programs to teenagers in underserved communities. But most of the teens they served lacked access to the basic technology — cell phones, computers — which were standard among their more affluent peers.

Today, that divide still exists but it’s a bit different. Nearly all kids now have access to some technology, but they don’t know how to best use it.

“Providing access is not enough anymore,” says President and CEO Cynthia James. “Now it’s about how we can leverage that access to help our kids be successful.”

The key, James believes, is inspiring the latest generation of youth to think like entrepreneurs while directing them to appropriate existing resources.

“You need entrepreneurial, innovative, critical thinking,” she says. “But you also need to know that everything doesn’t have to be that hard. Some things are just really easy to find. There are tons of resources out there; people have already put forth great solutions.”

One way YouthPlaces brings those solutions and pathways to students is through their annual college fair.

“Colleges and universities aren’t targeting underserved youth for recruitment,” James says. “So we decided that instead of waiting for them, we will be an effective partner in doing this outreach.”

The 2018 fair will be held at Nova Place on Saturday, Nov. 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nearly 30 institutions will send admissions officers to connect with teens about educational requirements, application procedures, financial aid options and more. A few schools will even offer on-the-spot acceptances.

Parents are invited, too. YouthPlaces has designed workshops specifically to help them become knowledgeable, supportive partners during their kids’ college search.

“We’re engaging the student and the parent,” James says, “and taking them on a journey together.”

James took the reins as president and CEO two years ago with her sights set on modernization. “It needed to be brought into the 21st century,” she says. “They were kind of running off this Gen X, really old school, gritty model.”

As the organization celebrates its 21st birthday this year, “the YP” (as the staff warmly calls it) continues creating and sustaining safe spaces for Pittsburgh teens. Many of these are permanent, physical locations and their array of options has grown. In 1997, YouthPlaces had five after-school sites where they served 500 youth annually; today they operate 17 sites serving more than 4,000 young people.

But just as vital, the group creates a safe metaphorical space for youth to feel comfortable being themselves and exploring their full potential.

“How we identify safe spaces now is how we engage the kids in their communities, what we provide them access to and who is put in front of them to make them feel safe,” James says.

She also believes that providing services within the borders of the teens’ own neighborhoods is critical, since transporting them to more affluent locations can send an unfortunate message.

“The narrative that can be seen by impressionable young people,” James says, “is that your community is not good enough and we have to take you out of it.”

Jodi Tandet

Jodi Tandet is a writer who's penned stories in Miami, Israel, Atlanta, and upstate New York. She lives in Highland Park with her roommate, a calico cat, and is on a mission to hike every trail and try every smoothie shop in Pittsburgh.