SJU students told recession hit young hard

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Bakari Kitwana, a journalist and activist, last week urged St. John’s University students to mobilize around federal education and job creation bills with the same enthusiastic approach they used to rally around President Barack Obama’s campaign.

“There was an historic turnout of the youth vote for Barack Obama,” said Kitwana, who spoke at St. John’s last Thursday. “But when the issues, like jobs and student loans, are brought out, the youth have to be on them and we haven’t seen that.”

Kitwana spent much of his lecture, entitled “Young Americans in the New Economy,” discussing how the recession has affected individuals in their late teens to early 30s and said individuals in that age group could find themselves in a much better situation financially if they rally around changes to the loan system and job creation.

The speaker is the CEO of Rap Sessions, a group that conducts town hall meetings around the country on difficult issues facing the “hip-hop generation.” Kitwana, who grew up on Long Island and lives in Ohio, has commented on NPR, CNN, Fox News, C-Span and PBS.

“Here you guys are, spending $48,000 a year to go to St. John’s, and I meet college grads every day who are out of work,” Kitwana told the students. “There are grads going to work at places like Kinko’s. This is the reality.”

The Obama administration, especially Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has been pushing to end the way many financial loans are given to students and eliminate a program that uses private lenders as middlemen for federally backed loans. The Housepassed a bill in September that would mandate direct government lending for education, but the bill has been met with resistance in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate approved a $15 billion bill at the end of February to create jobs by, for example, offering a tax credit to employers who hire workers. Employers would not have to pay the 6.25 percent of federal payroll taxes for the rest of the year for any new workers that have been unemployed for at least 60 days. The House, which passed a larger job creation bill in December, still needs to take up the Senate’s legislation.

Kitwana, who spoke at SJU as part of the school’s academic lecture series, and members of his organization, Rap Session, recently commissioned a survey and asked young people what the most important issues were related to the economy.

“We found they were most concerned about ending the war in Iraq, making college affordable, living wage jobs for the working class, health care and economic deployment in urban centers,” he said.

Ashlea Irick, a senior at St. John’s, told Kitwana she comes “from a single-parent home, so the cost of tuition is especially important to me.”

Francilla Wilkins, who works for the department of student affairs at St. John’s and is in charge of the academic lecture series, said they were especially looking forward to Kitwana’s visit as part of their academic lecture series, which has included singer Wyclef Jean and author Greg Mortensen.

“I’m hoping students took away from this how to empower themselves,” Wilkins said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:48 pm, October 10, 2011
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