Interview: Ricardo Calderon


Ricardo Calderon is a program manager in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office, where he organizes and runs the Philadelphia Youth Commission. The Commission provides a voice for youth in government, which has motivated Calderon to get involved in public service. Calderon talked with the Penn Political Review about his passion for getting youth involved in government, the work of the Philadelphia Commission, and the importance of the youth vote.

Conducted and Transcribed by Michael Schwoerer

Penn Political Review (PPR): Could you describe for our readers what your position is?

Calderon: Yeah, sure. So, as you already know, I’m the program manager for the Philadelphia Youth Commission. The purpose of the Youth Commission is to have a youth voice represented on the government level, and what’s unique about the Philadelphia Youth Commission is that it is youth-led. And the way we achieve that is that city council members themselves, along with the mayor, appoint who their youth commissioner is, so it’s not just something where some random young person can fill in the spot. There’s a process whereby commissioners have to be selected by the councilperson in their district, or at-large, or again by the mayor himself. That’s what makes it a little bit interesting. As staff, our job is to facilitate that process of commission members being able to be the youth representative and the youth voice. We take care of really creating the collaboration and the partnerships, and again we help with what the youth see as a need for engaging and empowering young people throughout the city.

PPR: What in general have you noticed that youth find to be issues that need to be addressed in the city of Philadelphia?

Calderon: There’s quite a few, but the two that have definitely become apparent are education and employment opportunities – jobs, specifically for young people. And the reason that I say those two things is because there’s a direct connection between the lack of education and a lack of opportunity to be employed or to be engaged in some sort of program. This lack leads to time on your hands to do something that you probably shouldn’t be getting into. So those two issues are really the ones you really hear about especially being expressed not only on the youth commission but also from the youth of the city.

PPR: Have the members of the youth commission done anything to address these issues during its existence so far?

Calderon: Well the commission’s been around since 2008, and it’s been involved in a multitude of different things. I’ve only been with the youth commission since May of 2015; however, one of the things we’re doing currently is establishing a much closer and stronger partnership with not only the Philadelphia school district but also the education office in the mayor’s office. We actually had a meeting with the education office in which we appointed a liaison who’s going to be present at the education meetings with the committee, one of the four committees under which we operate. Simply having a little bit more effective communication – open communication – with those committees, and having youth commissioners able to have a voice on that level is something that’s really important. We actually have one of our youth commissioners, Tamir Harper, who’s very passionate about education, sitting on an advisory board for the superintendent, and he’s in constant communication with their office, again not only representing the Philadelphia youth commission but just young people as a whole and their voice when it comes to the schools.

PPR: Has anything been done in terms of employment opportunities?

Calderon: Yes– so being in the Mayor’s office, there are many different things we are tied to and have the opportunity to collaborate on. One of the newer projects that the youth commissioners have been involved in for a couple years now is the Fun Safe Philly Summer Job Fair, which will be happening again this coming spring. We’ll be playing a much more active role, since the Fun Safe Philly Summer Programs merged with the Philadelphia Youth Commission; it’s actually going to operate under the Youth Commission. As a matter of fact, two years ago, there were over 1500 who attended the job fair. Last year, the number was brought down just so that it could be a little bit more specific and a little bit more effective for each young person who was coming through the doors, so they actually set it up and had close to 400 youth come out, but they also supplemented that with an online jobs fair where another 500 youth participated. Because employment opportunity is something always on youths’ minds, it’s something that the youth commission in many ways seeks to get involved with and we plan to do so.

PPR: What is the benefit of having youth in government to address youth issues?

Calderon: That’s a great question. Personally speaking, it’s quite frankly a necessity. For far too long (and even currently the way we are now), we’ve had adults, whether it be in government, in business, in the private sector, or in the nonprofit sector, who sit in a room and make decisions based on young people and for young people every single day. These decisions deeply impact the lives of young people, and very rarely do you have a young person sitting at the table, taking part in the discussion. The Philadelphia Youth Commission changes that. It represents the idea that a young person’s opinion has a value just as valuable as that of an adult. And when we make these decisions on a government level you’re looking towards the future, you’re looking at decisions that impact not only today but the days to come. Young people are our future. Young people are going to be the ones who live with those decisions, so they have to be a part of the decision-making process. It’s extremely important and crucial to our city of Philadelphia.

PPR: One last question, in looking at the statistics regarding who actually votes in elections, a large number of individuals are on the older end of the age spectrum. What impact do you think this has on youth in politics or the issues addressing youth in government?

Calderon: It has a huge impact, in my opinion. We tend to focus on (as well as education) empowering young people. So what tends to happen is that voting, being restricted until adulthood, is restrained from youth until their age to vote, 18. But what happens is that by the time you’re an adult you have a specific viewpoint on things. So if voting wasn’t something that you were really used to, if it wasn’t something you were into, you’re not going to suddenly have this mad passion for it, nor a grasp of its importance. So what the Youth Commission supports is the idea of educating young voters, even if they can’t vote, it’s important that they understand the importance before they turn 18 years old, so that when they do turn 18, that they are showing up to the polls, that they are making that difference. It’s one of those things where if we’re not going to the polls, a lot of our voices will go unheard. And I feel that for young people (and I know others agree with me) is that they must be educated. Sure, everyone came out to vote for Obama – great. But the president isn’t the one affecting every hour of your day. You need to show up for the local government, the councilpersons, the judges, because they’re the ones who impact your direct neighborhood and life. To engage younger people earlier on is extremely important.