In summer 2009, Lasheca Lewis was 16, knew she wanted to be a lawyer and landed an internship in the town attorney’s office, working under a black female attorney who had become her mentor.
Studying for the bar exam later this month, Lewis, now 26, credits life lessons and professional connections to that six-week Town of Babylon internship program for minority high school students.
Then-Babylon Town Clerk Janice E. Tinsley-Colbert, the town’s first black elected official, founded the Ujima program, named for the Kwanzaa principle of collective work and responsibility, 20 years ago, providing paid internships to about 20 students entering 10th, 11th or 12th grades.
Councilwoman Jackie Gordon, the program's director for more than 10 years, said it's important exposure for the students.
“People choose their career field where they see examples of themselves,” she said, and seeing herself, a black woman, and other minorities in government can open the door.
The students must master a rigorous application process and interviews before they’re placed throughout the town — attorney’s office, animal shelter, senior center — where “they get real work,” Gordon said. “We want them to be prepared when they go out into the real world.”
They also get advice from weekly guest speakers, including recently from Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon, who overcame obstacles, including surviving cancer twice, to become the first black sheriff in Suffolk County.
Genesis Perez, 16, lives in Amityville and recalled Toulon's inspiring presentation. The Friday guest speaker series “is what most impacts me,” she said.
Perez is entering 11th grade at Amityville Memorial High School and wants to be a teacher, so her summer camp counselor internship is a good fit, she said.
“When I’m there, it gives me the opportunity of seeing if I actually want to go into the education field,” she said.
Thomas Addison V, 15, of Wheatley Heights, will be an 11th-grader at Half Hollow Hills High School East and is working at a youth center in Wyandanch, not his first pick.
But every day is different, he said, and he appreciates the new experiences, like seeing how he and the younger children differ from one another.
“They know a lot of stuff that I didn’t know at their age,” he said.
Addison comes from a law enforcement family and said he wants to be a lawyer in the criminal justice system, both as a prosecutor and defense counsel.
“I would recommend it to anybody who lives in the Town of Babylon . . . because you’d never think you’d be able to connect with people in higher power and authority,” he said.
Lewis, the 2009 intern, went on to graduate college and law school and is now community relations director for Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights).
Learning from other black women in town leadership as a teen, “I was able to visualize myself in that same position,” Lewis said. She keeps in touch and those connections, which have helped her as an adult.
“They have become my support system and my network,” Lewis said. “And they all know I’m looking for a job.”
A number of good results
20 — Number of years Ujima internship program has existed
20 — Number of weekly hours that students work
17-23 — Number of students usually chosen each year
14 — Number of students (all girls) in the program’s first year
21 — Number of years that Councilwoman Jackie Gordon has been a guidance counselor
6 — Number of weeks that interns work
10-12 — Grades students must be entering to qualify