Sarah Mercado started her position as Director of Career Pathways Services at Manufacturing Renaissance in August of this year. However, her family background and career path prepared her for this work well before this year. She was born in the Dominican Republic; her life there and here has often been tied to social justice issues, including her career working with underserved youth.
“I appreciate how Manufacturing Renaissance builds relationships with youth participants in its programs – relationships that actually evolve into partnerships over the years,” she says. “The organization really wants youth to be supported in these programs and prepare for a job in manufacturing.”
In her work for the Renaissance, Mercado says she will strive to provide operations support “so we can codify and simplify how we are offering services to participants in the Manufacturing Connect and Young Manufacturers Association programs.”
Mercado shares a story about how her father, who is from the Dominican Republic, and her mother, an American, met as community organizers in the 1970s in the Dominican Republic. “They were working on a cooperative campaign for land rights for people there,” she says. “My mom was affiliated with a church; my dad, with a community organization.”
Focus on social issues
When she was in high school, Mercado’s family moved to the states, landing in Naperville, IL. Over the years, her experience has shown her the impact that poverty can have on people and communities. “In the U.S., the inequality is astronomical. In Latin America, even more so. One difference is that in Latin America, you’re always confronted with inequality. Here, it’s more segregated.”
“I’ve moved so many times, but I see the same problems,” she says. “Part of why I have this perspective is that some of these problems are universal.”
As a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, she studied urban geography, a field that further sparked her growing interest in social issues, including housing, transportation, and other issues.
Later, she worked with neighborhood groups in Boston. While working with a group to keep a local YMCA open, she ran a youth employment program. That led to a position where she ran a college and career preparation academy at a high school. “I decided to focus on youth and keep working in education,” she says. One experience she loved, she says, was the opportunity to build a parent advocacy group.
Her interest in working with youth grew. “I became really interested in youth who are not finding success in typical classrooms,” she says. “We have to ask what supports are viable, and how these students can get what they need to participate in the economy.”
Mercado came back to the Chicago area to be closer to her family, and worked for Youth Guidance, a social service organization in the city. Initially, she was a Career Specialist for Youth Guidance at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, coaching youth for workplace readiness and successful post-secondary transitions. “I was like a career coach, and worked directly with youth,” she says. She also worked as a curriculum specialist at Youth Guidance, helping to pioneer a career-readiness program based on social emotional learning. In addition, she was instrumental in piloting a program design called the @Work Initiative, which supported over 150 youth and is now being expanded to Boston and Washington.
“What I saw, more and more, was how important social-emotional learning and skills are,” she says. “Young people need to develop self-awareness, interests, values, and a professional identity.” She adds that “We want youth to be more like adults and know what they want, regulate, keep emotions in check. Fun is always secondary. But sometimes we treat fun like it’s only relevant to kindergartners – or adults with extra cash to spend.”
While at Youth Guidance, she also learned about Manufacturing Renaissance firsthand during a visit to the organization’s program that was based in Austin at the time.
These days, she sees how her father’s work intersected in a way with the work of Dan Swinney, founder of Manufacturing Renaissance. “My father was actively involved in starting a union, and ended up being a spokesperson for workers. Many years ago, Dan embedded himself as an iron worker in a factory. Both were focused on community, people’s rights, and justice.”
Looking forward, Mercado is eager to help Manufacturing Renaissance meet another challenge – connecting with employers to help them onboard new employees. “Our work with youth is only as relevant as how we work with employers,” she says.
Where can this work go in the next few years? Though her work is often focused on the moment, she also takes a wider view. “I am a systems thinker,” she says. “What I’m committed to is projects that can become scalable models for a different kind of economy – one that is inclusive. You cannot continue to exclude people. You have to be actively inclusive.”
The mission statement of Manufacturing Renaissance is to “advance inclusive sustainable development anchored in manufacturing.” “I can actually see that mission statement being realized,” Mercado says. “It’s so practical.”