The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Tag Archives: opportunity divide

With a window of opportunity, what country do we want to build?

Now that the election is over, we have an opportunity to come together as a country on an idea that is distinctly not political: getting Americans back to work.  Above all else, I’m feeling optimistic that now, we can do it.

Part of my optimism stems from seeing the 80 CEOs who recently came together to urge Washington to do what is necessary to avoid the fiscal cliff.  What’s to stop a similar group of business leaders from coming together to support solving another national crisis: the growing Opportunity Divide in this country?

Part of it is timing.  Across the country, we are moving closer to broad recognition that growing inequality of income and, more importantly, of wealth, hurts everyone.  The growing skills gap hurts our economy and demands an effort to rethink our approach to preparing young people to enter the workforce.  At the same time, online courses like MOOCs are transforming higher education from the university model to an aggregate model, which has the potential to truly democratize education by making it affordable for all.  Though the transition is just beginning and will surely involve some speed bumps, that’s something that no one has been able to do up to this point. 

We have an opportunity to make sure that our practices and policies do not divide us into two Americas – one America where opportunity abounds and another one where it is nonexistent.

The only question is, what is the country that we want to build? 

I am hopeful that we’ll build a country that sees the potential inherent in all of our young people, not just the ones born in the right zip codes or with the right amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts. 

Imagine how things could be different if all young adults had affordable access to higher education after completing high school, and if hiring managers recognized their potential and the credentials from their online courses as legitimate preparation for entry-level jobs that would help them build careers.  We know what young people can accomplish with that kind of opportunity, along with the right support, because we see them do it every day at Year Up, and it could power our economy and our country.

I’m thankful to work in an organization full of individuals who are fueled by the success and passion of these young people.  I’m hopeful that, with this window of opportunity, we will build a country that sees their potential and makes sure they have the opportunity to realize it.

Leading a legacy of change: Reflecting on the first Year Up Alumni Summit

Shanique Davis

Today’s update comes from Shanique Davis, a member of Year Up’s National Board and a Year Up National Capital Region alumna.  Shanique, along with National Board Member and Year Up Boston alumnus Greg Walton, led the organization of our first ever Year Up Alumni Summit, which took place in Washington, DC last week.

Last week, my colleague Greg Walton and I hosted 150 Year Up Alumni from across the U.S. at our very first Year Up Alumni Summit. Centered on “Leading a Legacy of Change, we hoped to build a rapport between alumni in different cities; to show that, as alumni, we can be even more of an asset to not only Year Up, but the world; and to share our knowledge and eagerness to pay forward the opportunities we’ve had while continuing to establish ourselves as young professionals. It was truly a sight to see, and the impact on those of us in attendance was even bigger than what we could have ever expected.

Throughout the events – an inspirational dinner with Daniel Beatty, dinner discussions reflecting on ourselves before and after Year Up, and several sessions focused on how we alumni are serving our communities and how we can continue to progress professionally – the connections we made were phenomenal.  I instantly felt like I was among family, just as I did at Year Up National Capital Region when I was going through the program.  It was deeply powerful and inspiring to meet so many other people with experiences similar to mine – and who shared the same passionate desire to lead change in our communities.

Year Up Alumni Summit

Our main purpose was to lead by example and show what “Leading a Legacy of Change” looked like in reality. A few alumni who attended, thinking they weren’t doing enough to make a difference, did not realize how much they have done so far and are continuing to do. We learned that we even have some who have started their own programs, such as MentorCorps, a mentoring program in Boston lead by alumnus Kern Williams. Talk about leading a legacy – this is definitely evidence of true alumni strength! Alumnus Ky Smith of Baltimore summed it up best when he told us: We are economic assets to our country.

I quote Michelangelo in saying, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim was too high and we missed it, but that it was too low and we reached it.” It sometimes takes moments like these for us to realize anything is possible when we put our minds to it.

Shanique and Greg with Gerald Chertavian, Founder and CEO of Year Up  Alumni Summit 2

This Alumni Summit showed us that we are a family, with the same purpose in life: to be a better person, change the way society looks at us as a whole, and set that foundation for a better future for our kids. In moving forward from this event and its knowledge, I know that more alumni will continue to lead their own legacy of change and share what they experienced here with others, so that we can impact even more young adults. With the unveiling of our new site legacyofchange.org, we are now able not just to tell, but to show how we are doing this. We can do more, and we can make our voices heard and our actions seen when advancing opportunity.

For alumni, whether or not you attended the summit, please get involved. Reach out to your fellow graduates and continue to be a part of this movement that is bigger than us all. We can make tomorrow a whole new day of change, and a step toward our future. As Ky said, we are economic assets to our country, and we have the power to change it.

We are very grateful to Microsoft and Southwest Airlines for making this gathering possible.

 

Immigration relief: The right thing is also the smart thing

It’s not always the case that doing what’s right is also doing what’s smart, but when it is, the question of “what to do” should be pretty simple. That’s the case with reducing uncertainty for immigrants who are working to contribute to American society, and that’s why I fully support the Obama administration’s new policy of granting administrative relief to certain young immigrants.

Here’s why it’s the right thing to do. For the young people eligible for relief under the new policy, America is the only home they have ever known. Their whole lives are here, and returning to their countries of origin, where they have few connections and often don’t even speak the language, makes little sense for them.

Here’s why it’s the smart thing to do. Our young immigrants have a lot to offer. They are motivated and hard-working, and in many cases have already contributed significantly to our society – by excelling in school, by volunteering in their communities, or by serving in the military. We may have high unemployment, but we also have growing numbers of job openings, already in the millions, that remain unfilled because companies can’t find the right workers. In many cases, the young people offered relief by this new policy are exactly the workers we most need. The bottom line is that it’s a smart move for our economy to keep them here.

We at Year Up are all too familiar with the lose-lose situation that results from deporting people unnecessarily , and in reading about the administration’s new policy the story of one student from our first classes in Boston springs to mind. This student was brought to the US from Colombia as a young child and he and his family were granted political asylum. While their case went through the courts, he grew up in Boston, attended public school, worked hard, met his future wife, and had a child of his own. I remember conducting his admissions interview and learning that he had supported himself through high school by working at Starbucks. He was a star in our program and everyone from our instructors to his supervisors at a major financial institution was impressed by his talent and work ethic. He would undoubtedly have been hired if not for the uncertainty around his immigration status. Shortly after graduation (at which he was the graduation speaker), the courts summarily dismissed the political asylum case (along with thousands of others in a post 9/11 knee jerk reaction), and instead of gaining the full-time employment he had earned, he went underground – working odd jobs off the books to support his child. He did, eventually, get caught, and was placed in an immigration detention center before being sent back to Colombia, thousands of miles from his family and community.

Would you consider it a wise move for our country to send a smart, motivated person like that away when our companies are clamoring for more talent like his – and his specifically? For whom exactly is justice being served there?

As I said, this young man was really talented, and of course he landed on his feet in Colombia and has continued to excel there. But he lost his family in the process, and while he began contributing to the Colombian economy, the financial institution that would have hired him had to look for someone to fill his place. With the new policy set forth by the Obama administration, and hopefully with more permanent action by Congress, we will retain such productive members of society going forward, and in doing so give new hope to these young people and to our economy.

16% vs 84%

The numbers are shocking.  A study highlighted in the New York Times this week revealed that only 16% of recent high school graduates not enrolled in college are working full-time.  An additional 22% are working part-time (often because they can’t find full-time work) and most believed they would be unable to get good jobs without further education, inaccessible for many.

Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with an unforgivably high percentage of young adults who lack a path to economic self-sufficiency, and whose talent is going to waste.  And with such low odds for this generation of young people, the message to the next generation is clear: if you don’t plan – or can’t afford – to go to college after high school, don’t expect much for yourself.

This wasted potential seems especially frustrating when you consider how avoidable it is.  There are many jobs in this country that do not require four-year college degrees, and many that require them even though they are unnecessary.  With some additional training, through a vocational program or through an employer, many of these young adults could not only fill those jobs, but excel in them.

Take, as an example, Samantha Lewis, a graduate of Year Up Bay Area.  Before she started the program, Samantha, a 22-year-old high school graduate with no college degree, was unemployed and homeless.  Her talent and hard work during the program ultimately earned her a permanent position at Wells Fargo – a position for which her supervisor had previously been seeking a candidate with a college degree and 10 years of experience. 

Compare the 16% in the New York Times with the 84% of Year Up graduates (also high school graduates without college degrees) employed or attending college full-time within 4 months of completing the program.  The second number should show you that these young adults have the talent and motivation to succeed in the workplace and build meaningful careers.  What they lack is the opportunity to do so.  It is critical that we make these opportunities accessible to them – for these young adults, these companies, and our nation as a whole. 

United We Stand, Opportunity Divided We Fall

Dominique Jones

There are many inspiring leaders of the Opportunity Movement, and I look forward to introducing more of them on this blog.  Today’s update comes from Dominique Jones, a recent graduate of the Year Up program.  Dominique graduated from Year Up Bay Area on Thursday and now works as a contractor for Salesforce.com.  Here’s what she has to say.

I was born in Oakland, California, a city with a rich history of both beauty and violence. Young people are often used as scapegoats for the crime-ridden parts of Oakland, while their potential goes unnoticed. Here, to the naked eye, a young man is only a hoodlum in a black hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers. He is a miscreant, unwilling to do his part to become an effective member of society. Who are these young men who decorate corners, breaking glass to match their broken spirits? They are the Opportunity Divide manifested in human beings.

What social elements created such a large group of talented young people who are so far from attaining the vision that they see for their lives? To me we are divided by the absence of three things: Empathy, Expectation, and Excellence.

In Oakland 2011, the murder rate rose for the first time in four years, the last three murders of the year being children under the age of five. This is a statistic, turned expectation that if left unattended, will become a scarier “E” word: epidemic. A lot of people expect Oakland to be violent, its inhabitants taking on its character. No one wants their city to have this reputation or to have the expectation of aggression tied to them because of their origins. It takes a certain awareness to be able to empathize with this. Subtly, armed with the tools of professionalism, young people refuse to leave this statistic unattended.

Year Up is a program that understands the social elements that create an environment for potential to be stifled and suffocated. Instead of giving young people a handout, Year Up asks us if we are willing to expect more out of our lives and helps us transform that expectation into excellence. The expectation of punctuality is transformed into the ability to be consistent. The expectation of professional language is transformed into the ability to speak and write eloquently. All that was needed was space and opportunity to allow our light to emerge from the dark places where we are told we aren’t enough and never will be.

My experience has been one where I was told that I was extremely gifted by teachers and counselors, but never offered advanced courses in high school. I had to seek them out. In college, I thrived academically and struggled financially, eventually having to drop out. I’ve always read voraciously, navigating the world as a student for life, but the doors to a bright future were always guarded by a looming figure of rejection that held me behind a red rope or red tape, depending on how you look at it. It may have been simple institutional bureaucracy or lack of expectation for a young, intelligent person from an urban background to thrive among students with different experiences. Either way, I could never get my name on the exclusive, four-year college guest list. I tried Year Up. It has worked for me. I’ve been able to sharpen my skills, earn an amazing internship at Salesforce.com, and prove that I can thrive in what Forbes called “the world’s most innovative company.” Me. Dominique. From Oakland.

Now ask yourself: what social element is created when such a large group of talented young people return to their neighborhoods, changed? That is an epidemic that I can stand behind.

The “Try Before You Buy” Job Creation Model

Ask any political candidate what the US can do today to create more jobs, and he or she will likely suggest solutions such as implement a job-creation tax credit, create an infrastructure bank, or fully fund the AmeriCorps program. Sure, these fixes will lead to job creation in the medium term, but what can our country do to ensure jobs are available now?

Let’s take a step back. There’s no argument that unemployment is a major problem in the United States today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 14 million people are unemployed; this amounts to just over 9 percent of the entire US population. Any job hunter will tell you about the frustration they face in searching for a position that matches their skills and provides an income, as well as benefits, job security, and room for growth. Listen a bit closer, however, and you will also hear frustration from hiring managers at top American companies about the lack of talent they are finding in the candidate pool: there are 3 million job vacancies in the United States today; filling them today would decrease unemployment by a few percentage points! Clearly, we have a problem in the labor exchange market that needs to be fixed, and fixed now.

What we could do immediately is offer $10,000 to any employer with one of those three million vacancies. The money could then be used to pay the wages of an unemployed person for three months, giving time to train that person in a skill the employer needs. At the end of three months, the employer could choose whether or not they want to hire the individual. Call it a “try before you buy” model, or a risk-free hiring process.

One program that is already implementing a version of this is Georgia Work Ready. It is the only program of its kind to be conducted through a partnership between a state government and a state chamber of commerce. Work Ready provides a skills assessment and certification for job seekers and a job-profiling system for businesses. By identifying both the needs of business and the available skills of Georgia’s workforce, the state can more effectively generate the right talent for the right jobs. In 2010 alone, more than 14,000 Georgians found work using their Georgia Work Ready certificate.

This model is promising. If other states followed suit, we would find ourselves with a better prepared workforce, fewer job vacancies, and more marketable talent with better paths for success, not to mention greater efficiency in the hiring process for companies. This would lead to a stronger economy over the long run and help the US to better compete in the global economy.

Nodding In Violent Agreement

After spending two days in Chicago at the Clinton Global Initiative event, I left with a sore neck.  Nope, the pillows at the hotel were just fine, thank you.  Rather, I found myself nodding in assent so many times throughout the two days that I must have tweaked a muscle!

For someone who has obsessed about economic equality and America’s skills gap for the past decade, it was like being a kid in a candy store.  Two days of nothing but discussion about jobs, jobs and more jobs; how to create them, what to do to get people skilled up for them, and what cities, companies and the federal government can do to get unemployment down and the economy up.

It was an impressive gathering, with more Mayors, Governors and former Clinton administration folks in attendance than you can shake a stick at.  Over 750 public, non-profit and private sector leaders were there, each chipping away at the fact that we have an applicant rich, skills poor country with an ever-increasing level of economic inequality.  To make it even sweeter, among those leaders were several wonderfully talented Year Up Chicago students who volunteered at the event.

Interested in learning more about the day’s event? Please click here for an agenda, and here for some interesting statistics about jobs in America.

From Year Up’s perspective, there were two interesting observations:

1. Year Up is tackling a set of “rising tide” issues:  It is clear that issues of economic justice, economic competitiveness and post-secondary education reform are becoming increasingly important issues in our country. The dialogue and the debate are shifting, and for good reason.

2. Year Up has built a strong reputation nationally:   I was floored to hear Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman explain in front of 750 people that: “In general, you get a larger return on investment in early childhood education.  Very few people have proven that you can get a return investing in older youth who are off track.  However, there have been some recent models and research from programs that offer very targeted training and support services that are disproving that theory.  One of them is Year Up.”

On a more personal note, the Year Up Chicago student volunteers were just amazing!  I had the opportunity to spend time with almost all of them, but one young man, Carl Lynch, really got me thinking.

Carl explained that he had never been at an event like this before.  You could see him absorbing information and learning, getting more and more comfortable in a matter of minutes.  We talked about how to politely wait for someone to finish a conversation before you introduce yourself, and how to connect with someone quickly so that they become engaged. Arguably small things, but not unimportant.

It struck me that there is a strong correlation between the journey that Carl is on and the goals of the CGI Summit.   CGI wants to reduce unemployment and Carl wants a good job. Policies have to link to people (like Carl) who need access to opportunity to realize their potential. The gap between the two can be bridged, and all of the people in the room that day, including Carl, can be a big part of the solution.

A Father’s Day Reflection

“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”  – Anne Sexton

After eleven years of being involved with Year Up, Father’s Day takes on a different meaning – or perhaps more accurately – an expanded meaning.  I often find at Year Up that the emotional range that we experience at work is much wider than what I was used to in the for-profit sector.

Back then, a great day was making money, and a really tough day was managing an employee who had a personal problem.  Now, the joy felt when one of our young adults succeeds on their terms and according to their expectations is beyond description – satisfying to the core of my being.  Sadly, the pain felt when one of our students finds themselves in harm’s way is palpable and all-consuming.

I am reminded each Father’s Day of the joy and the pain of our work.  It is joyful to awake to a slew of thoughtful text messages from young men and women who I have known, cared for and mentored over the past decade. It is an honor and a blessing to be trusted by them and to play a small part in their journeys.  As Lydia Child said in 1836, “Blessed indeed is the man who hears many gentle voices call him father!”  Every Fathers Day – without fail – I get a call from my little brother David Heredia, the inspiration for Year Up who today is a loving father and husband.  David’s voice never seems to change; he is always upbeat, warm and appreciative of the relationship we have crafted together.

However joyful these messages and calls are, it is painful to think that in almost every case, the person on the other side of that text message or phone call grew up without the presence of a father.  This gives me great pause, stops my breath for a moment, and puts a lump deep in my throat.  It is so very unfair that this is the reality for so many of the young adults that we serve.

Please do not take my observation as one based in pity – it is not.  Our young adults are stronger as a result of the adversity that they have faced, and so many want nothing more than to be the parents they never had.  However, it is impossible to deny the importance of having a father to care for you, encourage you, love you, and to provide as a role model.

The absence of a father cuts across racial and socio-economic lines. As James Q. Wilson, professor and senior fellow at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, writes, “After holding income constant, boys in father-absent families were twice as likely as those in two-parent ones to go to jail and girls in father-absent families were twice as likely as those in married families to have an out-of-wedlock birth….These differences are as great for white families as for black and Hispanic ones and as large for advantaged children as for disadvantaged ones.”

At Year Up, we are fortunate to work with a wonderful organization called the Family Center, which has developed a course which we teach to all of our students who have children. This 14-session curriculum, known as the Parenting Journey, was created for parents whose own childhood did not provide them with a solid foundation for nurturing themselves or their children.  I often hear how much students enjoy this class, and am pleased that we can support our students in this way.  They deserve it.

As Father’s Day draws to a close, and a new week begins, I am heartened and humbled to reflect on the day’s conversations, and thankful to know that so many other caring males at Year Up had a very similar Sunday.

Food For Thought

Last week, Year Up held a wonderful event at the home of Pam and Alan Trefler…not a fundraiser, more of a consciousness-raiser. The topic of discussion: How does food inequality relate to the Opportunity Divide?

First of all, what do we mean by “food inequality”? At a basic level, go to any inner city and try to buy a fresh vegetable. It’s tough to do. Or, price a gallon of milk at the local convenience store – it’s much more expensive than at Costco (which is a drive away and requires a car to access). Or, just ponder the fact that one out of every four children in America is currently on food stamps. It’s shocking.

How might this type of inequality relate to the opportunities to which one has access? The answer has to do with systems, and how they relate to and impact one another. By “systems” we mean housing, food, legal access, education, healthcare, and criminal justice; the systems we exist in as citizens, but often do not choose. We are placed in certain systems primarily because of our zip codes and socioeconomic status.

Here is a flow of logic to consider: if I am often hungry but do not eat nutritious food on a regular basis, it will be harder for me to focus and study at school. It is also likely that over time my health will be negatively impacted by this, which – if I don’t have access to regular medical care – may mean I miss school more frequently. The combination of these factors may cause my grades and education to suffer. Therefore, I may not do well on high-stakes tests (for instance, the SATs) which often dictate the expectations people have for me after high school. That is, if I even manage to graduate.

The food system, the educational system, and the healthcare system are all inter-related. At times, they can create a vicious vortex that even the persistent may find daunting to overcome. It is the very interdependence of these systems, especially in areas of concentrated poverty, which makes them so pernicious.

I don’t think we solved any problems last week as we pondered these questions, but the topic was very good “food for thought.”

Something to Sink Your Teeth Into

I have believed for some time now that rising income inequality poses a long-term threat to our civil society and indeed our democracy.

This is not the most popular view to espouse at dinner parties and can be seen by some as unpatriotic and scaremongering; it doesn’t get a laugh or leave people with inspired visions of a utopian society. From our often inward-looking national perspective, it can be hard to see how the 2005 riots in France or the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East could ever become reality here in the USA. All were in large part catalyzed by sky-high youth unemployment and a lack of opportunity to climb the economic and social ladder. As Timothy Noah illustrates in his well-written 10 part series, income inequality is only problematic when you combine it with a lack of social mobility.

While I would never sell our country short, it is hard to deny that trends in America are heading in the wrong direction. As Noah explains, income inequality has risen steadily over the last 40 years to the point where “income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.”

Similarly, the Brookings Institution / Pew Economic Mobility Project, “Is the American Dream Alive and Well?“, concluded that “children born into a low-income household in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Germany have a better chance of improving their economic situation than those born in the United States.”

Trends often catch us by surprise; it is hard to predict when there will be a backlash, a dot com bubble burst, or a housing crash. But the fact remains that current trends are heading in the wrong direction if one takes history as any useful guide to the future. How we reverse these trends – and who is responsible for reversing them – is a longer discussion. For now, it is worth noting that we are not so far removed from the international news reports we have been watching. If we continue on our current course, we too may reach a breaking point; it may not fall within the timeframe of any one administration, and is likely to be something our children will have to address rather than us. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, and I hope the food still tastes OK.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 139 other followers

%d bloggers like this: