Members of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign Meet with Senators to Urge Investment in Pathways to Opportunity

By Maharddhika

In its second year, the Reconnecting Youth Campaign has set a bold goal: build on the success of its inaugural year, which saw a $195 million increase in Congressional funds to programs that provide pathways to school, work and job training for Opportunity Youth. This year’s goal is to secure enough federal funding to reconnect one million Opportunity Youth—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school or the workforce—each year. (Currently, programs such as AmeriCorps, the service and conservation corps, Public Allies, YouthBuild, Job Corps and the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe reach about 360,000 young people each year.)

On September 5, 2019, about 40 people from cross-sector partners and allies, including OYUnited leaders and members, gathered at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) office in Washington, DC. Among them were youth leaders from across the country who have been working in their hometowns to organize their peers and to build relationships with their Congressional Representatives to support this campaign.

Understanding the Situation and Solution

In the morning, young leaders gathered to learn about the appropriations process and about a range of policies that impact young people. Thomas Showalter, Executive Director of National Youth Employment Coalition, started the discussion with an update on the status of federal appropriations for programs that provide education, job training, counseling and community service for Opportunity Youth. Funding remains wholly insufficient. Strong and robust investments are needed to help reconnect 4.5 million Opportunity Youth. “Congress should be spending $4 billion more to serve the nation’s 4.5 million Opportunity Youth,” Showalter said.

There was also an opportunity to dig deeper into the federally funded programs and ask questions in smaller groups. Taimarie Adams, Government Relations Director of Service Year Alliance fielded questions on national service. Doug Ierely, Director of Advocacy & Policy with Youth Build USA, shared updates on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Brendan O’Hara, Deputy Director of National Jobs Corps Association, discussed Jobs Corps. The current economic and political climate has posed some challenges for Job Corps. For example, on May 24, 2019, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its plan to terminate the U.S Forest Service’s long-standing operation of the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which provide essential job training to disadvantaged Opportunity Youth across rural America.

The meeting also covered intersectional issues like the green economy. The green economy represents one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy, offering a chance for policymakers, advocates, youth and industry leaders to rethink access to work, careers, innovation and opportunity.

Denise Fairchild, President & CEO of the Emerald Cities Collaborative drew the connection between the economy, the environment and equity. “Our young people are core to reshaping how America works, how it’s built and who gets benefit from it,” she said.

As one of strategies to raise the public visibility of these issues, young leaders learned how to effectively use social media to build awareness, amplify shared messages and calls to action, and inform and engage key stakeholders. The campaign hashtag is #ReconnectingYouth.

A Reconnecting Youth Campaign team on Capitol Hill

Hill Meetings: Connecting with Senators

After lunch (provided by Foodhini, a DC-based caterer with a social mission) and a training led by Opportunity Youth United founding member Shanice Turner, the campaign visited Capitol Hill to meet with the staff of 16 Senators: Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Neely Kennedy (R-LA), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Brain Schatz (D-HI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), John Boozman (R-Ark), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Udall (D-NM), Christopher Van Hollen (D-MD) and Tim Tillis (R-FL).

In the meetings, Reconnecting Youth Campaign members shared the youth disconnection rate in the Senator’s home state, and what it would mean for the state’s young people and its economy if the campaign’s goals of increased funding were met. According to the latest Measure of America data, West Virginia, New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas are the states with highest with youth disconnection rate (ranging from 15.1 to 17.0 percent of young people).

The teams had two calls to action for each Senator: First, increase funding for Opportunity Youth programs during this appropriations process. Secondly, help create a Congressional Opportunity Youth Caucus to champion the needs and contributions of Opportunity Youth.

In a meeting with Meghan V. Dorn, Legislative Aide to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Troy Johnson, an Opportunity Youth United local team leader from Mississippi, shared how YouthBuild, helped him at a crucial time in his life. YouthBuild also opened up opportunities to join other great programs, like AmeriCorps.

“Those programs changed my life from what I was to where I am now. Funding for these program help me a lot. It was the great real investment,” Johnson said.

In response, Meghan V. Dorn said, “Senator Lindsey O. Graham always been supported the AmeriCorps program. It has been a really effective in South Carolina. We have seen the impact. We have seen the great value in that.”

Members of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign meeting with Sen. Moore-Capito’s office.

Helping former Opportunity Youth connect directly with Members of Congress has been one of the biggest factors in the Reconnecting Youth Campaign’s first-year success. The campaign and the local youth leaders are making sure the relationships continue to grow.

As one young leader explained during the convening, it’s a good idea to start building relationships before you need to ask for support for bills or funding. Also, the pre-election phase, when politicians are thinking about winning or retaining office, is another strategic moment to build relationships and negotiate needs.

________________________

The Reconnecting Youth Campaign is a collaborative campaign calling on Congress to invest in America’s future by funding 1 million pathways to education, training, national service and employment opportunities for Opportunity Youth, 16- to 24-year-olds who are not in school or work.

It brings together more than 40 organizations, including Opportunity Youth United, to call on Congress to invest more in the programs that work, so they can reach more of our nation’s 4.5 million Opportunity Youth. You can learn about the mission and members here. You can read the first-year report on the Campaign’s work and impact here.

 

 



Maharddhika is visiting fellow with the Forum for Youth Investment’s SparkAction initiative, through the U.S. Department of State’s Community Solutions Program. In his home country of Indonesia, he is a program officer for Association for Election and Democracy, and NGO based in Jakarta. He has experience in conducting advocacy research that supports marginalized groups’ right to participate in free and fair elections and to keep their sovereignty in democracy. He is passionate about civic education for young people to participate in various aspects of civic life: voting, volunteering, deliberating on issues and advocating for a cause.

“We’re All Human.” Here’s How to Remember that When Meeting with Elected Officials

By Adam Strong

The first time I met with a high-level policymaker, I was so nervous my neck actually went stiff. It was 2012, and I was meeting with then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, together with some of my fellow members of the OYUnited’s National Council of Young Leaders. For a moment, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to move.

So what did I do? I took a deep breath and jumped into the conversation. After a few moments of stumbling on my words, I found sure footing on remarks I prepared and practiced ahead of time. The more I talked, the less anxiety I felt about talking, I was soon able to take a sip of water without seeing the cup visibly shake during the meeting. I never felt completely comfortable or ready, but rarely does anyone ever feel completely ready for what they are called to do. All you can do is prepare and face it head on.

I still get nervous, but now in my roles working with OYUnited and CIRCLE, I meet with Members of Congress and their staff pretty often.

Our federal policymakers in Congress need to hear from us – we can meet with them in DC or at home, in “in-District” (or local office) meetings. Here are some the things I’ve learned that I hope will help.

Why Meetings Matter

Should you meet with your elected Representatives in your district? Yes. Here’s why.

Meetings work. Meeting in person with your local representative can be one of the most effective ways to build awareness of issues you care about and persuade your local representative to take action in the way that they can. Being from the community and being able to talk about your experiences and give local context to the issues and your stances can provide a new perspective or nuance to a particular position that is exactly what they need to make a firm decision on something.

They help you build relationships with decision-makers. Meeting with your local representative is a great way to begin building a relationship with their office. Members of Congress spend a lot of time in Washington, DC, but they are also home working several times a year. And their local staff are there all year long.

Being a community leader isn’t just about one moment, but often means you continually lead and step up for your community when needed. As new issues or legislation arise, you want to be poised to reach out to the local staff person and make your needs and positions, and that of your community known.

In your first meeting with staffers in your local office, take a moment to ask some questions and learn about who they are on a personal level. You can start to build a relationship with them, where they know who you are and the communities you represent. The closer your relationship is, the more honest, authentic, and nuanced conversations you can have with them.

Legislators need your voice and perspective. Lawmakers often look to their constituents to inform them on what matters to them and the community, however, few take the time to schedule a meeting and actually engage in a conversation with their office. This trend means that your in-person meeting can be even more influential and have a great impact.

You can learn, too. Legislative staff are often the experts on where their boss stands in terms of policies, issues, and new initiatives. Sometimes the quickest way to learn about a particular issue or emerging initiative in your community is to meet with your local legislative office.

How to Set up an Meeting – and Make it a Success

  1. Find out who your representative is. Use this tool (all you need is your address).
  2. Find the local in-district office contact near you, rather than the DC contact information.
  3. Contact the local office to schedule a meeting.
  4. Don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a confirmed meeting right away. Local legislative offices often get flooded with requests, site visit invitations, and questions. Persistence and patience are key.
  5. Prepare for your meeting. Have an ask in mind. Whatever is most appropriate, it could be to support a bill, look into a matter, ask the representative to try to garner support of his colleuges, invite them to a community event, etc. Bring any materials you need or that you want to share with your member of congress.
  6. Share (with permission). Ask if you can share and thank them on social media. You can even ask if you can take a picture – and if they have a Twitter, Facebook or Instagram account you can tag. Most of the time, they’ll be happy for you to share that. Tag their boss too.
  7. Finally: Thank them for their time! Office staff will likely give you their card. After your meeting, follow up and thank them for taking the time to talk with you.

Representatives and their staffers are people too, and as they say, “you can attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” Small acts of kindness goes along way.

If you feel nervous, it helps to talk to peers and get advice and suggestions, and to see meetings in action.

Here’s a video from some of our friends in California who recently met with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) at her local office in Oakland, to talk about the Reconnecting Youth Campaign and urge Rep. Lee to support the campaign’s call to invest in pathways to jobs, training and education. (Learn more about the Reconnecting Youth Campaign.)

Do you have any questions? Reach out to me!

We want to hear about your meetings. Email us with a summary of how it went. Send pictures! Better yet, tag @OYUnited and #OpportunityYouth in your social media posts.

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adamAdam Strong is a founding member of OYUnited and member of OYUnited’s National Council of Young Leaders. A passionate advocate and lifelong learner, he has six years of experience in national policy advocacy, using his skills in policy analysis and communication & strategy he aims to influence policymakers to implement policies that increase economic mobility and decrease poverty in America. More from Adam.

Increasing Opportunity and Decreasing Poverty in America Movement

By Lashon Amado

 

Dear OYUnited Members:

As you know, the National Council of Young Leaders of OYUnited developed the Recommendations for Increasing Opportunity and Decreasing Poverty in America as the basis for our movement. It has served us well. It speaks powerfully to the principles we embrace and the real changes needed in our country.

It is the only national platform we know of produced by any national group of current and former opportunity youth representing Black, White, Latinx, Native American, Asian, and mixed race young people from urban, rural and tribal areas.

We are preparing to update the Recommendations for 2020. We are inviting input from all our members who are current or former Opportunity Youth. We will be disseminating the updated 2020 version widely, using it at public events, sharing it with elected officials and candidates for public office at all levels. We aim to increase its influence.

Would you take the time to re-read the Recommendations, that you can find here, and send me your ideas for anything that should be added, subtracted, or more emphasized? Your perspective, experience, thoughts, and vision matter.

At the end of September the Council will be meeting to review all suggestions and to decide what to add, change, or subtract in the Recommendations. I therefore ask if you could send your comments by September 2nd, ideally, and no later than September 15th. A simple memo with your input will be fine.

In solidarity,

Lashon Amado, Jamiel Alexander, and Dorothy Stoneman

Send your comments to: lamado@oyunited.org

 

Lashon Amado

National Coordinator of the Community Action Teams of Opportunity Youth United

Your Guide to Navigating Professional Spaces as a Young Adult

By Amanda Shabowich

 

The first the first professional conference I ever attended was a totally new experience for me. I was 21 and I had never really traveled without my family or friends. I had definitely never been anywhere like Aspen, Colorado, and I had never presented anything about my work outside of my own city.

I was proud of our work in Boston, but at the conference, I had so much anxiety about being in a space with so many people, very few of them were around my own age, that it was hard to relax and share our story. It seemed like everyone already sort of knew each other and on top of that, the agenda for the convening looked like a college class schedule I was trying to navigate, which felt overwhelming. It seemed like there was no one I could turn to to ask questions or be reassured in what I thought I was supposed to do.

What turned the whole conference around for me was being welcomed warmly by people who recognized me and told me they were excited to meet me. Some people introduced me to others and created space for me. I could ask my questions, attend sessions with familiar faces, and didn’t have to sit alone at breakfast the next morning.

Now, years later, I feel like I am on the other side of things. I look forward to convenings, I know what to expect, I know which friends I’ll be fortunate enough to see, and I know which of the “adult crowd” are our allies.

Still, every time I go to a convening, I see someone who has the same look in their eyes that I must have had when I attended my first conference—the scared and nervous feeling you try to hide so you can perform as your best “work-self.”

That’s why, as part of the planning team for the youth leaders portion of the Aspen Opportunity Youth Fund convenings, I wanted to create a resource for rising leaders who feel the same mix of nervousness and uncertainty that I felt when I first entered this space.

Working with others on the planning committee, I developed a “survival guide” to help new youth leaders feel more comfortable entering professional spaces. I gathered different kinds of advice and wisdom related to networking and leveraging professional spaces to your advantage.

Everything on this one-pager is not simply for young people, it’s created by young people.

 

Download the Guide

This year, we gave the guide out to all the new youth leaders attending the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions conference in Philadelphia. During our youth leaders meeting, we had a deeper conversation about navigating professional spaces. We talked about our own definitions of what it means to be professional, how to take care of yourself, and how we can all best take information home to help guide our own work.

While there’s no roadmap or official guidebook for navigating professional spaces as Opportunity Youth, it’s definitely an ongoing conversation as more spaces welcome (or think they’re welcoming) young adults. It’s important for us to understand that there’s no solution that will make people immediately look past your age when you’re young, and there’s no quick fix for making one’s expertise marketable. But I think the more heads we put together, the more allies we can gain, and the more we talk about how we each try to wade through these waters will lead us closer to those answers and solutions.

Similarly, it’s important for the older generations to reflect on the opportunities they were given, how they used those opportunities to get where they are, and to be forthcoming with sharing that.

 Advice to Other Young Adult Leaders

Networking: There is one element I don’t think I completely captured that has been pivotal to the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to receive: learning how to “sell yourself.” Networking with people is important, both personally and professionally. It’s not always a great feeling, but if you know what your work is and you can externally relay how much it means to you, it will matter to others too. Whether in meetings, at convenings, or attending community events, I try to bring up what I’m working on, what is exciting to me about it and why I think it’s necessary.

Saying Yes: I personally focus a lot saying yes to new opportunities, because saying “yes” to things I wasn’t totally sure about has helped me a lot. For example, at my first convening in Aspen, the facilitators asked me at the last minute to share some reflections on the big stage, in front of everyone, to close out the convening. I said yes before I could worry too much.

As much as having boundaries and being able to say no is crucial—especially as an Opportunity Youth navigating professional spaces—saying yes to anything that I want to throw myself into has allowed me to not only be invited into rooms I really want to be in, but to open the door myself.

You are IT: I think the most important thing is that young adults never lose their confidence, or if they do, never lose the ability to fake some. Act like you are it, because you are. This may be abstract to others but for us, it’s our lives, it’s our families’ lives, it’s our friends’ lives.

For those we serve, and for ourselves, we have to demand opportunities, and we have to take up space, not just because we can, but because we deserve to.

 

Amanda Shabowich (she/her) is currently serving as the Youth Voice Project Coordinator, the Alumni Coordinator at Boston Day and Evening Academy, and a co-lead of the Boston Community Action Team. Amanda began with Youth Voice Project in April 2015, and was able to become an advocate for resources for out of school youth, plan and host youth-centric events, and build partnerships with other youth-serving organizations across the city. She has spoken about her work across the country, as well as designed and led workshops on the importance of amplifying Youth Voice through storytelling, self-care for opportunity youth, designing inclusive youth programming, and inter-generational relationship building. Most recently, she served as a Youth Facilitator & Content Consultant with the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy on their OY Career Pathways Project and was selected as a Youth Fellow for the Youth Transition Funders Group in the Economic Well-Being Working Group.

How I Carried on My Grandfather’s Legacy by Meeting with Rep. John Lewis

By Shanice Turner

Staffers entered the office buzzing and brimming with anticipation. The seating area was filled with people awaiting their meetings with Congressman John Lewis (D), the representative for the 5th Congressional District in Atlanta, Georgia, who’s known for being one of the most famous and courageous people within the Civil Rights Movement.

Daniel Rosebud and I were scheduled to have a meeting at 10:00 am with Mr. Lewis, and, as Mr. Lewis finished his other meetings we were able to sit down. Our meeting reflected around informing him of the work that we do in Atlanta with United Way, Opportunity Youth United and the Reconnecting Youth Campaign: Unleashing Limitless Potential. Daniel highlighted our association with United Way and how we have done many events within the Atlanta area and in District 6. We were excited to be sitting there and to have the chance to advocate for opportunity.

Shanice Turner, a member of OYUnited’s National Council of Young Leaders, met with Representative John Lewis as part of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign.

During the meeting, I was able to speak with John Lewis about my grandfather Eddie Mack Turner and share a story about how he had marchedwith a cane and a limpwith Fred Grey and Andrew Moore, the people who had introduced Lewis to Martin Luther King in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. I never met my grandfather because he died one day before I was born, so being able to tell this story to Mr. Lewis felt like a victory. To make it even more special, the day we met was my Dad’s birthday.

Even though the morning seemed rushed, people were buzzing, and time is always short, John Lewis showed no need to follow suit. When we first entered the room to sit down, he was calm, cool, collected. We pause to greet him, and he seemed to slow the room down specifically to talk to us.

He told us that he knows and supports YouthBuild, along with Job Corps. In 2017 and 2018, John Lewis helped to support YouthBuild by working together with many of his fellow Members of Congress to reverse proposed budget cuts and actually increase federal funding.

He took special note of the challenges we have faced in carrying our messages to Capitol Hill. He said he has always been a champion and ambassador for our cause, and he and his staff remain committed. His enthusiasm and passion for our issues was clear.

It felt amazing to be able to highlight the work with Opportunity Youth, explain what a CAT (Community Action Team) is, and talk about why we need his continuous support for the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, specifically, to invest in 1 million pathways to education, national service and job training for Opportunity Youth.

During this visit with John Lewis, however, it was clear that supporting us was not simply a signature on a document for him. He made it clear that he truly cares about providing support as our advocate, ambassador and champion. His staffers also seemed onboard with the goals of OYUnited and the Reconnecting Youth Campaign. It seemed like it really mattered to them.

I stood before John Lewis, taking my stance to increase federal dollars and opportunities for young people. I stood as my grandfather marched, protested, went to jail for equal rights and freedom for African Americans.

Being on Capitol Hill and talking with John Lewis was such an honor. I stood before John Lewis, taking my stance to increase federal dollars and opportunities for young people. I stood as my grandfather marched, protested, went to jail for equal rights and freedom for African Americans.

Even now, as I picture myself standing there, hearing John Lewis’ affirmation of the work that I am doing, it feels like I am continuing my grandfather’s work and legacy and in many ways, walking in his footsteps.

Shanice Turner is a member of the National Council of Young Leaders and a founding member of Opportunity Youth United. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia where she serves as grants manager and writer for Gate City Day Nursery. Shanice is equally passionate about child advocacy and creative pursuits like acting and voiceover work. More from Shanice (including video). 

Makayla's blog

I Carry Them with Me, Lifting as I Climb

by Makayla Wright

On Tuesday March 19th I called my mother. I needed to reset myself and needed a reminder that I was enough. Despite being 30 minutes away from my first keynote experience, I worried that there was some sort of mistake. Why would the Gender Equity Center at Pacific Lutheran University want me to talk for 20 minutes about being a “gender revolutionary and phenomenal leader”?

My identity is complicated as a 25-year-old black queer woman from Kansas. I grew up low-income and was a first-generation college student, constantly reminded that I didn’t belong despite being admitted to Smith College because I worked hard.

My mom didn’t understand my fear when I called her, after all, to her I was her oldest daughter and fully capable. She had raised me to be in front of a crowd advocating. She had me when she was 16, and always believed that there was a reason she became a mother to me and my siblings: In her eyes, we would prove folks wrong and go on to greatness. She sent me to my school’s speech therapist and took me to a doctor when I failed to talk until age 5. She ignored teachers when they expressed concerns about my ADHD and inability to focus. She made flashcards for me, bought me Hooked on Phonics, and she and my stepfather made me practice speaking at home.

They told me to ignore the negative people in my community trying to push me down, but most importantly they reminded me to fight for my community.

As I spoke with my mother and then my stepfather that Tuesday, I remembered all of these things and more. I remembered why it wasn’t a mistake for someone like me to be in this position of leadership. It was my purpose and calling to always advocate for people like me. I got off the phone, grounded and confident.

As I arrived at the event to honor and uplift women and LGBTQ, low-income, and communities of color, I knew that I was in the right place. And so I started my speech with a poem I had written months before, meant to honor my family, community, and ancestors:

I carry it with me, their whispers
They drift across wind, for my ears only
They remind me to stay open, always
At my worst, I carry it with me
At my best, I carry it with me
In my work, it stays with me
“Never forget, always remember”
They chorus, gentle reminders
Sometimes louder, or softer, steadily there
I walk, the weight on my shoulders, the words on my tongue,
Body vibrating, full of energy, from generations before me
I never forget, my mind stays open, I hear them always
I carry it with me, I carry them with me
My ancestors, they guide, remind me
“Never forget, you are our triumph,” I continue
To carry them with me, a tribute to my ancestors

After this, I spoke about the five steps to being a revolutionary, which guide me. The five steps are:

1. Remembering who you are and what your roots are
2. Trusting your gut and instincts
3. Remembering what we fight for as community leaders and revolutionaries
4. Not taking a seat at the table, and choosing to create a more equitable place for your community
And finally…
5. Lifting up others as you climb

I spoke about my mother, and the young people I worked with and mentored on the Opportunity Youth United Community Action Team. I reminded the room about the importance of lifting your community with you as you climb, and why it is important to share your story and own your truth. I warned of toxic leaders who forget how important it is to support those around them so that they can grow and eventually surpass them.

I saw tears and fingers snapping and I knew the importance of voices like mine.

“To be a community leader means … lifting those around you and remembering why you speak.”

To be a community leader means remembering that leadership does not mean being charismatic or the loudest person in the room. It means lifting those around you and remembering why you speak.

I speak because I want people like me to know that they belong and that their experiences are important as well. Let’s all remember to lift as we climb together.

Makayla HeadshotMakayla Wright (she/her/they) is the Youth Voice Organizer for SOAR, a Seattle-based community coalition working together to promote the healthy development of children, youth and families in Martin Luther King County and the anchor organization for the OYUnited Community Action Team (CAT) in Seattle. Makayla grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. As the child of former Opportunity Youth who never went back to school to get their GEDs, she realized how important it was to work with young adults in similar situations. Makayla graduated from Smith College and has worked in educational outreach programs, youth residential treatment facilities, charter schools, and as an Academic Coach. As a Black woman from the Midwest, she is passionate about exploring root issues and working with communities, and now advocates for youth and young adults by convening the King County Youth Advisory Council and organizing the King County OYunited CAT.

Making Hill Visits Count for the Reconnecting Youth Campaign

by Shawnice Jackson, OYUnited National Council Member

The Reconnecting Youth Campaign kicked off its 2019 advocacy efforts with a winter convening that brought the diverse coalition of youth practitioners, youth leaders, funders, advocates, program staff and directors together in Washington, DC. Everyone in the room was there because we believe in the potential of Opportunity Youth and the need to invest in their future.

The campaign’s goal is simple: Reconnect 1 million Opportunity Youth each year, by increasing federal funding to proven programs in communities across the country. (Learn More.)

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Opportunity Youth” are young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school or the workforce, formerly referred to as “at-risk,” “disadvantaged” or “disconnected.” The young leaders at the forefront of the Opportunity Youth movement and the Reconnecting Youth Campaign have rebranded and reclaimed a more asset-based approach to the many barriers and systemic hurdles faced by young people coming from poverty. A key part of this work to reclaim the narrative is embracing the term Opportunity Youth to acknowledge that young people both seek opportunities and represent a huge breadth of untapped potential. It also properly locates the “disconnection” in our systems and policy, not our young people.

Across the United States, it is estimated that 4.3 million Opportunity Youth are separated from pathways to productive adulthood. Despite this bleak reality, we know there are solutions and answers within reach. There are numerous federally funded programs that are working to allow Opportunity Youth to gain key relationships, skills, expertise and vital supports to prepare for careers and higher education—and propelling youth forward in their own trajectory towards purpose with a sense of dignity.

 

Shawnice Jackson, Kimberly Pham, David Abromowitz, Rachel Marshall, and Shaquana Boykin on the RYC Hill Visit

Mapping Our Shared Strategy

The first half of our meeting focused on recapping the Reconnecting Youth Campaign’s success in 2018 (read more here), defining our priorities for this year, and understanding intersectional issues like the green economy, youth justice reform, the broader world of social programs and Census 2020.

Building Relationships in Congress

After a training led by me and Adam Strong, a fellow co-founder of Opportunity Youth United, we took to Capitol Hill. With members of Opportunity Youth United leading the way, we met with staffers of more than 20 Members of Congress to welcome new Members of Congress and staff, inform them about the campaign, educate them about Opportunity Youth and the realities they face, and call on them to support an increase in appropriations to scale the federally funded programs.

Our experiences in the meetings were overwhelmingly positive. “I’m glad I could make it for this year’s kickoff meeting for the Reconnecting Youth Campaign. I always love being here, working with folks so our communities back home can have the funding they need to provide pathways into the workforce for our young people,” Adam Strong reflected.

Another co-founder of Opportunity Youth United, Kimberly Pham, also a former Opportunity Youth, shared that, “Visiting Capitol Hill following the government shutdown felt refreshing because everyone we met with was enthusiastic and supportive. There were no negative responses and since we are looking for bipartisan support, it felt good to walk away from the Hill with optimism.”

“Our goal is not only attainable, but just and within our reach.”

Optimism is necessary for the campaign to reach its lofty goals of reconnecting 1 million young people per year – but with Opportunity Youth leading the way, the possibilities are endless.

As I reflect on the diverse expertise and skill sets of the members of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, and our shared passion for seeing our nation’s youth thrive, I am hopeful that our goal is not only attainable, but just and within our reach.


Shawnice Jackson

Shawnice Jackson is a Policy Advocate and former Opportunity Youth committed to building equitable and strong systems, policy, and pathways to opportunity for underserved and marginalized youth and communities. As a co-founder of the National Council of Young Leaders & Opportunity Youth United, Shawnice works to advise funders and policy makers on the needs and potential of Opportunity Youth across the country. She also bolsters the larger Opportunity Youth movement through her consultancy work and leadership. Shawnice’s current leadership roles include: Advisory Board Member with The Opportunity Youth Network; Leadership Council Member with The Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund; Opportunity Leader with Opportunity Nation; Leadership Committee Member with the International Youth Foundation’s Reconnecting Youth Global Advisory Committee and Steering Committee Member for America’s Promise Alliance.

This article was originally published on SparkAction, Making Hill Visits Count for the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, 2/13/2019

Under the Radar, a New Generation of Community Leaders are Launching Nonprofits

By David Abromowitz

A new generation of founders and leaders of community-based organizations is emerging. This cohort of former “opportunity youth” — young adults ages 16–24 from low-income communities who left school early and were not in the workforce — are building on their own experiences and channeling their energies into innovative approaches to uplift their communities.

Take Terry Green in Columbus, Ohio. In 2015, Terry founded Think Make Live, which evolved from a presentation he had made to a senior humanities class at The Ohio State University.

Reflecting on his own journey out of poverty, Terry saw the need for an organization that could help teens and young adults in Columbus understand how someone makes a meaningful change in their life. He knew how hard that could be from his own struggle to overcome challenges and barriers.

Terry’s barriers were particularly steep: From 2009 to 2013 while in his early twenties, he had been incarcerated in state prison. When asked recently about what led to him becoming justice involved, Terry explained: “I grew up in a family where my father wasn’t in my household and my mother was involved in drug dealing. I picked up off my mother’s drug dealing ways when she got incarcerated during my 10th grade year in high school…”

But Terry realized while incarcerated that he wanted a different path. He participated in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange, a pre-release program offered by The Ohio State’s sociology department. He was released early to a half-way house program, and from there found his way to the Franklin County YouthBuild program in Columbus. His experience in YouthBuild opened his eyes to an alternative future.

“I started to meet people whose parents had both gone to college, so for them college was the family business. Suddenly I went from feeling like I was on a one-lane highway with only one destination, to seeing an off-ramp,” he recalls.

Like any of the thousands of students annually enrolled in local YouthBuild programs in 45 states, Terry spent half his time back in the classroom to complete his education, and the other half gaining work skills by building affordable housing for low-income and homeless families in his community. There were opportunities to engage in service to his community, and an emphasis on leadership training.

“I had to start thinking of making positive changes within my actions and now I am truly living a changed lifestyle,” said Terry.

Experiencing the power of service in his own life, he set out to create Think Make Live to be primarily centered around providing youth workforce development opportunities, innovative leadership programs and civic engagement community outreach. But the framework goes well beyond traditional social service referrals — the philosophy Terry has honed to help people identify their daily challenges and create innovative solutions infuses Think Make Live. Their services are focused on prevention, intervention and empowerment through a cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach.

Terry is tackling more and more barriers through this approach, expanding the organization to provide innovative social justice consulting for companies and nonprofit organizations, including consulting on ways business can hire justice involved youth.

In addition, he is combining his local activism with the need for national advocacy on behalf of young adults from similar backgrounds. Terry is an elected member of the YouthBuild USA National Alumni Council, which involves national travel hosting civic engagement and YouthBuild alumni gatherings. In 2015, he received the YouthBuild USA Outstanding Commitment to Leadership and Social Justice Award. He is also a community leader for Opportunity Youth United, a national movement of young people and allies working to increase opportunities and decrease poverty in America.

At The Ohio State University Mershon Center, he participated in a panel with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In 2017, Terry was the keynote speaker for the 7th Restored Citizen Summit in Ohio, and a featured presenter at the National Association of Attorneys’ General annual meeting.

Terry is hardly unique among young adults from opportunity youth backgrounds leading in their communities. In Troy, New York, Steve Figueroa has been a force behind team HERO (Helping Everyone Recognize Opportunities), a nonprofit mentoring “at risk” kids through education and service projects. HERO reaches out to those in need, working to keep young youth off the streets and provide them with a safe environment, even providing them dinner. “If I want to see a community a better place, I have to look at myself first then make a change,” says Steve about his approach to his work.

In Baltimore, Joni Holifield was inspired by the uprisings in her community after Freddie Gray’s death to found a nonprofit called Heartsmiles “that focuses on motivating, inspiring and empowering Baltimore’s Youth to reach for success and to dream big regardless of their circumstance.” Joni was raised in a single parent home that she describes as “the typical scenario of most poverty-stricken families.” Through her efforts at HeartSmiles, she says, “and those of other ordinary citizens, we will reclaim our city and put our young people on a path for long term success.”

Germain Castellanos started the SHINE Educational Leadership Program in the same Waukegan, Illinois, high school he was kicked out of. As Germain has described his own background: “Growing up amidst gang-related violence and drugs, I had a front-row view of poverty in the U.S. As a youth hanging out with the wrong crowd, I found myself on the wrong side of the law, but at the age of 21 had cleaned up my act — I was a part-time college student with a full-time manufacturing job and had a 1-year-old daughter. I understood that, along with the bad choices that I had made as a youth, poverty was the common denominator in my case and those of other youth with my background across the U.S.”

The SHINE program continues as a workforce development program, supporting high school seniors in their transition to college and career planning in a school where over 90% of students are first generation in their family to go to college.

Each of these young leaders — Terry, Steve, Joni and Germain — is tackling a particular set of challenges specific to their community. But what they have in common reflects a larger-scale trend among many who have grown up in poverty, found their way through a supportive setting that helped them make a change, and then dedicated themselves to serving the next generation behind them.

These local leaders are beginning to connect up through organizations like Opportunity Youth United, which describes itself as “a solutions-oriented movement of young adults who have experienced poverty and are dedicated to creating a society with opportunity and responsibility, love and respect, education and employment, justice and equality for all.” In just a few years, OYU has fostered in-community action teams, bringing together opportunity youth to identify the local issues affecting their lives, consider solutions, and organize around seeing those solutions implemented.

There, of course, have long been young leaders emerging from low-income communities who have created positive change, even if their work was not always noticed more widely. What may be different for this generation could result from a confluence of several factors.

Encouraging and supporting youth voice and leadership has been at the core of the YouthBuild model since its founding in 1978. But leadership training was, for many years, largely absent from other efforts and programs that offered education or work training to low-income young adults. In the last decade or two, however, the importance of treating all enrollees as future leaders has infused other programs working with opportunity youth, such as the Corps Network. Organizations dedicated to fostering leadership skills among youth from disadvantaged communities, such as the 25-year-old Public Allies, which “seeks to find and cultivate those leaders and connect them to the issues and causes that ignite their passion,” have matured and their influence spread. The leadership eco-system has grown richer.

A second factor might be the emergence of “social entrepreneurship” as a recognized and lauded career pathway. While pioneering organizations such as Ashoka have promoted the power of individuals to be change makers for decades, the term social entrepreneur only came into widespread use in the 2000s. Along with the concept becoming more widely known, support systems for encouraging social entrepreneurship have developed rapidly in the past 15 years, such as the work of Echoing Green which offers “unrestricted seed-stage funding and strategic foundational support … to emerging leaders working to bring about positive social change” and the BMe Community, which offers Social Entrepreneur Fellowships for Black men.

Another contributing factor may be the wider recognition that low-income young adults are community assets, captured by the growing use of the phrase opportunity youth. In decades past, youth who left high school without a diploma and were not working might be labeled negatively as dropouts, delinquents, at-risk or the milder “disconnected.” The term “opportunity youth” emphasizes the talent and potential of this cohort of nearly five million young adults in America today.

This reorientation in language is based on path-breaking research published in 2012 such as the Opportunity Road report by Civic Enterprises, and The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth by Clive Belfield, Henry Levin and Rachel Rosen. The Opportunity Youth Network was launched in 2013 “to capitalize on the momentum created by the White House Council on Community Solutions, which brought new visibility and focus to the needs of 16–24 year olds who are not in school and not working.” Opportunity Youth United is linking up many of current and future leaders, who are learning from each other’s experiences.

At a moment in our history when a Time Magazine 50-year retrospective on the original Kerner Commission report shows that “its haunting prediction about America becoming two societies, separate and unequal, is as relevant today as it was five decades ago,” these dedicated leaders offer a reason for hope.


David M. Abromowitz is the Chief Public Policy Officer of YouthBuild USA.  David joined YouthBuild after many years as a director (principal) in the law firm Goulston & Storrs PC, where he most recently co-chaired the firm’s real estate group. David is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC, and serves on the Board of MassDevelopment, the economic development finance agency for Massachusetts. He is a Vice-Chair and board member of the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association, a co-founder of the Council for Energy Friendly Affordable Housing, and a past chair and founding member of both the Lawyers’ Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness and of the American Bar Association’s Forum Committee on Affordable Housing and Community Development.

David has been recognized by the Trailblazer award of the National Economic Development and Law Center of Oakland, California (2004), the Fair Housing Center of Boston’s Open Doors Award (2007), the “social capitalist” award of SCI Social Capital, Inc. (2008), the Distinguished Achievement Award of B’Nai B’rith Housing New England (2013), and the Vision Award of the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (2014).

This article was originally published on Medium, Under the Radar, a New Generation of Community Leaders are Launching Non-profits, 1/2/2019

Community Action Teams Come Together for Unity and Inspiration

by Luis Bautista-Morales, Coordinator of the OYUnited Los Angeles Community Action Team

The annual Opportunity Youth United Community Action Team Convening took place in December 2018, in Washington, D.C. It brought three or four leaders of each of the 17 OYUnited Community Action Teams (CATs) across the U.S. together to share and build on the work we’ve done individually and collectively in 2018.

CATs represented included: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Greenville (MS), Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Maricopa County (AZ), Pima County (AZ), Sacramento, San Francisco, and Seattle. The CATs gathered for three days and participated in a series of conversations, training and discussions.  Lashon Amado, the OYUnited National Coordinator of the CATs, facilitated the weekend.

The CATs come from different communities but face many of the same issues and share the same goal: to increase opportunity while decreasing poverty. The CATs shared their community struggles and learned experiences from working with their respective communities to empower youth to become more civically engaged. Sharing stories, victories and lessons helped the CATs to learn from each other while building on the unified vision and gathering more strength to bring back the same excitement to their communities.

There were about 70 of us, ranging in age from 16 to 85, but mostly in our 20s and 30s, men and women, representing urban and rural areas.  We were Black, White, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian in heritage, in keeping with OYUnited’s principle of building racial equity, healing and unity.

Building Community from the Start

We kicked off our convening by introducing ourselves to each other, since our Community Action Teams have grown from 10 to 17 in 2018 (and we keep growing!). Everyone formed two circles, one inside the other—those of us on the inside of the circle introduced ourselves to the person opposite us on the outside, and answered a question posed by the facilitator. Then, we switched. After speaking deeply to each other, we moved on to address another question with the next person in the circle.

The questions were very deep and brought young community leaders together with more experienced community leaders to shed titles and share things that even close friends might not know.

“How old were you when you became aware of racism?” “If you could change one thing in your community, what would it be and why?” These were among some of the questions asked and the room suddenly became full of conversations that were hard to stop because they were powerful, interesting and created a bond.

Immediately after this exercise, CATs shared their reports from their respective cities. These reports were exciting and inspiring.

Dealing with Reality

During the report-outs, one CAT leader received notice that one of his youth had been shot by the police the night before.

As this news was shared, the room became quiet and many were left with their mouths wide open, as if the air had been sucked out and an empty familiar feeling had been left in its place. The news felt like the perfect time to be angry, to be frustrated and to yell as loud as we could. This, however, did not happen. Why? Because, like the rest of the U.S., we have all experienced this in one way or another in our own communities. We have come to receive bad news with a kind of numbness, of despair, of unlimited grief, a deeply familiar sense of the impact of being born in the wrong city, in the wrong location, with the wrong income, and on the wrong side of town.

The CAT members know that opportunities can change the outcomes for the young people they deal with. We imagine what the life of this young person would have been if he had been given the chances of a young person in the suburbs. We imagine the difference in his life if he had been presented with opportunities for education, healthcare and a chance to pursue a dream. This is the reason the CATs did not react the way most would anticipate a room full of activists might. The only way to bring change to our communities, which suffer from this and many other problems stemming from poverty, is by coming together even closer and working on bringing opportunities to the youth in our communities.

“We imagine the difference in his life if he had been presented with opportunities for education, healthcare and a chance to pursue a dream.”

Shortly after gaining our breath and coming back together, we ended the day by sharing some of the ways in which we heal ourselves and our communities. The healing methods were important since we all share the pain from issues in our communities. Some of the methods that CAT members use are long baths, deep talks with friends, yoga, time in nature, exercise, crying with trusted partners and meditation to heal and work through tragedies in our communities.

The next day, we started our day with a chant from Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and respect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

We left our three days together inspired, fired up, informed, united, ready for 2019, to continue working for a better world for all.

OYUnited: Showing Up, Standing Up and Speaking Up at the Polls

By Makayla Wright and Adam Strong

This election saw the highest youth voter turnout for midterms in almost a quarter century. In communities across the nation, OYUnited has been working hard to empower young people to vote.

This midterm election marked historical voter turnout, including among youth. CIRCLE, a nonpartisan research institution,  estimates that voter turnout among young adults (voters between the ages of 18 and 29) went up by 10 percentage points, making this midterm the highest youth participation at the polls during a midterm election in almost a quarter century.

Young people across the country made it clear at the polls that they care about our democracy, know the issues, and will show up at the polls to hold elected officials accountable.

Many people were surprised by the historic youth turnout levels, but here at OYUnited, we planned on it. Last year, we decided that if we wanted to shape the political discussion and have the issues we care about at the center  like the mass incarceration of our brothers and sisters, the lack of investment in our communities, and the lack of pathways for higher education and a living wage –  then we’d have to mobilize young people across the country to show up at the polls.

Thirteen of our Community Action Teams (CATs) across the country started planning their Civic Engagement Campaigns for the 2018 midterms a full year in advance, and began implementing this spring, focusing on civic education, voter registration and voter turnout among young adults and all community members. These communities were Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Greenville (MS), NYC, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco and Sacramento.

In Seattle, our CAT led a series of events to energize and inform young voters, and to boost voter registration.

Our anchor organization, SOAR, is an intermediary in the midst of transition. I was hired in a new position, as Youth Voice Organizer in September of 2017 and tasked with working closely with community and launching our Seattle community action team. As a transplant, I learned a lot about the region. I learned about the inequities between South King County and Seattle, I learned about the lack of youth voice, and most importantly I learned that Opportunity Youth in King County were not being engaged civically, so our team decided to engage our community in different ways.

“I learned that Opportunity Youth in King County were not being engaged civically, so our team decided to engage our community in different ways.”

We hosted open mics, an event with the secretary of state as the keynote, a block party, pizza ballot parties, door knocking, voter registration at alternative high schools, homeless shelters, and re-engagement sites.

We set up tables at youth detention facilities and in parks to register youth and talk with the community. We also collaborated with local elected officials, supported education initiatives to increase college access on the ballot, and ran campaigns on social media.

The Seattle team was busy: With only four young people serving as voter engagement ambassadors in Seattle, Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, and Burien/White Center, we successfully engaged 500 people, registered 50, and helped 10 people return their ballots to ballot drop boxes!

In Chicago, the OYUnited CAT is proud of the impact we measured this election. The CAT focused its voter turnout efforts on precinct 10 in Congressional District #4 (a precinct is the smallest division of voting areas, known in some states as an election district).  The comparative voter turnout in this precinct was as follows: in 2014 there were 147 total votes cast, and in 2018 there were 363 total votes cast –  an increase of 216 voters, which translates into a 246 percent increase.

OYUnited and our CATs are committed to continuing to help our peers register to vote, show up at the polls feeling informed and ready, and stand up and speak up for our communities and our future.

We need you to help make this happen!  Please click here to join OYUnited.

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Makayla Wright is the Youth Voice Organizer for SOAR, a Seattle-based community coalition working together to promote the healthy development of children, youth and families in Martin Luther King County and the anchor organization for the OYUnited Community Action Team (CAT) in Seattle. Makayla grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. As the child of former Opportunity Youth who never went back to school to get their GEDs, she realized how important it was to work with young adults in similar situations. Makayla graduated from Smith College and has worked in educational outreach programs, youth residential treatment facilities, charter schools, and as an Academic Coach. As a Black woman from the Midwest, she is passionate about exploring root issues and working with communities, and now advocates for youth and young adults by convening the King County Youth Advisory Council and organizing the King County OYunited CAT.

 

adamAdam Strong is a founding member of OYUnited and member of OYUnited’s National Council of Young Leaders. A passionate advocate and lifelong learner, he has six years of experience in national policy advocacy, using his skills in policy analysis and communication & strategy he aims to influence policymakers to implement policies that increase economic mobility and decrease poverty in America. More from Adam.