How We Create Opportunities For Youth
In May, delegates from Urban Strategies Council attended the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund Convening in Boston, Massachusetts. At the Council, we’ve been focused on opportunity youth (people aged 18-24 who are disconnected from school and work) for the past few years. This interview with our CEO David A. Harris sheds some light on what this work and this event means for us.
Why did Urban Strategies Council participate in the OYI event?
We serve a population that was called “the forgotten half” in the 80s, disconnected youth in the 90s, and now opportunity youth. Twice a year the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions brings together over 25 communities from across the country, who are partners in their national Opportunity Youth Initiative. These events are held for the communities to share lessons from their work, and to expose partners to best practices and innovations from outside the initiative’s sites. Meeting with other committed practitioners and policymakers helps inspire us to continue this difficult work.
Why is the Council focused on Opportunity Youth these days?
We have an economic imperative to engage these young people – our future depends on not missing this opportunity. Many of these young people have been engaged with systems (such as foster care and juvenile justice) that has resulted in their disconnection from school and work. Systems-engaged youth have so much potential but so many barriers to opportunity. We found that there weren’t many social service agencies directly responsible for these young people; they fell through the cracks of support systems focused on youth (under 18) and adults (over 35). We formed the Oakland & Alameda County Opportunity Youth Initiative to ensure quality services and supports were available to these young people, in transition ages, to fill the gaps.
What role has the Council traditionally played in this space? What is this term “backbone” about?
We generate data and insights about this population, we convene government and community partners, and support coordination and program improvement, while providing a shared vision for this work. We also support the development of advocacy campaigns to reduce the systemic barriers these youth face, and help develop new funding resources for organizations serving opportunity youth.
What were your biggest takeaways from the convening?
- The importance of youth participation and leadership in any program that seeks to positively impact youth. From planning to implementation, through to review and evaluation.
- The need for more data and stories to really communicate the realities of this population effectively. Ideally, we would explain the experience of opportunity youth in the simplest way and this would allow adults to relate to this concept personally; “Hey, I know a young adult like that!”
What changes will Urban Strategies Council be making as a result of this event?
In our workforce development efforts it has become clear that our sweet spot is in creating and strengthening pathways to careers for young people. The science and skill of developing these pathways provides an opportunity for innovation and for thinking differently. We’re just at the beginning of some real breakthroughs in this area. The Council, through our collaboration with practitioners and our experience in systems thinking, is well positioned to impact this space in the near future.
We will also be rebuilding the youth leadership council to inform and shape this work. We realize the need to be listening to young people more and giving them the chance to lead. In that vein, we’ll be having young people from the California Opportunity Youth Initiative cities shape the agenda for the next COYN (the California Opportunity Youth Network) event.
Did anything from other cities’ Opportunity Youth work impress you?
More cities are considering how this work advances economic, racial and social equity. That’s something we’ve promoted aggressively at the Council. There is a desire to make young people whole, that having made a mistake is not a reason to be discarded from society. We must be offering second chances, and critically look at the policies and systems that create barriers for these youth to advance. We also need targeted remedies that help these youth get to the same starting position as other young people (in the race of life).
We did admire Bunker Hill Community College’s efforts; they have a group of community organizations working closely through an initiative called Success Boston, to support disconnected young adults return to education and progress through community college in reasonable time spans.
Where is the Opportunity Youth work going in the East Bay?
We’re working to build a Re-Engagement Center Network in Alameda County. This collaborative effort of community groups and public agencies seeks to provide stabilization supports (housing, food, transportation, etc.) for opportunity youth to be able to reconnect, and a seamless entry point for youth to get the jobs/skills training they need to get employed and/or the credentials and credits needed to continue their education.
We also have some exciting progress in the Corrections to College arena. Charles Eddy, the Council’s lead in the criminal justice reform area, and our intern Marcellus Gibson have been developing a guide to the reentry support programs and services that exist on many East Bay college campuses. This is a new element of our pathways work that binds some of our diverse programs together.
What should our partners and community know about the Opportunity Youth work that’s been happening at the Council in the past couple of years?
Over the previous years we’ve been out front regarding issues surrounding boys and men of color, but that work is a subset of our work focused on opportunity youth. The more we silo these populations, the more we play into the same dysfunctions that our systems have. Not only must we be concerned with boys and men of color, but with all youth, and with all families, and the systems they interact with. While this is an area of specific focus for us, we attempt to approach it holistically, as always.
What was one piece of wisdom that left you inspired?
Political and systems change comes from the intersection of criticism and hope.
I have a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, shaking hands, in my office. This reminds me daily of the point Ganz was making. You can’t go forward without hope and anger. Hope without anger (a sense of urgency) leads to dreams deferred, and anger without hope leads to rage (dreams destroyed). Opportunity youth need our our partnership towards developing a vision for their inclusion in society and support for their restlessness. We need to give young people hope, then get out of their way so they can make the changes. This was true in my early career running a youth development organization in the Bronx and it’s true now in Oakland and across the nation.