Building an inclusive economy means supporting communities—especially those with the least access to opportunity—to come together to expand mobility, eliminate systemic barriers, and create their own solutions to drive prosperity. One group who represents enormous potential to contribute to solving social and economic challenges in the United States are Opportunity Youth—defined as young adults between the ages of 16-24 who are out of school or out of work. These young people are a core focus of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions (AFCS).
At a recent AFCS Cross-Site Convening in Austin, Texas, 500 people came together as part of the Opportunity Youth Forum (OYF), a cross-sector network of over 40 local communities in urban, rural, and tribal communities across the United States that seeks to build and scale reconnection pathways that achieve better outcomes in education, employment, and overall well-being for opportunity youth.
After the OYF Convening, the Aspen Partnership for an Inclusive Economy sat down with Mike Swigert, Senior Program Manager for Youth Employment with AFCS, to find out more about the key themes that surfaced at this year’s gathering.
Q: What was the purpose of last week’s event in Austin?
MS: The Opportunity Youth Forum is a learning network and funding collaborative we bring together twice a year in-person and support throughout the year through a variety of technical assistance efforts and peer learning cohorts.The convening in Austin was special as both a celebratory and reflective gathering on our first decade of work. The OYF network has grown over the past 10 years from 21 to now 40 communities—rural, urban, and tribal—across the U.S. These convenings are both cross-sector and intergenerational. Participants include leaders and practitioners from community-based organizations, workforce and education systems, local and national policymakers, philanthropy and youth and young adult activists. Throughout the event, these diverse participants discussed a range of themes, from deepening career pathways to using data to drive impact, to affecting policy change. The relationships built in these in-person that lead to learning and dreaming together. Over time, the network nurtures concrete partnerships and investments in strategies that drive policy and practice changes and produce economic benefit.
One theme that really stood out in Austin was a deep emphasis on healing. Racial equity is at the core of the OYF work and we emphasize support for young people of color. We focus on healing in the context of addressing the continuing impacts of structural and systemic racism. We heard once again from luminaries who have previously addressed our network like john a. powell and Dr. Shawn Ginwright. We learned how we can incorporate healing-centered practices into program and systems-level work and the narrative of systems change work that the Opportunity Youth movement and this network seek to effect at scale.
Q: Can you paint the picture of one individual that you met at this gathering, someone whose story really stood out to you and showed the impact of this event?
MS: There are so many! One person I can shout out who played a leadership role in multiple spaces of the event and our network is Devin Edwards. He currently serves on the staff of a Massachusetts state legislator. Devin has been involved in movement work at the national level and in his community for years, starting with My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) in Boston nearly a decade ago, then as part of the multi-stakeholder initiative FreshTracks, and now as a member of the OYF Leadership Council. His skill and growing impact in public service is rooted in his own lived experience. It was powerful to be with Devin among other younger leaders where I saw the mentorship and the sense of belonging that he created. The convening closed with a plenary session on intergenerational movement leadership, where Devin was in dialogue with five other remarkable leaders who’ve grown up in the opportunity youth movement and are now preparing the next generation of young leaders to play a central role in setting—and owning—the current and future agenda of our shared work.
Devin shared his experience as a Black man raised in the South End of Boston facing challenges that resonate with many young men of color growing up in cities. Trauma and economics led him to leave high school when selling drugs seems like the only option for income. Yet he transformed his trajectory—to all of our benefit—by seizing opportunities to reorient his talents and energy. Devin told us how a community outreach worker suggested he enroll in a pre-apprenticeship program, which he eventually did, and then a coding bootcamp. Tech wasn’t his jam, but he felt seen, he felt challenged, and he saw a path to adding value and achieving prosperity for himself and his family. He thrived with opportunity and support through MBK. The City of Boston benefits from his skills, wisdom and abundant energy as a public servant, and he is collaboratively driving positive change across the country through his leadership in the OYF and other national networks
Q: How does your work with Opportunity Youth connect to the broader theme of an inclusive economy?
MS: The young adults who were at the Opportunity Youth Forum—the young people we’re focused on and working in solidarity with—represent incredible potential for this nation’s economy. They’re problem solvers. They’re entrepreneurs. They’re leaders. We need their talent, energy and wisdom to tackle the challenges of the 21st century: from climate chaos to navigating artificial intelligence.
Q: An economy running on all cylinders to generate prosperity and innovation is an economy that works for opportunity youth. What does that look like?
MS: It looks like a country where quality career pathways with multiple onramps to opportunity exist at scale in every zip code. Through their schools, postsecondary institutions, workforce systems, community-based organizations, and the business community, young adults have options and support to prepare them for the in-demand jobs of today and the skills to navigate the changing occupations of the future. An economy that works for opportunity youth is also a place where employer practices support workers—especially those who have experienced intergenerational trauma, poverty and racism—to show up on the job as as their whole selves and experience a sense of belonging so they can reach their full potential.
I left the OYF Convening in Austin excited and optimistic. The concrete progress communities in the network have achieved over the past decade demonstrate the power of collaboration and dare us to dream more boldly.
To learn more about the Opportunity Youth Forum, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.