Deontay White had hit a wall. A teenager struggling against the slow churn of economic stagnancy in rural Mississippi, he toiled paycheck-to-paycheck at a local hospital in his hometown of Ruleville. After dropping out of the twelfth grade to work in the medical industry, White watched as others with the education he had walked away from rose above him to secure higher pay and better positions. He was one of many opportunity youths — individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are unemployed or not in school — determined to take charge of their lives and turn struggles into success.
White joined community leaders Karen Jacobson, Andrew Schaefer, Mable Starks, and Shawna Campbell-Daniels at the Aspen Institute for “Game Changers: Linking Rural Opportunity Youth to Better Economic Futures,” hosted by the Community Strategies Group and the Rural Development Innovation Group, as well as the Forum for Community Solutions and the Center for Native American Youth. Their open conservation focused on how to reroute youth living along the periphery of the nation’s economy into the workforce.
In 2015, roughly 5 million American youth (about 1 in every 8 individuals between the ages of 16 and 24) were disconnected, neither working nor enrolled in school. Rural counties suffer from a relatively high disconnection rate — a staggering 20.3 percent — but there is hope. In communities rife with high rates of child poverty and stagnant local economies, local organizations like Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE) work to guide opportunity youth along pathways to economic security while teaching them responsibility, discipline, and other skills necessary to succeed.
Karen Jacobson, executive director of the Randolph County Housing Authority, matches disconnected youth in Appalachia with opportunities for vocational advancement. This is often done by matching youths with jobs serving other vulnerable populations, especially senior citizens in need of personal home care. “We’re now placing 15 to 20 percent of our cohorts each year in the health care field,” Jacobson said.
Mable Starks, president and CEO of MACE in Greenville, Mississippi, agreed that integrating opportunity youth into the social fabric of their hometowns is key. She works to improve education fulfillment and employment opportunities for disconnected youth through the MACE program, established by community leaders in 1967 to uplift rural development in the Mississippi Delta. This includes YouthBuild, which trains students in construction through building housing for low-income families. “A hundred percent of our students who come into YouthBuild are active voters,” Starks said. “It takes a community to build a community.”
Like Starks, Shawna Campbell-Daniels strongly believes in the power of civic engagement to strengthen youths’ commitment to education and job security. She works as the State Tribal Education Partnership Manager for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Department of Education in rural Idaho, where she helps to manage the department’s education pipeline and to engage youth in tribal leadership.
Deontay White eventually earned his GED as a MACE YouthBuild graduate and became a construction trainer for the program, where he now mentors local youths in vocational training in the construction industry. He credits the program for helping him to make that transformation.
“This was my best decision – choosing YouthBuild,” he said. “It changed my life.”