Community Development

Let’s Put Opportunity In Front Of Youth: It’s The Right Thing To Do And The Smart Thing To Do

October 3, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Like many low-income young men of color growing up in America, Jamiel Alexander didn’t see opportunity on his pathway to adulthood. By age 15, he was out of school, out of work, and almost out of hope.

That’s where Crispus Attucks YouthBuild came in, challenging this young man to see himself at a crossroads, not a dead end. YouthBuild tapped into his own motivation and determination not to be, in Jamiel’s words, “another negative statistic.”

The York, Pennsylvania program helped Jamiel finish high school, pick up work skills, and get his first job in the food service industry. Today, he’s a youth advocate replicating his own turn-around in many communities.

It’s just one story, but it speaks to the power and value of providing real second chances to America’s 4.6 million “opportunity youth”—young people who are not connected to education or employment.

This is an important focus of my organization, the Aspen Institute, which supports communities across the country to build better second chance systems for America’s youth in partnership with dozens of funders. Our Opportunity Youth Fund and Forum recently announced a new $10 million grant from Ballmer Group to expand its efforts and deepen its impacts.

These investments are critical, but there is more we need to do. We believe three key strategies are needed to fully unlock the potential of opportunity youth nationwide—and there’s a role everyone can play.

First, we need to create, strengthen, and expand more quality programs like YouthBuild whose work is tailored to the actual needs of young people. Some promising examples include Roca, Inc. in Boston, which is successfully lowering recidivism rates while helping youth get good jobs. In Philadelphia, a program through District 1199c of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees trains young people and connects them to jobs in healthcare. Both programs view young people as a collection of assets and partner with them in building the services they offer. This is called “co-creation”—the more it happens with youth, the better.

Second, we must help programs like these become part of “community collaboratives” that use data to make better decisions about what works for opportunity youth and that break down barriers within and between systems that are meant to propel young people into success. This is what’s happening in places from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where leaders from the public schools, colleges, child welfare, the justice system, and employers are working together to dramatically reduce the number of young people who are out of school and out of work. It’s exciting to see the real-life benefits of these collaboratives, like in Seattle, where the Road Map Project is reconnecting thousands of young people to high school, workforce, and postsecondary pathways. Our grant from Ballmer Group will allow us to document the impacts of efforts like these and enable a more effective use of data in order to help communities invest public, private, and philanthropic resources in strategies that work for young people.

And third, we must invest in and hold accountable the larger systems that do or don’t work for young people in the first place. It’s not right, for example, that some communities have robust workforce development programs and apprenticeship opportunities and others do not. Or that low-income students are learning at grade level in some districts, but not in many others. Or that some community colleges have impressive graduation and employment rates while others do not. System change has to be part of the equation—and that’s on all of us as citizens and taxpayers.

Some may worry that such efforts, while laudable, require too much time and trouble. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. We’ve all read the studies that show that the economic value of investing in education and job training for opportunity youth is immense. Moreover, almost everyone has friends or family members who were supported as they overcame barriers or a misstep to make it into the economic mainstream. Weren’t they worth it?

Helping the young get on track is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. If there’s one thing we know about America, it’s that relationships and opportunity bring out the best in people and make our country stronger.

Just ask Jamiel Alexander.

This post was originally published by