If you’re down in the dumps and in need of something to lift your spirits, tune in to the work being highlighted this week at the Opportunity Nation Summit. The word “opportunity” has been used and abused for as long as I can remember, but in this case it rings true. The summit is a gathering of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from all over the country, and adults representing some 250 organizations are dedicated to matching them up with schooling and a job to help them realize their dreams. Often heard around the summit, held in Washington, DC this year, was the phrase: “You’re not defined by your zip code.”
If you had dropped by Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University Wednesday, you would have run into the likes of Dorothy Stoneman, passionate founder of Youth Build, Inc. in 1978, and every bit as energetic and committed to the cause of finding a place in American society for disconnected youth today as she was 34 years ago. Having expanded into 273 communities across the nation, Stoneman speaks with urgency about the 6.7 million young people today, ages 16 to 24, who are not in school or employed.
She and the other leaders at the summit cite a statistic that’s tough to hear in the country we all love so much: Today, only six percent of children born to parents at the bottom of the income scale make it to the top. The reality is made worse, they say, “by the fact that nearly two-thirds of the jobs in today’s economy are middle- and high-skill positions, and the American workforce has fewer than half the number of qualified candidates needed to fill those positions.”
The organizers are in a hurry to do something to change this, and they brought together young people with adults in positions to help: politicians from Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio to Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin; educators like Dr. Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College and Dr. Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso; and business people like David Nagel, executive vice president of BP North America (also active in the Boy Scouts), Meg Garlinghouse of LinkedIn and Cheryl Oldham of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
I was privileged to take part in a discussion with these business representatives, who told the young audience what their companies and organizations are doing to bring more “disconnected” young people into their midst. They talked about the skills gap and urged the audience to spread the word that openings exist. The youthful audience seemed to be all ears, given the latest unemployment report showing more than 22 percent of 16 to 19 year olds are unemployed, while figures for African-American and Latino youth are even higher.
As Opportunity Nation seeks “to rebuild the ladder of economic mobility in America,” it’s remarkable to see that a recent survey of young people facing tough challenges to forward advancement are optimistic about their future. Almost three in four said they are very confident that they will be able to achieve their goals in life.
If these young Americans, who have faced serious obstacles such as broken families and hardships in getting an education, are hopeful — how can the rest of us let them down?