Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will often hurt me

Today's post is written by Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, JobFirst NYC's Deputy Executive Director.  Evelyn joined JobsFirst NYC in November 2011 after many years as the executive director of New Heights Neighborhood Center in Washington Heights. 

WORDS DO MATTER.  In a field full of jargon and stereotypes, labels impact how the public views young people, and how young people themselves view their own opportunities. 

Consider the negative language associated with young people:
  • Through the 1980’s, these youth were called “high school dropouts "
  • During the 90’s they became “Push Outs” and “Over Aged and Under Credit”
  • More recently, they were “Disconnected Youth"

The last one is particularly galling.  There’s nothing “disconnected” about today’s young people; more often than not, it’s the systems that serve youth that are disconnected. 

A new report for the White House Council for Community Solutions, Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America’s Forgotten Youth (PDF, January 2012) suggests a new term: “Opportunity Youth.”  As the authors explain, disengaged young people "represent enormous untapped potential for our society, start out life with big dreams that include graduating from college. Notwithstanding challenging life circumstances, including living in poverty, they remain optimistic about their futures and believe they will achieve their goals in life. They accept responsibility for their decisions, but also yearn for support along what they hope will be a road to opportunity. Our society often treats them as problems to be addressed, but their voices show that they are potential to be fulfilled and can become key leaders in our society if given a chance." 

While this report makes the case for a return on the investment of taxpayers as an argument to now begin to do something about a crisis that has been brewing for over a decade, it fails to provide creative solutions fitting with the economic landscape and life in the 21st century.  The programs highlighted are great programs that might work for young people that are at a higher level of functioning along a continuum regarding literacy, numeracy and work readiness. 

In NYC alone, there are close to 180,000 older youth that are out-of-work and out-of-school.  As a nation, we must be willing to provide older youth that are far behind from readiness true and meaningful opportunities to transition and acculturate to the World of Work.  It will require a public and private will to be able to prepare today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.

In the land of Opportunity, what we finally have is a real opportunity to help American-born, older youth that are out-of-work and out-of-school and DIS-ENGAGED from the American dream!

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