The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Introducing A Year Up

A Year UpI’m excited to introduce my new book, A Year Up, which is available in stores and online today.

This book centers on something that all of us have had: a “year up.”  A person who believed in you when others didn’t, who opened a door for you so that you could start the next chapter in your life.  An opportunity that empowered you to reach your full potential.  A Year Up is about the powerful transformations made possible when talented young people are provided with this kind of opportunity.  Following a Year Up class from admissions to graduation, the book lets students share—in their own words—the challenges, failures, and personal successes they’ve experienced during their program year.  I also explain my philosophy and the development of the program, which I believe offers a road map for real change in our country.

Ultimately, A Year Up is about all of us—and the need to empower the next generation to fuel America’s prosperity in the 21st century.   My hope is that it will raise awareness of and inspire more solutions to the Opportunity Divide in this country.

Without further ado, I’d like to share an excerpt from the second chapter for those interested in getting a sense of how it reads.  Quick context: in this excerpt, Malik shares his story with his new classmates during a group activity in their first week at Year Up.  To learn more about the book and to purchase a copy, please visit www.yearupbook.com.

Malik, an energetic, somewhat fidgety eighteen-year-old, loped up to the front and pointed out his own entries on the chart. They were easy to find; he had chosen a neon green marker. He pointed to his notation for 2006: “Brother killed.”

“I was at my eighth- grade prom. That’s when I got the news. I had just got my dance on. The next day was graduation. And I was prom king. My brother Amadou* came into the dance. He told me the news, that our older brother Bakary* was dead. At that time my mind was almost blank. I went back to my home and I could see everybody crying and everything, but I still couldn’t believe it. I knew my brother was in the streets and all, but it didn’t sink in.

“Then they were telling me how he died. They said that he got set up. He was strangled. They stuffed his body in a trunk, drove it to a Dumpster, and wrapped him in a trash bag. They put him in the Dumpster and set it on fire. And that’s when it clicked— those details— and I’m like, ‘Nah, you’re not serious.’ Then they told me the people that did it. We’re all in the same project.

“So the day after, I went to the spot where they all hang out. My friend gave me a gun. He didn’t even give it to me; I got it from him forcefully. I went to that block and I didn’t see anybody. So I was like, ‘Wow, either it wasn’t meant for it to happen or . . . something.’ Because I know if any one of them was out there, something bad would have happened. I would have tried to get revenge— that was my mind-set.

“My mother. Oh, it was bad, bad. My mother had the call, she was at the morgue or wherever you go, to identify the body. I didn’t see her that whole night. The next day, you could tell something just broke. I never seen her like that. She’s a strong woman, but when I seen her like that, real sad, cryin’ her eyes out . . . The next day was my graduation and she didn’t come. It was too much for her.

“I had a focused mind- set once I finished eighth grade ’cause I barely made it out. I knew my other option was if I don’t get my stuff together, I’m going to be in the streets— like Bakary. And being in the streets would just put more worries on my mother. That’s when I knew I just had to get myself together. I felt the only way I could really make her feel happy again or have some type of joy is by me focusing, not being in the streets, just trying to get my schoolwork together. That was my battle. I was going to graduate high school for my mother. I could not take the sadness in her face. No.”

There were some stifled sobs in the room, mainly from the mothers on the staff. Charmaine fanned herself with her hand. Tissues bloomed. One young woman hurried out into the hallway, whispering, “It’s too close, too close for me.” Other students urged Malik to keep going.

“That’s all right. You tell it.”

“My brother was in the streets and it killed him,” Malik went on. “And I seen that everybody my brother was hanging around with, they all was getting locked up and everything. I knew that I had to have another option.”

Malik threw his arms wide and grinned.

“So I’m here now. We’re all here. Let’s do this!”

–A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success

Immigration relief: The right thing is also the smart thing

It’s not always the case that doing what’s right is also doing what’s smart, but when it is, the question of “what to do” should be pretty simple. That’s the case with reducing uncertainty for immigrants who are working to contribute to American society, and that’s why I fully support the Obama administration’s new policy of granting administrative relief to certain young immigrants.

Here’s why it’s the right thing to do. For the young people eligible for relief under the new policy, America is the only home they have ever known. Their whole lives are here, and returning to their countries of origin, where they have few connections and often don’t even speak the language, makes little sense for them.

Here’s why it’s the smart thing to do. Our young immigrants have a lot to offer. They are motivated and hard-working, and in many cases have already contributed significantly to our society – by excelling in school, by volunteering in their communities, or by serving in the military. We may have high unemployment, but we also have growing numbers of job openings, already in the millions, that remain unfilled because companies can’t find the right workers. In many cases, the young people offered relief by this new policy are exactly the workers we most need. The bottom line is that it’s a smart move for our economy to keep them here.

We at Year Up are all too familiar with the lose-lose situation that results from deporting people unnecessarily , and in reading about the administration’s new policy the story of one student from our first classes in Boston springs to mind. This student was brought to the US from Colombia as a young child and he and his family were granted political asylum. While their case went through the courts, he grew up in Boston, attended public school, worked hard, met his future wife, and had a child of his own. I remember conducting his admissions interview and learning that he had supported himself through high school by working at Starbucks. He was a star in our program and everyone from our instructors to his supervisors at a major financial institution was impressed by his talent and work ethic. He would undoubtedly have been hired if not for the uncertainty around his immigration status. Shortly after graduation (at which he was the graduation speaker), the courts summarily dismissed the political asylum case (along with thousands of others in a post 9/11 knee jerk reaction), and instead of gaining the full-time employment he had earned, he went underground – working odd jobs off the books to support his child. He did, eventually, get caught, and was placed in an immigration detention center before being sent back to Colombia, thousands of miles from his family and community.

Would you consider it a wise move for our country to send a smart, motivated person like that away when our companies are clamoring for more talent like his – and his specifically? For whom exactly is justice being served there?

As I said, this young man was really talented, and of course he landed on his feet in Colombia and has continued to excel there. But he lost his family in the process, and while he began contributing to the Colombian economy, the financial institution that would have hired him had to look for someone to fill his place. With the new policy set forth by the Obama administration, and hopefully with more permanent action by Congress, we will retain such productive members of society going forward, and in doing so give new hope to these young people and to our economy.

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