The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

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The following is a memo I shared with staff at Year Up this week as we continue to process recent events.

Dear Year Up,

Over the last week, many of you have expressed deep concern over the trial of George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The verdict in this case has affected us all and raised many more questions than it has provided answers. I want to acknowledge the confusion and frustration that so many of our staff and students are feeling at this moment.  An innocent youth was shot and killed, and that constitutes a tragedy beyond words. As a parent, I was deeply saddened by the death of Trayvon. No parent should ever have to endure the loss of a child and my heart goes out to both Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. As I have listened to the TV and radio and read the newspapers and blogs over the past few days, I have tried to derive meaning from what happened and am left at a loss. I don’t claim to know all of the facts and arguments presented in the case, and sadly I don’t think anyone will ever know what really happened on the day that Trayvon Martin was killed. However, I am clear about a few things:

  • Being found not guilty does not mean you are innocent. According to our system of law, the prosecution could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is why a verdict of not guilty was reached. However, it is hard to say that justice is served when an unarmed teenager is killed and no one is held accountable. Rather, it is deeply sad and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Trayvon Martin.
  • Racial profiling and stereotyping affects our youth in profound ways. Trayvon Martin would be alive today had he not been pursued by someone who assumed the worst in large part because of his age, dress and skin color. We work each day at Year Up to change the perception that others have of our young adults. It is part of our strategy to close the Opportunity Divide. Trayvon Martin was perceived a certain way and that contributed to his death. The specifics of what happened that night will never be known, although I am certain the situation would have been different had be not been perceived that way.
  • Systems change is critical to our mission and our country.  There were several systems that failed Trayvon Martin and contributed to his death, including our gun laws, self-defense laws and judicial process.  These systems affect all of us, and in many cases they disproportionately affect the young adults that we serve.  That is why we work each day to not only “bridge” the Opportunity Divide but to “close” it.  Changing systems starts with changing perceptions, something our students do each day as they navigate L&D, internships, careers and communities.  They are at the forefront of this perception change and we both honor and support their journey. I am proud of our organization for leading the charge to create the nation’s first ever Ad Council campaign to provide opportunities for the employer public to engage with Opportunity Youth, and in so doing to change perceptions about the population of young adults we serve.
  • Teaching our students to talk about this is a teachable moment. Our students are asking about this event, and looking to us for guidance, but may be struggling to find a safe space to do so. Year Up is and will continue to be that safe space.  At this moment, we as servant leaders should be asking: What can we do to ensure that they engage in this dialogue in a way that does not put our young adults at a disadvantage? What can we do this week to create a safe space to listen, learn together and provide perspective and guidance?  I know Executive Directors and their collective teams have given a great deal of thought about the shape of those discussions with young adults. I would encourage us to make sure our students leave those discussions empowered, knowing that they collectively are supported, always have a safe space at Year Up to voice their desires and frustrations, and already possess the grit and determination to name racism, sexism, or any form of discrimination and be heard by caring staff.
  • Our work around Diversity and Cultural Competency is critical to Year Up’s mission. We have learned about different forms of bias that exist in each one of us, much of it implicit. We have worked hard to be thoughtful about both the historical and current issues that have led to the Opportunity Divide. And, we have developed trust and respect for the many different voices that collectively make up our organization. We have a responsibility to teach others and to engage in thoughtful dialogue, and I hope you will have a chance to do this.

In closing, I am hopeful that we can in some way learn from this tragedy, and that young Trayvon’s death will not be entirely in vain. The Year Up community is part of that process and I am honored to be one with you on this long journey towards greater social and economic justice.

Be well,

With a window of opportunity, what country do we want to build?

Now that the election is over, we have an opportunity to come together as a country on an idea that is distinctly not political: getting Americans back to work.  Above all else, I’m feeling optimistic that now, we can do it.

Part of my optimism stems from seeing the 80 CEOs who recently came together to urge Washington to do what is necessary to avoid the fiscal cliff.  What’s to stop a similar group of business leaders from coming together to support solving another national crisis: the growing Opportunity Divide in this country?

Part of it is timing.  Across the country, we are moving closer to broad recognition that growing inequality of income and, more importantly, of wealth, hurts everyone.  The growing skills gap hurts our economy and demands an effort to rethink our approach to preparing young people to enter the workforce.  At the same time, online courses like MOOCs are transforming higher education from the university model to an aggregate model, which has the potential to truly democratize education by making it affordable for all.  Though the transition is just beginning and will surely involve some speed bumps, that’s something that no one has been able to do up to this point. 

We have an opportunity to make sure that our practices and policies do not divide us into two Americas – one America where opportunity abounds and another one where it is nonexistent.

The only question is, what is the country that we want to build? 

I am hopeful that we’ll build a country that sees the potential inherent in all of our young people, not just the ones born in the right zip codes or with the right amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts. 

Imagine how things could be different if all young adults had affordable access to higher education after completing high school, and if hiring managers recognized their potential and the credentials from their online courses as legitimate preparation for entry-level jobs that would help them build careers.  We know what young people can accomplish with that kind of opportunity, along with the right support, because we see them do it every day at Year Up, and it could power our economy and our country.

I’m thankful to work in an organization full of individuals who are fueled by the success and passion of these young people.  I’m hopeful that, with this window of opportunity, we will build a country that sees their potential and makes sure they have the opportunity to realize it.

Get out and VOTE

Anastasia YoungToday’s update comes from Anastasia Young. Anastasia grew up on the south side of Chicago, and is now a Year Up Chicago student. She is interning with Human Resources at UBS.

“Get out and vote!” I used to hear this time and time again over the years, and I could never understand why. That is, until I decided to educate myself. I researched different politicians and issues that we as a people face in this country. I wanted to know what I could do to help. I learned that I could cast my vote.

I’ve always been the type of person to say that things need to change. What I realized is that if you want to create change, you have to take action. The people you elect are representing YOU. You not only have to vote, but you have to follow through.  Here in Chicago, I wrote a letter to my alderman expressing my concerns about the lack of workforce programs in our area. I never expected to get a reply from the alderman’s office, let alone a summary of actions being taken to rectify this issue, but I did. I realized then that I was being represented in the best way.

By voting in this election, I plan to tell the politicians in office that they need to make sure young adults who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds still have a chance. Education is on the top of my priority list, and this is my chance to tell these officials that they need to fully address this issue.

Issues relevant to us as young adults are constantly being discussed during election debates and fundraisers. Pell grants and government assistance for college are at stake.  There are so many decisions to be made in the next four years that will directly affect our lives and futures, and how tragic would it be if those decisions were made without any input from us, when we’ll live with their consequences?

Whatever you think needs to happen in order for you and your children to be able to have great futures, you must vote for those who will fight for these changes. Voting is caring about what’s going on in our very own lives.

In this election season, I encourage you to educate yourself. Research the candidates. Watch the debates and public speeches that they give.  This is a wonderful opportunity to become educated about the issues we face today, and the issues that we will face in the future.  Although the presidential election is extremely important, don’t lose sight of the elections that are so very close to home. Aldermen, congressmen and various forms of city council representatives count just as much.

There are about 45 million young people in this country who can cast their votes. That’s a lot of power.  So, what are we waiting for?

You can register to vote today through Year Up’s TurboVote or through Rock the Vote.

Business, community, and government leaders are coming together to create real opportunities for young adults

On July 23rd we at Year Up launched a book, A Year Up (now a New York Times best seller), which shares some of the powerful transformations we’ve seen take place when urban young adults gain access to opportunity.  We launched this book intending to spark discussion about and solutions to the Opportunity Divide, and the response I’ve seen during the past two weeks has inspired tremendous optimism in our ability to resolve this crisis as a nation.

Changing the game for our young adults, for our economy, and for our country as a whole will require a movement powered by Americans from all corners.  At book signings, on Facebook, and at the Year Up graduations (which are taking place across the country this week), I am seeing this movement grow and take shape.  In the room are many people who represent their businesses, many of which are Fortune 500 companies already relying on Year Up interns as a source of talent, interested in learning how they can do more to support access to opportunity for young adults.  In the same room are people working at alternative schools, foster youth programs, and many other organizations dedicated to improving the lives of those born on the wrong side of the Opportunity Divide.  Also present, of course, are Year Up students and alumni, who are becoming leaders of this movement and who show us every day what is possible when talented young adults have the skills, experience, and support they need to reach their full potential – no matter what their backgrounds.

All of these people are expressing the same conviction: that greater access to opportunity is needed for our urban young adults to build careers and become economically self-sufficient.  What is especially striking is that they are expressing this conviction together, along with an interest in taking action.

At one Year Up graduation in Washington, DC, I met Scott Mills, President and COO of BET, who joined a large immigrant family from Cameroon in the room to support their oldest daughter, Christabel, graduating from the program that day.  Christabel told me, “I didn’t want to be locked out of this technology world.  I wanted to figure it out; I needed access.”  Think how many more young adults can gain that access with the combined efforts of our business, community, and government leaders.

Bringing these leaders together is critical.  Government alone is not going to solve this problem, and without action from the private sector, we will see the Opportunity Divide grow at an even more alarming rate – and we already have 6.7 million disconnected young adults in this country.  These same young adults could be, and are becoming, a new source of talent for American companies, powering our economy and propelling our country into a new wave of prosperity.  Seeing the uniting of the business and community forces this week and the enthusiastic support of our young adults they share, I’m convinced that these leaders see in this not just an American challenge, but an American opportunity.  I am confident that, united, we can take this opportunity and renew the promise of the American Dream.


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

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

New Year’s Resolutions for the Nonprofit World

I was recently asked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy to “offer a resolution for the nonprofit world in 2012. In other words, what one thing could nonprofits (or grant makers or philanthropy in general) do to shake things up and improve the way they operate?” I was all too happy to respond, although found that I couldn’t just stop at one….and here’s what I came up with.

1. Factor in growth when deciding how much of an investment and organization should be making in non-program related expenses….and reward rather than penalize high-growth organizations for building strong infrastructures to support increased scale.

2. Explicitly fund overhead – we all have it and we all need it.

3. Please do away with project based funding. I know it makes funders feel good but it does not help our industry to function more effectively. Either you trust someone to take your money and use it effectively, or you don’t.

4. Stop talking about getting non-profits to merge, unless we are willing to put up a retirement fund for the ED that will be asked to leave. In the for-profit sector, mergers happen because the losing CEO gets a financially rewarding exit. If we create similar incentives in the non-profit sector, we will get many more mergers.

5. Require all funders to take the partnership pledge: “I will treat my grantees as true partners and not supplicants, and be conscious of reducing the power imbalance that inherently exists in these relationships.” In return, require all grantees to take the openness pledge: “I will communicate openly and honestly with my funder about the mistakes we are making, what we are learning, and what we are doing to get better.

6. Create an anonymous rating system that allows individuals to provide unbiased feedback to foundations on how responsive, professional and respectful they are to their grantees. Think Trip Advisor for foundations.

7. Move away from measuring only inputs (i.e. cost per participant), and move towards a system of measuring outputs (i.e. return on investment). Think “what is this worth”, versus “what does this cost”, and focus on whether the worth exceeds the cost, and how best to truly measure and prove this. Ultimately, this is a much better indicator of the value that a non-profit adds.

8. Change the way non-profit accounting works to reflect the fact that revenue and capital are not the same thing. When a for-profit company raises capital, it does not increase its revenue, so why do we do this with non-profits? It skews one’s annual report, and shows annual surpluses when they do not actually exist.

9. Pass legislation to provide student loan forgiveness of up to $5k per year for graduate students who choose to work in the non-profit sector.

Have a wonderful holiday and best wishes to all.

Do appearances matter in advancing social change?

The Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gather steam, and also elicit a lot of very angry negative reactions.  As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” OWS is firmly in the ridicule stage, having progressed to the point where the movement can no longer be ignored.  That is a major accomplishment no matter how you look at it, although it is only getting past stage one in Gandhi’s terms.

People who either fear, resent or disagree with the OWS movement are seizing on the most irrelevant aspects of those who are protesting. They are not asking why thousands of people all over country, and the world, are protesting. They are not trying, even for one second, to understand why people might in large numbers feel disenfranchised, desperate and dispirited. They are, though, spending lot of emotional energy harping on how the demonstrators look and dress.  It reminds me of the worst of school yard bullying. And OWS is doing a great job of playing into their hands.

There was a reason that Congressman John Lewis and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement dressed the way they did – in suits and ties as they sat in at lunch counters across the South or marched across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was not because they were hoping that a financial firm might notice their professional dress and offer them the chance to interview for a job.  It was because they wanted to put a human face on the movement – a face that would look much like the very one that was fighting against them. 

The folks within OWS might want to take a page out of the Civil Rights play book.  Imagine what would happen if the protesters were dressed in suits and ties.  Do you think the dialogue might be different? Can you image the UC Davis police pepper spraying a peaceful group of professionally dressed young adults versus a group “hippies in hoodies and jeans?” It would be a lot harder for the people who disagree with this movement to talk and act the same way.  OWS is giving its detractors valuable, albeit irrelevant, ammunition with which to hammer it.  I think that OWS could do a lot for their cause if they thought a bit more about what it would mean to “dress for success”.   As they continue to gather steam, coalesce around a clearer set of ideas and intended outcomes, and move to stage three of this journey, they would greatly diminish their detractors’ ability to belittle them.  It certainly worked 50 years ago and I bet it would work just as well today.

Is there Tea Brewing?

I spent an hour or so walking around the tent village known as Occupy Boston.  Located in Dewey Square, only a few steps from our offices in the heart of Boston’s financial district, it was a convenient detour. I debated for a few minutes whether my standard suit and tie would be appropriate attire, but in the end assumed (correctly as it turns out) that I wouldn’t be judged immediately based on my appearance.  Although it was hard to find people in charge, the village itself seemed well organized.  There were signs for “Legal Services” and “Logistics,” people tapping away on laptops, preparing food and even a library.  The whole thing felt more like a somewhat Bohemian college campus than an angry protest.

Three thoughts came to mind as I wandered around:

1. First, I could not help but compare this protest to Year Up’s Walk for Opportunity, which began one year ago in the very same square. Our walk brought together several hundred people to raise awareness of the need to provide greater opportunity for urban young adults.  Last year, we marched from Dewey Square to the Boston Common; this year (since Dewey Square was… occupied) we gathered in the Common and held a moving rally lead by our students and graduates. Here were several hundred young men and women, most of color, dressed in business attire – all setting a positive, professional and inspirational tone.  This is what the future ranks of our city’s professionals will look like.  We were all focused on a clear, positive and poignant message: Our nation needs to provide greater access and opportunity for our urban young adults, who are assets – not liabilities – and critical components of the US economic engine.  Why is it that the same media covering the Occupy Boston protest paid so little attention to this demonstration by the Opportunity Movement?  Was it because we had something to be for rather than against?

2.  How are the goals of the Opportunity Movement related to those of the protest on Dewey Square? While I am sympathetic to those who are protesting, it is a fact that Year Up would not exist if it weren’t for the generosity of the 1%.  Vilifying all people who have accumulated wealth is not helpful in creating more opportunity for those who lack it, nor is casting a spell over all of Wall Street.  Clearly, there were many wrongs committed in the build-up to the financial collapse, but concluding from this that all rich people are evil and all Wall Street firms are malevolent is just as pernicious as saying that all poor people are lazy.  I have concluded that the Occupy Movement and Year Up are coming at a similar problem from very different angles.

3. Are these protests the start of something big?  I think they are, and my prediction is that 1) these movements build rather than shrink, 2) they influence the next Presidential election in a serious way and are credited with helping to keep Obama in office, and 3) they result in the creation of a new political force to rival the Tea Party.  Walking through Dewey Square, I thought the people had dug in for the long haul, and that they knew they were onto something important. Thirty years of rising income inequality, declining social mobility and increased levels of poverty are starting to take their toll, and too many people are feeling excluded from the promise of the American dream.  Turning our eyes from what we are seeing, or dismissing it as a short lived “hippie” protest, is ignoring some major macroeconomic and social trends that have been brewing in our nation over decades.

Speaking of brewing, my hope is that the Occupy protest begins to clarify itself, and ultimately coalesces into a positive force for change. I hope that its message becomes one for increased opportunity for all rather than a rant against the wealthy or Wall Street.  My advice is that a few folks from Occupy Wall Street take time to learn about what is happening in less than two weeks at the Opportunity Nation Summit in NYC.   That is where we need to head as a nation, and what ultimately will help unite rather than divide us.

Nodding In Violent Agreement

After spending two days in Chicago at the Clinton Global Initiative event, I left with a sore neck.  Nope, the pillows at the hotel were just fine, thank you.  Rather, I found myself nodding in assent so many times throughout the two days that I must have tweaked a muscle!

For someone who has obsessed about economic equality and America’s skills gap for the past decade, it was like being a kid in a candy store.  Two days of nothing but discussion about jobs, jobs and more jobs; how to create them, what to do to get people skilled up for them, and what cities, companies and the federal government can do to get unemployment down and the economy up.

It was an impressive gathering, with more Mayors, Governors and former Clinton administration folks in attendance than you can shake a stick at.  Over 750 public, non-profit and private sector leaders were there, each chipping away at the fact that we have an applicant rich, skills poor country with an ever-increasing level of economic inequality.  To make it even sweeter, among those leaders were several wonderfully talented Year Up Chicago students who volunteered at the event.

Interested in learning more about the day’s event? Please click here for an agenda, and here for some interesting statistics about jobs in America.

From Year Up’s perspective, there were two interesting observations:

1. Year Up is tackling a set of “rising tide” issues:  It is clear that issues of economic justice, economic competitiveness and post-secondary education reform are becoming increasingly important issues in our country. The dialogue and the debate are shifting, and for good reason.

2. Year Up has built a strong reputation nationally:   I was floored to hear Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman explain in front of 750 people that: “In general, you get a larger return on investment in early childhood education.  Very few people have proven that you can get a return investing in older youth who are off track.  However, there have been some recent models and research from programs that offer very targeted training and support services that are disproving that theory.  One of them is Year Up.”

On a more personal note, the Year Up Chicago student volunteers were just amazing!  I had the opportunity to spend time with almost all of them, but one young man, Carl Lynch, really got me thinking.

Carl explained that he had never been at an event like this before.  You could see him absorbing information and learning, getting more and more comfortable in a matter of minutes.  We talked about how to politely wait for someone to finish a conversation before you introduce yourself, and how to connect with someone quickly so that they become engaged. Arguably small things, but not unimportant.

It struck me that there is a strong correlation between the journey that Carl is on and the goals of the CGI Summit.   CGI wants to reduce unemployment and Carl wants a good job. Policies have to link to people (like Carl) who need access to opportunity to realize their potential. The gap between the two can be bridged, and all of the people in the room that day, including Carl, can be a big part of the solution.

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