The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Searching for answers

I have listened to the 911 calls, read everything there is to read, watched the news, signed a petition on, and listened to our President speak on the matter. I still shake my head.  Trayvon Martin should not have died that day.

I was still reeling from the news of his killing, trying to make sense of something so distressing, when amidst my emails there was one from Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents.  It was a painful and emotional email to read; one that I could never imagine writing about one of my own children.  But yet they wrote it.  It requested that I sign a petition calling for George Zimmerman’s prosecution and trial – a petition which has already gathered more than two million signatures.

I listened to Trayvon’s mother speak this morning at a Congressional hearing, and she said something that moved me deeply: “Trayvon was our son, but he was your son too.” Trayvon’s tragic death demands an explanation, and demands to be explored. Those responsible need to be brought to justice.  The explanations and the explorations, though, are not limited to the man who confessed to the killing.  They extend to the media, who waited for weeks before focusing on the story.  They extend to the Sanford police department, whose handling of this case appears questionable.  They extend to us – the general public – who have to look within to begin to understand how this could have happened.  Trayvon’s death represents so much of what we already know – and don’t want to admit – about the society within which we live.

I am deeply saddened by Trayvon’s death and my heart is heavy as I think about his family.  Yet I am hopeful that justice will prevail, and that the public sentiment that this tragedy has ignited will somehow move us forward in a positive direction.  Our urban young adults are assets – not liabilities – to our society and economy, and the need for more Americans to realize this is all too evident in this tragedy. I am proud to work in an organization that strives to be part of the solution and know that our efforts pay tribute to the many individuals who have paid a tremendous price striving for increased justice, equity and opportunity for all.

1+1=1.2 Trillion

For years, Year Up has understood that the return on its investment in young adults was not purely measured by the incremental income that our graduates are able to earn and the taxes they will pay.  Surely, the avoidance of negative costs (social welfare, prisons, lost productivity, etc.) is also something we should include in answering the question, “What is the value of Year Up?”  However, much as we tried, we were not able to obtain accurate and convincing data to quantify the savings to society by enabling a “disconnected” young adult to gain access to a livable wage job and a post-secondary education.  We did not want to cite “soft” data that could be questioned, ultimately weakening the proof of our model.  We were content to rest purely on the external causality study conducted by Economic Mobility Corporation, which concluded that Year Up raises the wages of those who go through the program by 30% compared to control group.

Imagine the smiles across our faces at Year Up when we read the article in the Atlantic about the cost of jobless youth to taxpayers.  I almost ripped the cover page of the magazine trying to find the article in question.  The numbers are eye-popping!  Each jobless youth costs taxpayers $14,000 per year, costing us more than $437 billion over the next five years and $1.2 trillion over their lifetime.  Have a read through the article and the data – the claims are justifiable and coherent, and the implications are massive. In a time when we have to get our economy back on track and reduce the debt burden that exists in our nation, we can save ourselves half a trillion dollars, AND do something to reduce economic inequality. Sound too good to be true?  It isn’t.

The fact is that we will pay for rising numbers of disconnected young adults in our nation whether we like it or not.  The only question is how you want to invest your money. You can do it on the front end by providing people with access, opportunity and support to realize their potential and enable them to become taxpayers and productive citizens; or on the back end in lost taxes and productivity, higher social welfare costs and higher costs for the criminal justice system. The choice is ours to make, and it is a real choice.

David Brooks talks about this choice in his recent article about Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, and ends by correctly encouraging the top 20% to spend some more time with the bottom 30%. Brooks is encouraging us to look ahead and to recognize that the current path down which we are going hurts our long-term economy, increases our level of inequality and reduces mobility.  Ultimately, it poses a threat to our civil society, and tears at the very fabric of our democracy.

The good news is that we can do better – putting our youth to work is better for our democracy and better for our economy.  One and one can equal three, and in this case it might just equal a trillion!

United We Stand, Opportunity Divided We Fall

Dominique Jones

There are many inspiring leaders of the Opportunity Movement, and I look forward to introducing more of them on this blog.  Today’s update comes from Dominique Jones, a recent graduate of the Year Up program.  Dominique graduated from Year Up Bay Area on Thursday and now works as a contractor for  Here’s what she has to say.

I was born in Oakland, California, a city with a rich history of both beauty and violence. Young people are often used as scapegoats for the crime-ridden parts of Oakland, while their potential goes unnoticed. Here, to the naked eye, a young man is only a hoodlum in a black hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers. He is a miscreant, unwilling to do his part to become an effective member of society. Who are these young men who decorate corners, breaking glass to match their broken spirits? They are the Opportunity Divide manifested in human beings.

What social elements created such a large group of talented young people who are so far from attaining the vision that they see for their lives? To me we are divided by the absence of three things: Empathy, Expectation, and Excellence.

In Oakland 2011, the murder rate rose for the first time in four years, the last three murders of the year being children under the age of five. This is a statistic, turned expectation that if left unattended, will become a scarier “E” word: epidemic. A lot of people expect Oakland to be violent, its inhabitants taking on its character. No one wants their city to have this reputation or to have the expectation of aggression tied to them because of their origins. It takes a certain awareness to be able to empathize with this. Subtly, armed with the tools of professionalism, young people refuse to leave this statistic unattended.

Year Up is a program that understands the social elements that create an environment for potential to be stifled and suffocated. Instead of giving young people a handout, Year Up asks us if we are willing to expect more out of our lives and helps us transform that expectation into excellence. The expectation of punctuality is transformed into the ability to be consistent. The expectation of professional language is transformed into the ability to speak and write eloquently. All that was needed was space and opportunity to allow our light to emerge from the dark places where we are told we aren’t enough and never will be.

My experience has been one where I was told that I was extremely gifted by teachers and counselors, but never offered advanced courses in high school. I had to seek them out. In college, I thrived academically and struggled financially, eventually having to drop out. I’ve always read voraciously, navigating the world as a student for life, but the doors to a bright future were always guarded by a looming figure of rejection that held me behind a red rope or red tape, depending on how you look at it. It may have been simple institutional bureaucracy or lack of expectation for a young, intelligent person from an urban background to thrive among students with different experiences. Either way, I could never get my name on the exclusive, four-year college guest list. I tried Year Up. It has worked for me. I’ve been able to sharpen my skills, earn an amazing internship at, and prove that I can thrive in what Forbes called “the world’s most innovative company.” Me. Dominique. From Oakland.

Now ask yourself: what social element is created when such a large group of talented young people return to their neighborhoods, changed? That is an epidemic that I can stand behind.

Jobs and Freedom

On August 28th, 1963, two years before I was born, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Dr. King’s call for racial equality was delivered to over 200,000 supporters during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement, and considered the top American speech of the 20th century.   Yesterday we celebrated Dr. King’s birthday and we continue to reflect on the ideals for which he so fervently stood. 

1963: In front of 170 W 130 St., March on Washington, [l to r] Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director, Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of Administrative Committee

1963: In front of 170 W 130 St., March on Washington

As I reflected on the importance of today’s date, I could not help but ask what Dr. King would think as he surveyed the progress we have made over the past fifty years and the challenges that lie ahead.  At the time of Dr. King’s death, the civil rights movement was increasingly focused on issues of economic justice, and indeed the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom.  Imagine what Dr. King would think if he could read Don Peck’s recent article in the Atlantic on the “thinning of the middle class.”  In 1963, our nation had already begun to move away from manufacturing and towards a service/knowledge based economy.  The effects of this shift, including its impact on the middle class, were not yet apparent then.  Over the past five decades, these effects have become very clear, and they should be deeply concerning to all.

The global economy increasingly values higher levels of skill and knowledge.  If you can acquire those skills and knowledge, you have a much better shot at earning a decent wage and claiming a spot in America’s middle class.  If you can’t the odds are increasingly against you.  It is shocking to read that high school graduates without a college degree compare more closely to high school drop-outs (in terms of many cultural factors) than to those with a college degree.  A few short decades ago, the opposite was true.  Peck quotes from a national study of the American family by the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox: “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”

The most important thing we can do for our nation is to ensure that all of our citizens gain the skills and knowledge that are increasingly being rewarded in our global society.  Ensuring this is not a matter of figuring out the solution; we broadly know what the solution is.  It is not about creating an entitlement society.  It is not about vilifying the 1%.  At its core it is about preserving and promoting economic mobility for all. The need is as great now as it has ever been to broaden the educational opportunities to which every citizen has access, and to reverse the economic trends that have persisted since Dr. King made his famous speech.  Indeed, if Dr. King could survey the field as we see it today, I am sure he would feel compelled to take pen in hand and start drafting.  I, for one, would be grateful to listen.


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.

Lessons From Across the Pond

The general perception about the events in London over these past few days is that they have been perpetrated by a group of uncivilized, amoral thugs who occupy the lawless underbelly of English society.  Normally reserved British politicians have expressed outrage at this criminal element, claiming the moral high ground from which judgment is so easily passed.  The police have cracked down with equal and opposite ferocity (click here and have a look).

It seems that we are easily falling into a simple explanation for the whole thing – good versus evil, moral versus immoral, right versus wrong.

However, is it really that simple? What should we be hearing from this “call” across the pond?

No rational person can condone what we are seeing, nor justify the riots as an appropriate response of those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder (which often takes the form of a mass of marginalized urban youth).   However, we are missing the point if we cut our thinking short, and don’t ask why this is happening, and what led to it.

It’s no surprise to anyone that inequality has widened significantly over the past thirty years, our public education system is under-performing, and we are facing the highest levels of youth unemployment since the Great Depression.  Couple that with an economy that is demanding higher and higher levels of skill, and you have the perfect storm for marginalizing huge swathes of our young people.  And, sorry folks, but given the current state of public investment in discretionary programs, it is hard to project that this will get better before it gets worse.

So… what are we to do?

Peggy Noonan made the bold assertion in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that “the problem, at bottom, is love”, or rather, the lack of it.  I don’t disagree with Peggy at all, although her cure is too abstract.  To me, the problem, at bottom, is about opportunity: opportunity to gain a good education, to pursue a job that pays livable wages, and to take proper care of yourself and your family.

Here is my suggestion:  Let’s create a new agency – part public, part private, part non-profit-  and call it the “Opportunity Agency”.  Anyone can participate by being an “Opportunity Provider”.  There are countless ways to do this – read to a three year-old, mentor a child, tutor a student, help someone learn to speak English, donate time to a homeless shelter, assist someone with getting financial aid, provide someone a job shadow experience or internship, hire someone who has been incarcerated, etc, etc.

The goal is simple – to provide people with more opportunity.  We could measure this pretty easily, and track the results.  To make this work, two things are required:  First, people have to believe that each of us – regardless of zip code, race, income level or education – deserves opportunity. Second, we have to believe that given the chance, the vast majority of people will take honest and sincere advantage of this program.

Bottom line: people are good, they want to do good things, and given the chance, they will.

Imagine a “flash mob” that comes together only to provide opportunity for others.  Now that’s a flash mob I like!

The “Try Before You Buy” Job Creation Model

Ask any political candidate what the US can do today to create more jobs, and he or she will likely suggest solutions such as implement a job-creation tax credit, create an infrastructure bank, or fully fund the AmeriCorps program. Sure, these fixes will lead to job creation in the medium term, but what can our country do to ensure jobs are available now?

Let’s take a step back. There’s no argument that unemployment is a major problem in the United States today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 14 million people are unemployed; this amounts to just over 9 percent of the entire US population. Any job hunter will tell you about the frustration they face in searching for a position that matches their skills and provides an income, as well as benefits, job security, and room for growth. Listen a bit closer, however, and you will also hear frustration from hiring managers at top American companies about the lack of talent they are finding in the candidate pool: there are 3 million job vacancies in the United States today; filling them today would decrease unemployment by a few percentage points! Clearly, we have a problem in the labor exchange market that needs to be fixed, and fixed now.

What we could do immediately is offer $10,000 to any employer with one of those three million vacancies. The money could then be used to pay the wages of an unemployed person for three months, giving time to train that person in a skill the employer needs. At the end of three months, the employer could choose whether or not they want to hire the individual. Call it a “try before you buy” model, or a risk-free hiring process.

One program that is already implementing a version of this is Georgia Work Ready. It is the only program of its kind to be conducted through a partnership between a state government and a state chamber of commerce. Work Ready provides a skills assessment and certification for job seekers and a job-profiling system for businesses. By identifying both the needs of business and the available skills of Georgia’s workforce, the state can more effectively generate the right talent for the right jobs. In 2010 alone, more than 14,000 Georgians found work using their Georgia Work Ready certificate.

This model is promising. If other states followed suit, we would find ourselves with a better prepared workforce, fewer job vacancies, and more marketable talent with better paths for success, not to mention greater efficiency in the hiring process for companies. This would lead to a stronger economy over the long run and help the US to better compete in the global economy.

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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