The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

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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.

A Father’s Day Reflection

“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”  – Anne Sexton

After eleven years of being involved with Year Up, Father’s Day takes on a different meaning – or perhaps more accurately – an expanded meaning.  I often find at Year Up that the emotional range that we experience at work is much wider than what I was used to in the for-profit sector.

Back then, a great day was making money, and a really tough day was managing an employee who had a personal problem.  Now, the joy felt when one of our young adults succeeds on their terms and according to their expectations is beyond description – satisfying to the core of my being.  Sadly, the pain felt when one of our students finds themselves in harm’s way is palpable and all-consuming.

I am reminded each Father’s Day of the joy and the pain of our work.  It is joyful to awake to a slew of thoughtful text messages from young men and women who I have known, cared for and mentored over the past decade. It is an honor and a blessing to be trusted by them and to play a small part in their journeys.  As Lydia Child said in 1836, “Blessed indeed is the man who hears many gentle voices call him father!”  Every Fathers Day – without fail – I get a call from my little brother David Heredia, the inspiration for Year Up who today is a loving father and husband.  David’s voice never seems to change; he is always upbeat, warm and appreciative of the relationship we have crafted together.

However joyful these messages and calls are, it is painful to think that in almost every case, the person on the other side of that text message or phone call grew up without the presence of a father.  This gives me great pause, stops my breath for a moment, and puts a lump deep in my throat.  It is so very unfair that this is the reality for so many of the young adults that we serve.

Please do not take my observation as one based in pity – it is not.  Our young adults are stronger as a result of the adversity that they have faced, and so many want nothing more than to be the parents they never had.  However, it is impossible to deny the importance of having a father to care for you, encourage you, love you, and to provide as a role model.

The absence of a father cuts across racial and socio-economic lines. As James Q. Wilson, professor and senior fellow at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, writes, “After holding income constant, boys in father-absent families were twice as likely as those in two-parent ones to go to jail and girls in father-absent families were twice as likely as those in married families to have an out-of-wedlock birth….These differences are as great for white families as for black and Hispanic ones and as large for advantaged children as for disadvantaged ones.”

At Year Up, we are fortunate to work with a wonderful organization called the Family Center, which has developed a course which we teach to all of our students who have children. This 14-session curriculum, known as the Parenting Journey, was created for parents whose own childhood did not provide them with a solid foundation for nurturing themselves or their children.  I often hear how much students enjoy this class, and am pleased that we can support our students in this way.  They deserve it.

As Father’s Day draws to a close, and a new week begins, I am heartened and humbled to reflect on the day’s conversations, and thankful to know that so many other caring males at Year Up had a very similar Sunday.

Food For Thought

Last week, Year Up held a wonderful event at the home of Pam and Alan Trefler…not a fundraiser, more of a consciousness-raiser. The topic of discussion: How does food inequality relate to the Opportunity Divide?

First of all, what do we mean by “food inequality”? At a basic level, go to any inner city and try to buy a fresh vegetable. It’s tough to do. Or, price a gallon of milk at the local convenience store – it’s much more expensive than at Costco (which is a drive away and requires a car to access). Or, just ponder the fact that one out of every four children in America is currently on food stamps. It’s shocking.

How might this type of inequality relate to the opportunities to which one has access? The answer has to do with systems, and how they relate to and impact one another. By “systems” we mean housing, food, legal access, education, healthcare, and criminal justice; the systems we exist in as citizens, but often do not choose. We are placed in certain systems primarily because of our zip codes and socioeconomic status.

Here is a flow of logic to consider: if I am often hungry but do not eat nutritious food on a regular basis, it will be harder for me to focus and study at school. It is also likely that over time my health will be negatively impacted by this, which – if I don’t have access to regular medical care – may mean I miss school more frequently. The combination of these factors may cause my grades and education to suffer. Therefore, I may not do well on high-stakes tests (for instance, the SATs) which often dictate the expectations people have for me after high school. That is, if I even manage to graduate.

The food system, the educational system, and the healthcare system are all inter-related. At times, they can create a vicious vortex that even the persistent may find daunting to overcome. It is the very interdependence of these systems, especially in areas of concentrated poverty, which makes them so pernicious.

I don’t think we solved any problems last week as we pondered these questions, but the topic was very good “food for thought.”

Something to Sink Your Teeth Into

I have believed for some time now that rising income inequality poses a long-term threat to our civil society and indeed our democracy.

This is not the most popular view to espouse at dinner parties and can be seen by some as unpatriotic and scaremongering; it doesn’t get a laugh or leave people with inspired visions of a utopian society. From our often inward-looking national perspective, it can be hard to see how the 2005 riots in France or the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East could ever become reality here in the USA. All were in large part catalyzed by sky-high youth unemployment and a lack of opportunity to climb the economic and social ladder. As Timothy Noah illustrates in his well-written 10 part series, income inequality is only problematic when you combine it with a lack of social mobility.

While I would never sell our country short, it is hard to deny that trends in America are heading in the wrong direction. As Noah explains, income inequality has risen steadily over the last 40 years to the point where “income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.”

Similarly, the Brookings Institution / Pew Economic Mobility Project, “Is the American Dream Alive and Well?“, concluded that “children born into a low-income household in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Germany have a better chance of improving their economic situation than those born in the United States.”

Trends often catch us by surprise; it is hard to predict when there will be a backlash, a dot com bubble burst, or a housing crash. But the fact remains that current trends are heading in the wrong direction if one takes history as any useful guide to the future. How we reverse these trends – and who is responsible for reversing them – is a longer discussion. For now, it is worth noting that we are not so far removed from the international news reports we have been watching. If we continue on our current course, we too may reach a breaking point; it may not fall within the timeframe of any one administration, and is likely to be something our children will have to address rather than us. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, and I hope the food still tastes OK.

Reading is believing…or is it?

My father-in-law recently gave me a copy of Peter Drucker’s Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Managing Oneself.”  My first reaction was to be slightly offended, although I remembered speaking to him passionately about Drucker’s prediction that the shape of post-secondary education would change radically, and that we should not take four-year college for granted.  It felt better ascribing my father-in-law’s actions to a generous spirited association with a recent conversation rather than a veiled attempt to get me to improve my ability to manage myself!

In Drucker’s article, he says, “Knowledge workers have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, what results have to be achieved to make a difference?”

I reflected on Drucker’s words, and on the fact that Year Up was just ranked the 4th best non-profit to work for in the Non-Profit Times’ list of the Top 50 Non-Profits.  I’ll be the first one to say that you can’t believe either the really good or the really bad things people write about you.  However, I am proud of this ranking, and think that it is largely driven by the alignment of values among our colleagues.

Everything we do at Year Up- whether it be with students, staff, or outside stakeholders should be driven by and consistent with our six core values.  We should always have a “line of sight” from our daily actions to our values, and continually reinforce people when they support our values and pick them up when they don’t.  It is a process that is critical to our long-term health and our ability to serve students well.  If we hire people who resonate with our values, it is up to us to help them to identify their strengths, to clarify their goals, and ultimately to support them in maximizing their contribution to our students and our mission.

While we are by no means the best at getting this right, we aspire to be, and that is important.  We are working hard to improve our ability to help our colleagues develop their careers, and to be thoughtful about the support that we provide to them along the way.  Although it never feels like enough, our turnover is less than half the industry average.  We must be doing something right.

Drucker also noted that “organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another.” As I take a moment to humbly enjoy the positive acknowledgment that we received from this most recent ranking, I immediately turn my attention to what else we can do to continue to build trust and understanding among our colleagues, what we can learn from other organizations on that list, and how  we can keep hiring and developing the very best people in this country to collectively close the Opportunity Divide.

Bending Towards Justice

As some of you may know, each year thousands of young adults from across the country apply for one of the most competitive and coveted internship programs in the nation – a White House internship.  There are only 140 spots available and each applicant goes through a rigorous application process that makes getting into an Ivy League college seem like a piece of cake.   I am told that the essays are judged for grammar, and that each applicant is assessed against their commitment to public service and their leadership potential.  Most of the applicants come from elite academic institutions and my guess is that they are not short on support to help raise their profiles amidst the fray.  I could imagine helping my own son or daughter find just the right adjective to spice up their essay to differentiate it from the rest.  I could also imagine combing through my contacts file to see if I knew anyone who could advise us on the best way to win this brass ring for the little Chertavians.  Well, I am pleased to say that two of Year Up’s students stepped up to the plate and grabbed that brass ring for themselves.   They competed and beat thousands of other applicants on their merit, and earned the opportunity to serve their country as White House interns.   Like all of the young adults that we have had the honor to serve over the past decade, we know that they are the true assets in our society, and our goal must be to provide them with the access and opportunity that they deserve.  It is ultimately a self-motivated goal, for we need their talent and leadership to ensure that our country remains competitive and our standard of living continues to rise.

Last week, Year Up had its Board meeting in the nation’s capital at the Year Up National Capital Region (NCR) site.  We were honored to receive a tour of the White House by…..drum roll please….these two Year Up students.   What an inspiration!  With security badges fluttering in the breeze, our two students deftly guided us forward amidst the metal detectors and security officers.  Think of the circle that this represents.  From a founding class of twenty-two students on the 5th floor of a Boston brownstone to being hosted by two of our wonderful students as we walked through the rooms of the most influential building in the world.  Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.  On this day, I could feel it bend….just a little, but it did bend.

As we walked through the rooms of the White House, I was reminded that until very recently all of the faces on the walls were of one color.  That is no longer the case, and whatever your politics may be, we are a better nation as a result.  I wondered how our two interns – both African American, both from very low-income backgrounds – felt as they walked alongside our Board members, and listened with us to the stories of our nation’s founders.  I am hopeful that they felt that the American Dream was not a dream but a reality; a reality for them to grasp and to enjoy.  I wholly recognize that two students do not change a country, and this small bend in the “arc of the moral universe” may well be imperceptible, although as long as we keep walking, as long as we keep bending, we have hope, and with hope we have a future.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

How could we design, fund, and promote an educational system where the standards to graduate from high school are significantly less than the standards needed to succeed in a career or college?  If you explained this situation to a foreign visitor who had stepped for the first time into the American higher education system, they would look at you as if you had two heads.

Foreign visitor: Let me understand this correctly….your educational system is divided into two separate educational systems where the exit gates for one don’t align with the entry gates for the next?  And if you don’t want to go to college, you really aren’t prepared to do anything other than work 80 hours a week at minimum wage just to feed yourself and your family.  Come on– you can’t tell me that with a straight face.   Was it always like this in America?

US host: Well, for a whole bunch of years – centuries, in fact – our high school system did just what it was supposed to do: send about 20% of its students to college so that they could become professionals, businessmen, thinkers and the like.  Everyone else did just fine working with their hands, and working for the folks who did go to college.  Everyone was kind of happy, I guess.  But, this darn economy changed so fast.  Now, everyone – and I mean everyone – needs to get an education beyond high school.  And the jobs that pay decent money all require a set of pretty complex skills that our young people just aren’t learning in high school.   Our educational system just hasn’t kept pace and, in fact, other countries are starting to better prepare their young people for this new reality.

Foreign visitor: So what are you folks going to do?

US host:  Well, the first thing we have to do is to confront the cold hard facts: The average age of a Bachelors of Arts degree is 28 years old, and only 8 out of 100 American adults have a college degree that they received between the ages of 18 and 22.  Quite simply, we have to stop thinking that going to college at 18, graduating at 22 and then going to work – in a linear, monolithic fashion – is the only way that our citizens will get into the economic mainstream of our country.

Foreign visitor: OK, OK.  I get the basic argument.  So, what are you going to do?

US host: Well, there really are three things we have to do: 1) High schools need to better prepare our youth for both college and 21st century careers, period.  We can’t continue to graduate students from high school and not have them be ready to succeed in either post-secondary education or a livable wage job.  Traditional high schools need to take a good long look at how they provide work readiness skills, career exploration and career guidance; 2) everyone needs to get a post-secondary education, and there needs to be multiple pathways to get this education.  The end goals have not changed (i.e. a college degree,) although there needs to be new pathways to accommodate a much wider set of educational and economic needs.  Finally, 3) we have to better connect our educational system with the skills that our employers need, both today and tomorrow.   If employers don’t do this, they will have to start taking on the job of educating their future employees themselves.  Community colleges and employers should be walking in lockstep and four-year colleges should get off their academic high horses and recognize that the new liberal arts involve technical and financial literacy as well as teamwork, complex communications and cultural competency.

Foreign visitor: Last question.  Can you do it?

US host: Well, the stakes are low….just little things like our global competitiveness and our overall standard of living.   Hmmm… Did I just say that?…

Knowledge Based Vocational Education….it ain’t your Mother’s Voc Ed!

After ten years of trying my best to articulate the changes that are needed in our nation’s educational system, I could not be more excited to read the excellent report (Pathways to Prosperity) that was just published by Bob Schwartz and Ron Ferguson, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I almost strained my neck nodding to their arguments as I read, wondering when this point of view will become more mainstream…which it will. Just you wait. The tectonic plates have shifted, and to deny the new reality of what our labor market needs (and how we can accommodate those needs) is to hurt our nation’s young adults and consign our country to a position of decreased competitiveness. Sound alarmist? It ain’t!

“Pathways” goes to the heart of the changes that are needed in our post-secondary educational system – to create more opportunities for young adults to gain the skills, experiences and support that they need to obtain livable wage jobs in the 21st century economy. The authors not only present a compelling set of facts, but they also look abroad to those places that don’t ascribe a lower societal value to vocational education. They also address the very real concerns that many have about introducing any battle cry other than “4 year college for all”.

It sounds like heresy, I know, that not everyone needs to get a 4 year college degree and maybe, just maybe, there is real value in occupational certificates, apprenticeships, work-based learning and career-linked associates degrees. Worse, critics will tell you that such efforts will lead us down a path of tracking students into those who are college material and those who are not. However, here’s the reality: In today’s labor market, everyone has to be college…or rather, post-secondary…material. There is no other option. But, we have to let go of the idea that there is one- and only one- acceptable, valuable, indeed honorable, concept of what college is. College is not a fixed idea, much as the traditional camps would love to think. Nor is our current view of college the right one for today’s economy and labor market. We have to shift our thinking to a broader view of post-secondary education. One which does not close options but expands them. One which does not track students, but enables many with an unprecedented level of access, opportunity and upward mobility.

Although for many years I have felt like that lone tree in the woods falling on deaf ears, it is heartening to see the well argued and presented words of our friends in Cambridge. Somehow I think more people will now be listening….

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