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Group calls for youths to form national movement

Opportunity Youth United mobilizes in Boston

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Group calls for youths to form national movement
At an Opportunity Youth United meeting at the State House, youth activists and other supporters testified and called for political action on issues important to their lives.

Local organizers of the Opportunity Youth United movement gathered youth workers, public officials and other supporters at the State House last week to share stories and call for a national agenda aimed at increasing opportunities and fighting poverty among youth. The burgeoning movement seeks to mobilize young people across the U.S. into a political force that advocates policy on issues affecting them. OYU chose Boston as a testing zone for advancing action on a local level.

Their message: Youth, including those regarded as “at-risk,” are not a problem to be solved by adults, but must be active players in the solution.

As the congressional budget deadline looms and the candidates campaign for the 2016 presidential election, youth leaders at the “Opportunity Youth Speak: Our Voice, Our Vote, 2016” event said there is urgent need to expand a base of politically-engaged youth capable of promoting their concerns.

Members of the OYU movement hope to inject their priorities into the presidential candidates’ discussions, said James Mackey, program coordinator at the Center for Teen Empowerment and organizer of Opportunity Youth United’s Boston community action team.

These priorities include providing pathways out of poverty for youth, particularly through increased mentorship; training and education programs; expanded national service opportunities; greater access to higher education and year-round jobs. Activists at the State House meeting also called for more systemic changes to reduce youth incarceration and recidivism.

The National Council of Young Leaders, organized in 2012, aims to use local community action teams to generate grassroots support and push their agenda further. Council members also selected Boston as the pilot city and the Center for Teen Empowerment to lead the action team, said Dorothy Stoneman, founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA. They will serve as a model for other cities across the nation.

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Opportunity Youth United:

Youth unemployment

Among the major challenges facing youth is job scarcity, especially jobs that lead to careers, said speakers.

“Five and a half million youth in the USA are out of school, out of work, on the streets,” said Lashon Amado, organizer with YouthBuild USA, National Council of Young Leaders and OYU. Massachusetts is home to 84,000 young people between 16-24 who are neither in school nor jobs, according to an OYU press release.

Often, what few jobs are available dry up when summer ends. But many young people rely on year-round employment to support themselves and their families as well as provide career training. The jobs are not just ways to generate extra spending money.

“D’Andre’s rent does not go away after the summer, and neither should his job or employment opportunities,” said Evan Gilmer, youth organizer with the Center for Teen Empowerment.

Lack of employment can lead to both poverty and violence or incarceration, as youth find themselves with free time and few recourses, said some. Teens who drop-out of school have difficulty finding jobs because of their lack of education, and this can push them into criminal involvement, said Emanuel Knaggs, math instructor and success coach at the Connection Center.

During the event, youth spoke about of the power of service and alternative education programs like CityYear, AmeriCorps and Boston Day & Evening Academy that put them on career paths in ways that traditional education had not been able to do. They also underscored the need to ensure those programs remain funded.

“If Congress goes through with a proposed funding cut, it would hurt these programs a lot and the youth would not get the support they need,” said Fatima Pacheco, student at Year Up.

The Opportunity Youth United movement calls for the creation of enough public and private outlets to bring one million youth out of poverty each year, Stoneman said. Examples include programs to connect them with education, employment, internship and service opportunities.

Overlooked voice

Young people have not had enough say in resolving issues that directly affect them and to which they have greatest insight, activists said.

“Everybody’s talking about what youth need and how they need it and how it should be done, and almost nobody’s talking to young people about what they think should be done and how they should be done and what they need,” Stanley Pollack, executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, told the Banner. “The other thing that’s really very damaging is that that adult world does not understand the value that young people can bring to efforts to improve society.”

Successfully reducing youth violence and improving relations between young people and police require youth involvement on the decision-making level, Pollack said.

“Young people are the greatest asset and are critical if you’re going to solve problems of violence and drugs in the inner city,” he said.

It also is especially important for improving relations between young people and police, Pollack added. Efforts frequently focus on police talking to youth, but not on developing mutual esteem wherein the youth share and converse on an equal level.

The Price Brothers sang before the Opportunity Youth United meeting at the State House, where youth, activists and other supporters testified and called for political action.

Political engagement

Speakers at the event urged attendees to leverage their voting rights and catch politicians’ attention by showing up en masse for events like the State House event and reaching out to elected officials.

Young adults traditionally turn out to vote in low numbers, thus weakening their potential impact.

“Overall, younger Americans have consistently under-voted at the polls relative to their eligibility,” states a U.S. Census Bureau Report.

In 2012, less than half of eligible youth voted, the lowest rate compared to other age groups. In this election, 45 percent of citizens age 18-29 voted, while 59.5 percent of citizens age 30-44 voted, as did 67.9 percent of those age 45-64 and 72 percent of those 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Report. The youth age group was slightly more than a fifth of the population eligible to vote, but constituted only 15.4 percent of those who actually reported voting.

About 22 percent of eligible youth ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 midterms and 20 percent in the 2010 midterms according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

State Representative Byron Rushing urged attendees to call their officials to tell them about policies they want to see, and Sadia Hallie, a Young Civic Leader at Mass Vote, told those under 18 to encourage parents to vote on the issues important to them.

Mass Vote held a table for voter registration at the meeting.

James Mackey said the Boston community action team will reach out to presidential candidates to get their issues included in the campaigns leading up to presidential primaries.

Boston community action team

Boston’s OYU community action team is led by James Mackey of the Center for Teen Empowerment, and includes ten other organizations. The team was established by the National Council for Youth Leaders, which is organized by YouthBuild USA and several other organizations and serves as the coordinating council for OYU.

Currently YouthBuild and the Council are raising money to support one main organizer in each city to travel and work fulltime running the local community action team, Stoneman said.

Other cities — including Chicago, Phoenix, New Orleans, New York and Sacramento — have expressed interest in having their own community action teams, she said.

“What we do here will have a ripple effect on what will happen on other cities around our nation,” Mackey said. “So we can’t just be good, we have to be great.”