The nation we've made: On mobility for young people

Young people do not have a feasible pathway to economic mobility that is accessible or equitable. Breannah Alexander, of Partners for a Racism-Free Community and Opportunity Nation, explains why this matters, and what can be done to bring about the change that is needed.
This article is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. This week's post comes from Breannah Alexander, who lives in Grand Rapids and is working as the Director of Strategic Programs at Partners for a Racism-Free Community. When she is not designing programs that get people talking, she is fiercely advocating for and elevating the narratives of women and girls through women reVamped. She is also co-chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids board and a leader with Opportunity Nation, a national campaign to increase economic mobility for young people in the United States.

Five years ago a conversation began in Harlem about how and why young people had become disconnected from civic engagement and economic mobility. This meeting of minds from across all 50 states had one purpose – to launch a campaign, known as Opportunity Nation, aimed at increasing economic mobility for young people in the United States. What compelled me to join this national movement was my interest in empowering young people and creating sustainable streams of prosperity for a group that, at the time, I felt a part of, and felt was woefully underserved. Five years later, my perspective has broadened, but the issue still remains: young people do not have a feasible pathway to economic mobility that is accessible or equitable. Let me discuss this further.

In 2012 I came out of college and completed a year of AmeriCorps service, a year that would change my life. I served in an AmeriCorps state program called the Mentor Michigan College Coaching Corps. Our charge was simple in theory; we created mentoring relationships that stimulated primary and secondary success while encouraging post secondary educational pursuits. The youth we worked with varied in ethnic background but, generally speaking, most of our students had access to limited resources.

One situation in particular that has remained with me was a high school sophomore who had dreams of one day attending the University of Michigan. She didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she knew she loved to learn and wanted to be a Wolverine. She attended weekend workshops that the Grand Rapids-based organization I was placed at facilitated. Her attendance ended abruptly. After a few absences she came to see me. She came into the office at 11am during what was an active school day. She was coming from a doctor’s appointment. She had taken the bus from the doctor to our office so she could talk to me about her change in circumstances. Her parents did not want her to participate in the program any longer; they told her college was not an option because she needed to focus on getting a job. I offered to talk to her parents about the program, but she declined and mentioned that it was not something she wanted to press further. After our conversation I offered to take her to school since taking the bus would have meant she would have missed the entire school day. As I walked out of the office with her, I asked her if she was hungry. She reluctantly said yes, noting that she had not eaten the entire day. It was 1pm.

How does one address economic opportunity for young people without offering assistance to the parents who are struggling to make ends meet? I didn’t have to ask why her parents were opposed to her focusing on going to college. I understood the financial strain of that journey, and I had never been in a situation where I was concerned about where my next meal would come from. I know all too well the crippling debt education causes, so I can only imagine the immense hesitation of a parent teaching their child how to survive with minimal resources when the subject of college comes up.

That was four years ago.

Very little has changed since then in a post secondary world where private companies can profit from an individual’s desire to receive an education. Our social assistance programs still vilify those in economic distress while re-victimizing children through school-based truancy policies (just to name one) that punish young people for circumstances that are often beyond their control. My student, no doubt, was punished for the time she missed in school. She was punished for attempting to navigate a space that gives her no safety nets and prevents her from fully accessing the opportunities that are meant to improve her long-term economic outcomes.

If we look at mobility and opportunity for young people and the programs that are theoretically created to improve that space, we still fall short. For example, one might say that AmeriCorps is a great opportunity for a young person looking for opportunities to explore a career while also serving their community. However, this only holds true if you are positioned to serve. As a member I can speak to the financial burdens absorbed by family to ensure I could serve; not everyone has that option. As a former Program Director of an AmeriCorps program, I can speak to the struggles of financially distressed members desiring to continue serving while having limited access to resources limiting their ability to finish their service successfully or even participate in the first place – our offer to a member to join the program often came with the long disclaimer of what the stipend meant and the limitations it presented. This is not a pathway for someone who cannot afford it.

Now, fast forward to those in the workplace – think specifically about millennials entering the workforce. What does economic mobility look like? What does upward mobility mean? A few weeks ago WGVU Public Media addressed this very subject, specifically looking at the challenges facing millennials of color in the workplace and reasons retention is an issue. In that broadcast, challenges with an increasingly expensive housing market were discussed – an issue that I can personally identify with. Additionally, the ever-present burden of crippling student loan debt was also a barrier covered during the broadcast and how that affects the trajectory of millennials looking to make entrepreneurial investments or risky career moves. In an article published by Forbes, it was noted that 57 percent of millennials, when asked about their college debt, would have taken out far less or not attended college at all had they been fully aware of the long-term financial distress that lied ahead. The need for financial education is evident, but the glaring truth behind the numbers also highlights the marginal return on investment felt by a populace where, specifically in Greater Grand Rapids, the median household income (this accounts for multiple earners in a single housing unit) is $48,360 a year – down from $50,732 in 2011. This number is even more striking when you consider that the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.9 percent in 2011 to 3.3 percent in 2015, making underemployment and/or low wage jobs an additional challenge to address.

So why does economic mobility for young people matter so much? It’s quite simple: young people will be responsible for driving the future of the economy. We cannot expect innovative solutions if we are not making proper investments in developing and cultivating talent – our educational investments (and, in Michigan, lack thereof) matter. We cannot expect to build pathways to careers using means that exploit and exclude – career mobility should not be a self-sacrificing gamble for those who cannot afford to take financial risks. Lastly, we cannot ignore the significance of the whole family (and communities at large) when crafting solutions that end generationally inherited cycles of poverty – access to clean water, fresh food and transportation matters. It always has.

However, the ability to make sustainable change is in our grasp. We have the incredibly innovative changes happening within public schools like Grand Rapids, where young people are being exposed to more career possibilities at younger ages and being given access to experiential learning opportunities that we know shape their long-term educational successes. Nationally, we see the significance of access to financial education being facilitated by organizations like Moneythink in ensuring young people are taught concepts that impact their lifelong financial health. Locally, we see activists mobilizing around pieces affecting health outcomes (like lead poisoning in homes and clean water), community members engaging in dialogues on racial disparities and local leaders elevating the voices of those most affected by policies and development practices that displace – because all of this affects the ability of a young person to achieve economic success and continue to move down a path that they have the tools to chart for themselves.

That is what creating economic mobility for young people comes down to: equipping them with the knowledge and the tools, giving them access to the means, and openly revealing, and giving them agency in developing, the formula for success that drives how they make a life. As best said by a seasoned professional I admire, “we need to teach kids how to live a life,” and that subsequently means eliminating the barriers that prevent them from living at all.

Become a part of the national conversation on economic mobility for young people happening at the 2016 National Opportunity Summit on September 10 in New York City by following @OppNation on Twitter and using the hashtags #theNationWeMake and #OppSummit.
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