In most of the United States, autumn is here. Our Midwestern and New England friends will soon struggle to free their cars from under the first snow fall while at the same time, Phoenicians are relishing in the sun with highs in the 60’s. It is our time to go outside and hike mountains, visit parks, and maybe drive up to Flagstaff to view the changing leaves. As Phoenicians, the distance in geography makes the dramatic shift in weather experienced by most of the country seem like an abstract reality.
Many of us serve opportunity youth in ways that do not provide many occasions to work with them directly. With our day-to-day operations, our back to back meetings, and ongoing discussions and brainstorming sessions, it can become easy to see the opportunity youth population just as remote and removed as the weather.
The danger of viewing opportunity youth abstractly through the lens of spreadsheets, reports, and even through the feedback received from our counterparts who work in direct service risks repeating practices that contributed to Phoenix’s high opportunity youth population.
Remember that just four years ago, the Phoenix Metro area was experiencing the after effects of the Great Recession. Our housing market was one of the worst hit in the country. Our construction industry, which just a few years before was one of our biggest economic engines, had buckled. Our communities were hurting and families were tightening budgets. Arizona, already among the lowest in per pupil spending, carried out some of the steepest cuts to public education of any state in the US.
The Great Recession had devastating effects and did not discriminate on who it affected. Everyone was hurt by it, especially some of our most vulnerable populations most removed from the policy and decision makers: our children, our poor, our immigrant families, and people of color.
In 2012, Measure of America and the Arizona Republic revealed to us the startling reality that resulted as a consequence of the contrast between our experiences and that of many of youth--the Phoenix metro took first place in having the highest rate of opportunity youth in the country. Our focus on economic survival led to an entire generation pushed into the shadows, and becoming abstract like our view of autumn with nearly 1 in 5 of our 16 to 24 year old population in Maricopa County being disconnected from school AND work.
However, the Great Recession has ended. And by many measures, our country and the Phoenix metro area has recovered. The number of opportunity youth has declined as more companies are willing to hire, social services are once more being funded, and our schools are enabled to focus on dropout recovery efforts.
With the end of the Great Recession, our community has joined hands to pursue a collective solution to bringing continued hope to our valley.
In 2013, we organized with the intent to learn from recent history and change the system to work better for our youth who became invisible during the recession—we created the formation of the Opportunities for Youth initiative.
OFY has made great strides to ensure opportunity youth can return to school and work. Our partners have collaborated to host targeted opportunity youth job and resource fairs. We have created standards for reengagement centers that will serve to unite and network youth serving organizations and provide better accessibility to youth seeking to reconnect. Our business partnerships are expanding and supporting our collective efforts to develop education to career pipelines for opportunity youth.
Through all these good things we are doing, it is important that we remember that opportunity youth, though elusive and in the shadows of society at times, are as real as that concept of autumn. Maybe we, ourselves, do not have contact with these youth every day, and maybe the only professional experience we have with these youth come through statistics, articles, and feedback from partners that are in direct service. There is nothing wrong with this. The analysts, administrators, and policy makers play a vital and meaningful role in this initiative. To that end, no matter how close or far removed we are from direct contact with opportunity youth, we must remember this one thing—their needs are as real as autumn.