Baltimore’s Kids are Our Kids: A Message from the President & CEO

When I saw young men and women looting and burning their own neighborhood in Baltimore last month, the consequences of doing nothing to improve youth and young adult unemployment across our nation became abundantly clear. Seeing mother Toya Graham, in a moment steeped in desperation and raw love, grab her son and force him home, put me in a familiar place of concern. I know her worry. I’ve had it many times, for my own, now-grown sons and daughter. I’ve worried even for other family members and friends, just because they are black or brown. But, I worry most for those so stuck in a cycle of poverty, that they see violence as the only viable recourse. To me, it says less about the rioters and more about the environment that inspired their behavior.

The disconnection between youth and opportunity is greater than ever, and we are seeing the results of the gap. Not since World War II have so many youth been neither in school or working according to a 2012 report on youth and work from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2011, unemployment of young adults ages 16-to-19-years old and 20-to-24 years old in Ohio was 33% and 66% respectively. Limited education and job skills lead to fewer employment opportunities and the prospects for those in low-income and high poverty communities are 2.5- 3 times lower than youth in high-income families. These are the numbers, but what we saw in Baltimore could be the result.

Baltimore’s kids are our kids. That pent up anger, angst, and audacity to hope for something better even when doing the worst, exists right here in central Ohio. It may not have reached the tipping point, but it does exist. What we also have is a collaborative of leaders with the power to do something about it. We have a challenge. And, when I say “we,” I mean all of us. Not just workforce professionals, but local and state government, youth serving agencies, school officials, teachers, parents, employers, and yes, even our youth. It is not enough to talk about the problems, to sit back and shake our heads at the jobs our young people don’t have, the education and training they haven’t achieved, the contributions they are unlikely to make, and the riots that they have been or could be marked with starting. Our young people want to know what we are going to help them do about it.

We must urge Congress to continue funding summer jobs, year-round jobs, and job training programs aimed specifically at our youth. Cuts in youth workforce funding will impact more than the youth and young adults. Eventually, it will hurt us all. We must make sure the efforts are specific and meet our young people’s unique needs, and we must include the supportive and wraparound services that are essential to their success. Secondly, we must implement and encourage a work-first model, where education is tied to careers and multiple paths to success are acknowledged and encouraged. Work is going to be how our youth and young adults start to inch their way out of poverty. Work is where they will have a chance to develop the supporting relationships they may be missing at home.
Work will be the difference between them growing up in and continuing a cycle of poverty or growing out of one.

No matter what people think of Graham’s methods, the reality is that there are lengths to which we all must be willing to go, if we are to tackle what was really at work that day in Baltimore and what is still at work right here in central Ohio. We have the will and ideas, the youth serving agencies, and local government support. We are even having the community conversations, but the time has come for action. It is now more than ever my goal and should be our collective goal to stay on mission and be a beacon of hope and opportunity. Like the star fish story, even if we just save one.

Read more stories in our 2015 Spring Newsletter