'If You Think You Know Who We Are, Take a Closer Look'
By Jenice R. Robinson
Angel Armando Perez of Hartford, Conn., says he began skipping school because he could earn up to $300 a week bagging groceries, a relatively small amount but a sum that can mean a lot for a young person living in a low-income household with finite resources.
To stereotype him or make assumptions about his life may be expedient, but it wouldn't accurately represent who he is and what he wants for his life. In Their Own Words, a short video produced by CLASP senior policy analyst Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt in partnership with Forwardever Media, profiles Perez and three other young men of color who grew up in distressed communities and faced obstacles to completing high school. The video attempts to dispel pernicious stereotypes about young men of color and demonstrate that not only do these young men want to finish school and access employment, but they can succeed when given the opportunity.
As the video's young, male narrator says, "If you think you know who we are, take a closer look." Each young man tells a different story that illustrates his challenges and triumphs.
Antonio Howe of Baltimore, Md., says he began skipping school during his junior year because of a confluence of tragic events at home, including a home invasion in which his uncle was killed and his mother shot four times. Donnell Chapman, also of Baltimore, Md., was expelled because the school determined he was in a brawl with a number of other students. And Kendrick Campbell of Eudora, Ark., finished high school but had to drop out of college to work when he found out he was going to be a father at age 17.
While their stories are diverse, what they all have in common is the desire to make the most of their lives. With the help of a local Youth Opportunity program, each earned a high school diploma, GED or received employment training.
The Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration funded Youth Opportunity from 2000 to 2005. The program gave grants to organizations in impoverished communities to "establish broad partnerships and Youth Opportunity Community Centers through which young people between the ages of 14 and 21 can gain access to a wide range of employment, training, educational, and supportive services," according to DOL. The program aimed to transform distressed neighborhoods. An evaluation of the program released in late 2008 showed that when such programs receive adequate resources to build community capacity to serve youth, labor force participation and educational outcomes improve. Although there is no longer federal money for these programs, some communities continue to fund them.
Such programs have a critical role to play in ensuring young people in distressed communities have access to opportunity and can fulfill their potential. Public policy discourse often focuses on preventing young people from dropping out in the first place and increasing high school graduation rates. But there should also be an equal focus on what to do with the thousands of young people who drop out every single year. When we fail to connect them to mainstream education, employment and economic opportunity, they face a future in which they are more likely to be unemployed and poor, more likely to have children who grow up poor, and more likely to suffer a host of other negative outcomes.
When more people are educated and have the capacity to contribute to the nation's economic engine, it benefits society. More importantly, young people in distressed communities need supports and opportunity because they want to finish school.
Antonio Howe, 22, and Donnell Chapman, 19, recently completed their GEDs. They are alumni of YO! Baltimore and are now enrolled in Baltimore City Community College. Howe, when speaking of his experience, talks about his relationship with his case manager in the Youth Opportunity program as, "Something I never had before."
Angel Armando Perez, now 24, finished school and is a youth development specialist at Our Piece of the Pie, the same program that provided him with the support he needed to persist and complete high school. Kendrick Campbell, now 30, is a married father of three, a licensed bus driver and also owns a barbershop. He received training for this employment through Phoenix Youth & Family Services, another Youth Opportunity program.
"In Their Own Words" is accompanied by a report (to be released in December 2010) that highlights the findings from the nearly 200 once-disconnected youth (young men and women) surveyed across the country who participated in Youth Opportunity.