Healing Our Communities Through Addressing 'Opportunity Youth'

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America is better than this.

The division and intolerance. The violence and pain. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas are only the latest in a long, long list of cities struck by tragedy.

Over the past two years, through the power and prism of social media, we've seen firsthand the breakdown of trust and communication between law enforcement and the communities they are called upon to protect and serve. A growing list of African American men have been killed by law enforcement - and we've seen the tragic and inexcusable death of police officers in direct response.

While many are focused on understanding how we got here, it's equally important to focus on a constructive path forward. I don't have the solution to reconcile the anger, the loss, the injustices, and the bias, but I do believe that offering boys and young men of color the safety, respect, and life opportunities they deserve can reverse some of the challenges they disproportionately experience.

To reset a course with boys and men of color, we can start by creating and strengthening opportunities that help them succeed at every stage of their lives. Key to this is nurturing young people, ages 16-24, who are neither employed nor in school - many now refer to them as "Opportunity Youth", given that they represent a sizeable opportunity for America. In the U.S. today, there are more than 5.5 million Opportunity Youth, and many of them live in communities of color. The potential, both for Opportunity Youth and for American businesses, is huge. The private sector recognizes a growing talent gap and an increased need for skilled employees. At the same time, only 20% of African American, Asian, and Hispanic teens are currently able to find jobs. In 2020, 123 million high-skill and high-wage jobs will be available, but only 50 million workers will be qualified to fill them.

The extent of the risk, if we don't find a solution for our Opportunity Youth, equals the magnitude of opportunity. Boys and men of color face joblessness rates higher than anything we've seen since the Great Depression. Many studies have indicated connections between joblessness and violence, noting the dramatic reductions in violence that can result from employment. Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found that even a summer job program for disadvantaged high-school youth reduced violent-crime arrests by 43 percent over 16 months.

Creating a future of hope for Opportunity Youth is the issue of our time. An adequate and sustainable solution can only come from the private sector, working closely with local government, non-profits, and community groups. It is this powerful demand side of the equation that we must activate, helping companies see a business case, not just a social case, for employing Opportunity Youth. This case does exist: many companies have found that Opportunity Youth are some of the best employees they have ever hired. Opportunity Youth see a job not as a transaction, but as a life-changing event, and they perform accordingly.

We are heartened at the strong support from the private sector for the upcoming "Career Summit" we are holding in Oakland on Thursday, July 21, which will convene companies, community organizations, non-profits, and local government to interview and hopefully hire hundreds of Opportunity Youth. Companies at the summit including Sprint Corporation, FedEx, Snapchat, and Starbucks will be looking - not for CSR solutions - but for future leaders. At the same time, they will be helping to carve a path for boys and young men, giving our society a fighting chance at diffusing some of the conditions that have led to violence and poverty.

Blair Taylor is CEO of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance. He previously served as Chief Community Officer and President of the Starbucks Foundation and EVP of Partner (Human) Resources. Prior to his tenure at Starbucks, he was President and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League.

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