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“I am the leadership of the now.” That's what Ely Flores told the White House Council for Community Solutions (the Council) during our meeting in October 2011. Ely used this phrase to express his deep frustration with policymakers and organizations that refer to youth as the “leadership of the future” and dismiss any potential contribution that young people can make in their communities today. Ely's words still resonate with me nearly seven months later – and motivate me to push harder to help young people with similar frustrations.

How do we open up economic opportunity to every young adult in America? As a former high-tech entrepreneur, CEO, and philanthropist, I have tried to tackle challenges that were similarly daunting and seemingly intractable. I've found that the “path forward” is almost always the same – large scale social change requires an “all hands on deck” approach that is proactive, focused, and inclusive.

America's young people have always been a particular passion of mine. Maybe it's because I have three children or perhaps it's because I work with a staff of young professionals who keep me thinking young. In working with young people, I've come to hold one truth above all: the youth of America have the power to change the world if we give them the tools, the mentorship, and the opportunity to do it.

Communities have a long history of coming together to revitalize and transform their areas. From the settlement houses of the late 19th century to the 1960s War on Poverty, communities have been collaborating for centuries to improve their surroundings.

Throughout time, a community has often determined the success or failure of its members. A youth’s environment shapes the adult they will become, so it is critical that young people are surrounded by positive role models and caring adults in a nurturing community.

Last week, I joined a community conversation organized by the United Way of the Bay Area. It was one of five forums in my region, of more than 100 gatherings in 30 cities across the country this spring. These events are bringing together local leaders, youth, and citizens to map out a plan to help young people find paths to economic independence.

Growing up, I had dreams of what my future would look like. But reality taught me that achieving a dream and building a future is a learning process and can't be done alone.

Every day, researchers, policymakers, teachers, counselors, and business leaders continue to make the case for the importance of earning a high school diploma and obtaining some post-secondary study. For young adults who drop out of high school, their options and future earning potential become extremely limited. Sadly, 1-in-6 young adults are completely isolated from school and work – and are less likely to become the independent, productive citizens needed to help our nation grow.

There are people working every day at all levels – and across all sectors – to improve our communities and find lasting and sustainable solutions to expand opportunity for young people. We spoke with Judith Rodin, a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, who has shown a commitment throughout her professional career for community solutions that support and cultivate the next generation.

May is a time of graduations, fresh spring air and new beginnings. But for many, graduation from high
school or college is far from a reality, and opportunities for a fresh start are out of reach. At least one in
six young people ages 16-24 are disconnected from school and work – the two pathways that provide
the greatest hope for a bright and productive future. Yet, these young people dream of building careers
and making important contributions to our communities. That's why we see them as “Opportunity
Youth.”

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