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Engaging Disconnected Youth: A Relevant Perspective

by Jairus Cater

Ronald Martin, Robert Patterson, and Mark Martin stage sit-down strike after being refused service at an F.W. Woolworth luncheon counter, Greensboro, N.C. February 2, 1960. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection. ©Bettmann/CORBIS. Digital ID: ppmsca 08095Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-08095 Repository: Library of Congress

More than 50 years ago, a group of young African-American college students staged a sit-in to demand service at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, NC , and sparked a youth movement throughout the country. As the sit-ins spread, some young people were beaten and even arrested, but they were not deterred. As a result, they helped end racial segregation in America, and showed the world how youth determination and leadership can make a difference.

I believe I witnessed the beginning of the country's next youth movement at the White House Youth Summit on Community Solutions for Disconnected Youth on June 4.At the summit, I heard innovative solutions for the nation's 6.7 million opportunity youth who are neither in school nor part of the workforce.

Despite this frightening statistic, young people remain optimistic about their future -- 73 percent are very confident and hopeful about achieving their goals. To help them succeed, youth are looking for three key things: leadership roles, mentors, and jobs.

By Youth, For Youth

Youth want to improve their communities. Often well-meaning adults create a vision without including us in the process. This leaves us feeling neglected and resentful because we are expected to take whatever the outcome may be, even if we had no input in its creation.

Efforts to influence youth behavior seem to be too heavily focused on prevention instead of involvement and leadership. We have firsthand knowledge of the issues that cause our friends to drop out of high school. This is why it is so important to engage us in the decision making process. We are the best resource available to help solve the problems that our peers face every day.

(Role) Model Citizens

Youth need examples they can follow. Almost 80 percent of opportunity youth want to connect with mentors to whom they can relate, such as local business leaders, successful peers, and college mentors. We need everyone “all in for youth.”

“All the solutions don't come from the programs themselves, they really come from all of the support systems, and we need everybody on board. We need parents, we need friends, we need the entire community,” said Maurice Miller, who attended the summit as a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions.

On-Ramps to Employment

Youth want to work. In the summer of 2011, the unemployment rate for people age 16-24 was more than 18 percent, twice the nation's overall rate. We don't want to sit at home and tweet all day; we want jobs and the chance to put money in our pockets. Our country needs more internships and part-time jobs for youth so we can gain work experience and develop the necessary skills to be successful in our future careers.

My favorite part of the summit was participating on the youth panel, Engaging Youth in the Solutions. I was inspired to be surrounded by young people, just like me, who are making change happen in their communities. I had fun sharing my story and learned a lot about the great work other youth are doing, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to attend the White House summit. It assured me that the best is yet to come!

Jairus Cater of Nashville, TN, is a student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is a Youth Leadership Institute Ambassador. Jairus served as co-chair of the Mayor of Nashville's Child and Youth Master Plan, a living document that offers strategies to make Nashville the best city possible for its youth, and co-organized the city's Keeping Our Youth march against youth violence.

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