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The Leadership of the Now

by Wendy Spencer

“I am the leadership of the now.” That's what Ely Flores told the White House Council for Community Solutions 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.

Youth Need to be Part of the Conversation

Young people want to be – and must be a part of the discussion. Their voices must be heard. Despite the barriers that keep many young people out of school and work, these youth do not see themselves as “disconnected.” Rather, they have energy and aspirations and are eager to work hand-in-hand with local leaders to develop solutions that improve their lives, benefit their communities, and help their peers nationwide. That's why the Council sees them as opportunity youth – because of the untapped potential they offer.

The data show that opportunity youth are also optimistic that they can find a path to economic independence with some help. They are actively looking for full-time jobs (54 percent), confident they can achieve their goals (73 percent), and accept responsibility for their future (77 percent) – but also say they need flexible supports that meet them where they are.

Opportunity Youth Are Ready to Lead

As Ely's sentiments illustrate, it is critical that we approach our young people from a positive place – with a belief in the energy they can provide now and in the future. Connecting them with training and employment today can immediately change the trajectory of their lives.

As a nation, we have an opportunity to close the skills gap and show our commitment to ensuring that youth have the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

Everyone Has a Role to Play

The Council's work is rooted in a simple truth: the solutions to our most difficult national challenges live in our communities. And to create opportunity for young people, we don't need to look any further than our neighbors.

From business to government, nonprofits to families—everyone, across all sectors, can help opportunity youth find paths to training, support, and jobs.

At Goodwill Industries International, we take the responsibility of providing opportunities to youth very seriously. We see and invest in the potential of young people. We have a summer internship program for youth pursuing their bachelors or MBA. We also have GoodGuides® -- a national mentoring program for youth who are at risk of dropping out --builds career plans and skills, and prepares youth for school completion, post-secondary training, and productive work.

I firmly believe that we all need a caring adult in our lives; to know that someone is rooting for us and invested in our success. It is easy for some of us to take a listening ear and sound advice for granted—but many do not have such supports.

Turning Opportunity Into Action

The Council has been working to change the paradigm when it comes to supporting young people. We are not working to create new models, we're focused on helping local leaders scale and replicate what's already working – the cross-community models that share the commonalities of “needle-moving” collaboratives. These are communities where every sector has come together to understand one another's needs and perspectives – and put an action plan in place.

By listening to and learning from one another, our communities can find common ground in a shared positive vision and work toward creating opportunities in the now.

I look forward to joining my fellow Council members at the White House to discuss our final report and recommendations to create these critical opportunities. The momentum and resources are there. Now is the time to go all in for opportunity youth.

Jim Gibbons currently serves as the President and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. He has received several awards for his work, including the 2010 National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged and the 2009 Young Presidents' Organization Social Enterprise Leadership Award.

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