Learning from Our Young Leaders

Published dec. 17, 2012

We have so much to learn from young people who have overcome enormous adversity to become leaders and public servants in their communities. On Monday, I had the privilege of participating in a day of meetings between young adults who serve on the National Council of Young Leaders and leaders within the White House, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and several federal agencies.

The National Council of Young Leaders is a diverse body of young leaders from across the United States, in both urban and rural low-income communities, who advise policymakers and funders on issues affecting low-income youth and their communities. JFF is one of the sponsoring organizations for the council.

The young adults on the Council brought to federal agencies their policy recommendations, which they developed by respectful consensus through several intensive sessions. The recommendations seek to address the significant barriers that they faced in their own lives, and that millions of youth around the nation continue to face as they seek to re-engage in their communities and in education, work, and service. They include:

  • Expand effective comprehensive programs;
  • Expand national service;
  • Expand private internships;
  • Increase all forms of mentoring;
  • Protect and expand pathways to higher education; and
  • Reform the criminal justice system.

One recommendation, protecting and expanding pathways to higher education, particularly resonates with work that JFF has been undertaking with partners since so many of today’s good jobs require a postsecondary education. Under these circumstances our nation is having to rethink how we support students towards earning credentials valued by employers.

Research is bearing out that clear and supported pathways through postsecondary education and careers are critical components of community-wide efforts to improve outcomes for disconnected youth. Not only do young people need strong accelerated academics, supports, and mentors to help them catch up and succeed when they re-engage in school, training, and service; but they greatly benefit from structured pathways to support their educational journey to valued credentials as quickly as possible.

As one first-generation college-goer on the Council explained, it wasn’t until later in his youth, after facing significant challenges, that he realized just how important education is to success. By that point, he needed to be able to earn a living while quickly getting the credential he needed to further his career and studies. This is only possible when efficient pathways to and through higher education, with wraparound supports, are already in place and accessible to students. That same Council member—who reconnected and succeeded in a pathway to higher education—is now helping mentor other young people like himself, engaging them with the arts. His pathway to college not only reversed his own course, but now other youth facing challenges are benefitting from his success.

As the young leaders have pointed out, federal policy can support the expansion of these promising and effective Back on Track pathways in communities and states by dedicating resources to innovative pathways, and breaking down barriers to community collaboration and the blending of funding across federal systems to make these pathways possible. They also reminded officials that federal policy can help ensure that college is affordable for young people like themselves.

It’s not often that Washington gets a chance to listen directly to young people who have overcome such enormous challenges and who have given back so much in their own communities. And it’s rare that young leaders get the opportunity to learn from experts about the many facets of federal government affecting the lives of young people, all in one day. It’s these kinds of conversations that can help us cut through some of the gridlock in Washington to what matters in the lives of Americans and in the strength of our economy and communities. We should take some cues from today’s young leaders.