The swift economic contraction of 2008 has quickly thrown millions into the ranks of the unemployed. But even before the downturn started, roughly 5 million young Americans aged 16 -24 already were enduring a life out of school, out of work - and largely out of luck.
With the economy turning for the worse, you would expect minority youth, living in cities with already appallingly high drop out rates, and facing bleak job prospects, to be particularly without hope. But visiting YouthBuild Philadelphia's school and work program recently, I found instead an oasis of determination positively focused on the future.
There, on an upper floor of a formerly industrial building on Philadelphia's North side, a meeting room was jammed with 90 young men and women who as recently as September had been among this dead end generation, disconnected from school and work. As part of YouthBuild Philadelphia's year long routine of 6 weeks of classroom education alternating with a 6 week construction on-the-job training session, these students had gathered with a dozen teachers and staff to give "shout outs" to acknowledge each other's accomplishments.
One teacher asked a young man to stand up, then told how he had made her weekend when, on a recent class visit to a museum, he had told other students that he loved going to the exhibits "just for the knowledge." A student rose and thanked a teacher whose literature class "made me appreciate the tenacity of my culture, and that my power is not physical power but the power of my ideas." Students clapped and cheered, playfully chiding him for "showing off his SAT words."
Afterwards 10 students, an even mix of young men and women, joined the board meeting of YouthBuild USA (full disclosure: I am on YouthBuild USA's Board.) One 19 year old kicked off conversation by expressing a view typical of the group. "I made it to the 10th grade in public school, but they didn't care what I did, so I never did any work. I was afraid of math, but here I've learned I can do it -- now I am a math athlete."
"We've got no metal detectors here," he explained. "When teachers don't treat you like a criminal, so you don't act like one."
Another young person picks up: "I was out on the streets after I dropped out. If I wasn't here, I would be out there selling drugs, or robbing someone - but I am choosing to be here. I don't call this a school - I call it a family." A 2006 graduate of the program now working at YouthBuild Philadelphia tells the adults in the room - and the students: "Its about transformation. Here, it's a safe haven; you know that whatever you are going through, there is someone to talk to who actually cares."
The talk turns to what future lies ahead, halfway through the program year. Someone has mentioned getting help with SAT preparation, and the group is asked how many are planning to go to college. Nine out of 10 hands fly up. Students talk of specific schools they already have in mind, tossing out names like Drexel, Temple and even Princeton.
Antoine Bennett, a 1996 graduate of another YouthBuild program and now a YouthBuild USA Board member, advises," Don't just say you are planning to go to college, say you are going to graduate. When you say it out loud, it becomes a reality."
Creating that reality, of course, requires a little help from other quarters. Many of the 215 enrollees in YouthBuild Philadelphia, like the over 7,000 other poor young Americans who will become graduates of 226 YouthBuild programs around the country later this year, will want or need to move into the workforce after graduation.
Congress will soon be taking up a stimulus plan and any number of related publicly funded construction projects. Emphasizing the benefits of "green" jobs as part of the rationale for such proposals has become almost cliché, but is long overdue. My own proposal for greening American's nearly 5 million units of federally funded affordable housing was released by the Center for American Progress recently,
Jobs touted as green come in a wide range of categories, from semi-skilled basic insulation and weatherization work to highly skilled technicians installing alternative energy systems. If all the emphasis for funding priorities goes to speeding construction projects out the door, we run the risk that those who have never been in the construction workforce are most likely to be left behind again.
Yet the young adults I met in Philadelphia, who now see the promise of a future where just a few months ago they were at high risk for crime, prison, gang life or worse, need a place at the table as well. They graduate ready for it: the vast majority of YouthBuild programs nationally teach green construction skills during the program year.
On the verge of reinvesting in America's crumbling infrastructure, we can also reinvest in America's other all too often ignored asset - disconnected youth yearning to turn around their lives.
David M. Abromowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, www.americanprogress.org, and a partner in the law firm Goulston & Storrs, www.goulstonstorrs.com.