I was born in Oakland, California, a city with a rich history of both beauty and violence. Young people are often used as scapegoats for the crime-ridden parts of Oakland, while their potential goes unnoticed. Here, to the naked eye, a young man is only a hoodlum in a black hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers. He is a miscreant, unwilling to do his part to become an effective member of society. Who are these young men who decorate corners, breaking glass to match their broken spirits? They are the Opportunity Divide manifested in human beings.
What social elements created such a large group of talented young people who are so far from attaining the vision that they see for their lives? To me we are divided by the absence of three things: Empathy, Expectation, and Excellence.
In Oakland 2011, the murder rate rose for the first time in four years, the last three murders of the year being children under the age of five. This is a statistic, turned expectation that if left unattended, will become a scarier "E" word: epidemic. A lot of people expect Oakland to be violent, its inhabitants taking on its character. No one wants their city to have this reputation or to have the expectation of aggression tied to them because of their origins. It takes a certain awareness to be able to empathize with this. Subtly, armed with the tools of professionalism, young people refuse to leave this statistic unattended.
Year Up is a program that understands the social elements that create an environment for potential to be stifled and suffocated. Instead of giving young people a handout, Year Up asks us if we are willing to expect more out of our lives and helps us transform that expectation into excellence. The expectation of punctuality is transformed into the ability to be consistent. The expectation of professional language is transformed into the ability to speak and write eloquently. All that was needed was space and opportunity to allow our light to emerge from the dark places where we are told we aren't enough and never will be.
My experience has been one where I was told that I was extremely gifted by teachers and counselors, but never offered advanced courses in high school. I had to seek them out. In college, I thrived academically and struggled financially, eventually having to drop out. I've always read voraciously, navigating the world as a student for life, but the doors to a bright future were always guarded by a looming figure of rejection that held me behind a red rope or red tape, depending on how you look at it. It may have been simple institutional bureaucracy or lack of expectation for a young, intelligent person from an urban background to thrive among students with different experiences. Either way, I could never get my name on the exclusive, four-year college guest list. I tried Year Up. It has worked for me. I've been able to sharpen my skills, earn an amazing internship at Salesforce.com, and prove that I can thrive in what Forbes called "the world's most innovative company." Me. Dominique. From Oakland.
Now ask yourself: what social element is created when such a large group of talented young people return to their neighborhoods, changed? That is an epidemic that I can stand behind.