My name is Torres Hughes and I am a 17-year-old senior at Austin Polytechnical Academy (APA). I know about new research showing that there are 6.7 million "disconnected youth" in the U.S. -- young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school and are not working. That might have been me -- but it isn't. Here's why.
Two experiences in particular changed my life: through my high school, I am an apprentice in the Beverage Industry Products and Profits program sponsored by Chicago's After School Matters. I am also the Youth Organizer for The Center for Labor and Community Research.
I was recently selected as one of 11 National Youth Ambassadors by the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) to work in underserved communities with individuals who have been disconnected from school and jobs and want to get back on track. We are working with our peers to create solutions and solve the biggest crisis facing our generation -- the lack of opportunity. My dream has been to rebuild communities across the country, and I am honored to be a Youth Ambassador.
With increasing news coverage of the slaughter of young African American men in America's streets, it seems our lives are under siege. Many, but not all, are held captive in a vicious cycle of poverty, miseducation, and incarceration. But despite these challenges, there are many who are rising above their circumstances and achieving greatness. I consider myself one of those individuals who is defying the odds.
I grew up with my 11 brothers and sisters in the Austin neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. I was raised primarily by my grandmother while living periodically with my father, and faced infrequent and troubling experiences with my mother.
By the time I entered Von Steuban Metropolitan High School, my unstable home life had caused me to fall a year behind. I transferred to APA at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school -- a school I credit for providing me with a career-focused engineering curriculum and real job exposure and skills. At APA, I made up lost academic ground and earned two nationally recognized credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.
Soon after, I joined After School Matters where I was introduced to meaningful relationships with adult mentors who kept me moving forward to success. I gained real-life exposure to manufacturing companies and career-related skills like learning how to start a business and make it thrive. APA surrounded me with supportive teachers and mentors -- something I'd never had at my other schools -- including the chance to shadow top business executives, presidents, and lawyers. I was in the right place, at the right time; and I've accomplished a lot since then.
In July of 2011, I spoke about the value of education and career programs at the American Federation of Teachers Conference in Washington, D.C. Then in October, I spoke at a bipartisan congressional briefing hosted by the National Manufacturing Renaissance Campaign in cooperation with U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Don Manzullo. My ambitions are to study engineering and law in college, and I am part of the John Marshall Law School Mock Trial Group at my school and former captain of the Debate Team.
All of the credit goes to the influence of my loving grandmother, JoAnn Hughes, and my great-grandmother, Edna Lambert, who both passed away at the end of 2010. They gave me the resilience to tell my story and the drive to succeed despite the challenges I faced. I want to make them proud. I am also thankful for my father, Torian Hughes, with whom I've lived for the past few years, and my other great-grandmother, Mable Willhite. My dad also motivated and encouraged me to stay in school and maintain top grades. My great-grandmother supported me in every aspect of my life. Most importantly, she instilled the belief in me that "FALURE IS NOT AN OPTION."
To the people who decide which programs most benefit young people like me, I give this advice: Listen to your children. Get involved with learning at their schools. Be a mentor for them and others as well. Set an example for the youth in your life. It is also important that the youth contribute to their education and be willing to learn.
You will find we youth are willing to learn and be part of the solution.
As a Youth Ambassador, I am working to promote solutions to the problems Opportunity Youth -- the over 6 million young adults who are not in school or on a job -- face every day. We are calling on youth (and adults) to share their big ideas for solutions that work. Visit SparkOpportunity.org to share your idea through the SparkOpportunity Challenge. If it's chosen, you'll win an iPad, a $1,500 startup grant, and support to turn your idea into a reality. Your ideas could give more young people pathways to success and change their future just as APA and After School Matters have changed mine.