12/15/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

The $5 Trillion Opportunity: Why I'm Joining YouthBuild

Americans of all backgrounds are troubled by the events in Ferguson, the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice, the killing of Eric Garner. These events are tragedies in and of themselves. But they also point to deep divisions in America, a vast gulf between the experience of America by many as a land of boundless opportunity, yet by many others as a place where one's zip code and skin color unfairly limit one's opportunities.

But realizing something is wrong is not enough. We have to both see a path to fixing the problems, and find the will to do so. I believe these are both possible and essential, now more than ever.

Not long ago, in a nondescript building in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I was able to see a $5 trillion opportunity for America. I saw it in the faces of half a dozen young people whom society had given up on, but who hadn't given up on themselves.

Instead, each of these previously disconnected 16 to 24-year-olds had walked through the door of the Sasha Bruce YouthBuild program and -- when adults there treated them with respect and love, and invested time in educating them -- these young people began redirecting their destiny.

Take Charmia. At 14, a teen mother. At 16, in and out of school, and homeless. By 19, an unemployed, directionless, single mother of three who fit the stereotypes of poor young men and women of color that many of us so easily accept.

Yet Charmia -- who freely admits that she wasted six years of her life -- didn't give up on herself. Instead, a few years ago, she was one of nearly 350 young people "disconnected" in every way who showed up at Sasha Bruce's building hoping for one of the just 26 program slots available.

Today she is a graduate, employed, raising her children, and thinking about college -- a future unimaginable just a short while ago. No one can tell Charmia's story better than she can, so her classmates and teachers at Sasha Bruce made a video to share it.

Charmia credits her transformation to the approach of YouthBuild, where low-income young people spend a year working to get their GEDs or high school diplomas and get trained in construction skills while building affordable housing in their own communities. Tremendous emphasis is placed on leadership development, community service, and the creation of a positive mini-community of adults and youth committed to each other's success.

Now, 35 years after the first YouthBuild was founded in East Harlem, there are 264 such programs around the country offering hope in some of the country's poorest rural and urban communities.

For an upfront cost equivalent to a year in any urban high school system plus a modest stipend paid for real work building affordable housing in the community, a life is changed. Moreover, society avoids wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on criminal justice costs, and reduces welfare and food stamp support, lost earning, taxes not paid, and the many other economic liabilities of letting young lives go to waste.

A 2012 study commissioned by the White House Council for Community Service demonstrates that this transformation from dropout to achiever is massively cost effective. Taxpayers are likely to save over $236,000 in direct costs, and when indirect costs are added the savings is as much as $704,000 in combined social costs, over the lifetime of each of the roughly 3.6 million young people who are poor, out of school and out of the workforce, who could be redirected by programs like YouthBuild. America has the opportunity to capture trillions of dollars in taxpayer savings and economic boosts if we just see these young people as the opportunity they really are.

And Charmia is hardly unique. Each year, 10,000 young people from equally challenged backgrounds are enrolled in YouthBuild programs around the country, with consistently positive results that defy conventional expectations.

We know, for example, that for the 30 percent of YouthBuild enrollees who have been court-involved and complete a program year, recidivism drops from over 50 percent to under 20 percent. Even in today's challenging job and educational markets, over 60 percent of enrollees exit their program and land a job or go on to college.

Only resources and capacity limit YouthBuild and other programs like it that from enrolling the hundreds of thousands of young people who have the desire to learn, build and lead. Yet YouthBuild programs around the country are forced to turn away 4 and 5 times the young people for every one they can afford to help. Where would Charmia be today had she not been lucky enough to get one of the few slots at Sasha Bruce YouthBuild? Where would her children be?

We have the knowledge of what works, the experience of how to replicate it, and the data to show that a modest investment today will yield large returns in both the short and long term. We cannot continue to let public officials at every level talk constantly of looking for ways to save money, reduce crime and violence, and bring our unemployment rates down, yet fail to invest in YouthBuild and programs like it that really would deliver results.

All this has led me to make a personal course change. After 31 years as a private sector business attorney, and a dozen years helping as a YouthBuild USA Board member, my opportunity has arrived: In a few weeks I will join YouthBuild USA as its Chief Public Policy Officer.

As YouthBuild founder and CEO Dorothy Stoneman recently wrote, reflecting on recent events: "In the YouthBuild community we believe in proposing solutions, not only protesting wrongs. We believe in drawing out and implementing the solutions proposed by people who have experienced the realities we are trying to change. We believe in dialogue and persuasion to win over people who are unfamiliar with our realities."

We need your help too.