By Tara Kenchen
President & CEO, N.C. Community Development Initiative
August 31, 2015 – A powerful article in the Raleigh News and Observer highlighted one of the great contradictions of the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina. It pointed out that while the Triangle is among the wealthiest regions in the state and has a tremendous reputation for its quality of life and booming economy, that prosperity is not widely shared.
For poor children, life in the Triangle is very different than for their wealthier peers. As a result of persistent disinvestment and bad public policy choices, these children not only face extraordinarily harsh conditions in their daily lives, the chance that they will ever escape poverty is very small.
This combination of high rates of childhood poverty and low rates of social mobility are common nationally. Currently, the poverty rate for children in the United States is 22 percent. More than one in five American children are poor, and the rate is far higher for children of color.
As bad as this is, it would be less shameful if these children had a real chance to move up to the middle class through a combination of education and employment. The reality, though, is that the United States has one of the lowest rates of social mobility of any modern, industrialized country. As a result, the promise of equal opportunity is rarely fulfilled for poor children.
It is time for all of us to do a better job of helping the next generation get the tools they need to begin shaping a more positive future for themselves. The Initiative’s Youth Leadership Program is one important way in which we are working to help support this youth-led change.
Earlier this month, the Initiative hosted a graduation ceremony for the 2015 Youth Leadership Program. As I reflect on that ceremony and the summer’s work that led up to it, I am keenly aware of just how vital and necessary the training and preparation of young leaders is. We need new vision, energy and leadership to drive the community economic development industry forward. It is only through such leadership that we can begin to have a transformative effect on underserved communities the biggest challenges they face, such as persistent childhood poverty and the lack of social mobility in our society.
Through our program, 26 young people got firsthand experience with the challenges faced by community developers. For some, it was a time to get down in the trenches to help improve conditions and create opportunities for their neighbors. For others, veils were lifted as they were exposed to the talents and resources of those who “make the magic happen” by giving voice to citizens typically unheard by mainstream America.
During the final ceremony, graduate after graduate talked about how much they had learned through the program and, in particular, how it highlighted the importance of service to their community. They talked about how they became connected to the story of each person they met, and they spoke of the passion they developed for serving once they realized that there are those people in the world who are not seen and not heard simply because they’re poor, uneducated and underexposed to the broader world.
Based in part on what they saw, did and learned this summer, I know that, as they mature, these bright, ambitious youth will bring something unique and important to their work as future community leaders. They will bring their technological savvy, their creativity, their wit and their innovative genius. They have a global awareness. They are wise beyond their youthful years, and they are curious, willing and courageous when it comes to discovering and finding solutions for the critical problems that plague their communities. These character traits will lead to new possibilities for the community economic development industry.
As the community leaders of today, we are obligated to explore everything presented by our young leaders. Established best practices of the industry coupled with innovation and energy can synergize and produce a cutting-edge combination that will remove economic barriers, create transformational movements, demand dramatic policy changes and lead to diverse, sustainable and inclusive communities. It would be a real lost opportunity if we didn’t take every chance to bring these new faces to our tables.
This work can also help change the story for young people in the state more broadly. Many of the youth leaders we worked with are poor, but despite the odds have the confidence to believe that they can change their circumstances. So much more needs to be done to eliminate the structural barriers to social mobility that face so many young people in our community, but I believe that emerging leaders, like those we just graduated, can do it with our help.