Coming Full Circle: How I Became An Advocate For Other Opportunity Youth Like Myself

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The first in a series in which an Opportunity Youth shares her voice and perspective on what she brings to an employer.

October of 1995 was the year my mom died. It was also the year I promised myself that I would go to college and graduate no matter what it would take to get there. At the young age of 7, I didn’t know that it would take nearly 10 years, 5 jobs, 3 mentors, plenty of late nights and early mornings and overcoming a host of other barriers like homelessness, poverty, public assistance, and student loan debt with tenacity, courage, drive and lots of grace to make this dream a reality.  Being a first generation college student meant everything to me. Given that neither of my parents continued past high school, I always internalized success to equate to educational attainment. I was convinced that if I could work hard to go to college then I would ultimately avoid facing a fate similar to that of my parents: addiction, teenage pregnancy, involvement with the criminal justice system, street violence, and untimely death. So, I worked hard at school, got accepted into awesome schools, and continued to succeed in my courses. I was determined to make it to the finish line. I believed in the American Dream, until I was forced to drop out of college, prior to my senior year, in order to work and save more money to pay for tuition.

I found work in the healthcare industry performing data collection and health education within Baltimore City Public Schools., but wanted to connect with the young people beyond research protocol so began to look for meaningful employment opportunities that would allow me to serve my community and continue to save for college. A random Google search for “service opportunities” returned a local AmeriCorps service opportunity through Public Allies. Public Allies’ mission is to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits, and civic participation. I was accepted into the program and was afforded the opportunity to serve a second year as an Executive Ally. After 20 months of service, I walked away from Public Allies equipped with $11,000 to pay for school and a full-time job offer from my placement organization, empowered as a community advocate and extremely eager to continue serving Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods and communities.

Even after my service term with Public Allies ended, I continued my work as a Community and Youth Advocate by serving as one of two Public Allies representatives, chosen out of a group of hundreds, on the National Council of Young Leaders. The National Council of Young Leaders is a uniquely diverse group of former and current opportunity youth and young adult leaders who advocate on behalf of young people between the ages of 16-24 who are disconnected from livable wage employment and post-secondary education and training. Being a Council Member has been one of the most profound experiences of my young life. I’ve been able to share my story and elevate the voices of young people in Baltimore, and many communities just like Baltimore, who aspire to obtain their version of the American Dream but face many obstacles, including systemic barriers, and challenges beyond their control. In addition to being a member of the National Council of Young Leaders, I also participated in a fellowship with Baltimore Corps. The Baltimore Corps Fellowship program connects young professionals to high-impact roles across the government, social enterprise, and non-profit sectors to serve under visionaries and solve organizational challenges and build capacity to grow to scale. My time as a fellow was profoundly impactful and I significantly grew as a leader while completing my undergraduate program and obtaining my Bachelors of Arts in Human Services Administration from the University of Baltimore.

Today, I’m more focused and impassioned as a leader and advocate than I have ever been. I continue to advocate on the national level by advising funders and policymakers on issues that affect young people born into poverty and by serving on several other leadership councils that help bolster the larger opportunity youth movement. Additionally, I continue to serve Baltimore’s Opportunity Youth population through my work as the Post-high School Individualized Services Manager at a local Baltimore-based non-profit, Thread.. In a lot of ways, it feels like my story (although it’s still being written!) has come full circle. I’m no longer the lost 21 year old who dropped out of school, struggled to provide for my aging great-grandmother, and was overwhelmed by searching for work and the subsequent disappointments. Instead, I serve and support young adults who are struggling to make their way through similar hardships like those my family and I had to overcome like making ends meet, finding a place to stay at night, preparing for interviews, determining the best fit for colleges, navigating the justice system, and so much more.

I take great pride in the unconventional journey that I took towards achieving success. Because, although it was painful at times, the journey has better prepared me to serve my young people. If I hadn’t dropped out of school, I wouldn’t have learned or honed the skills that make me such a valuable worker.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.

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