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A Call for Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth

Each year, over one million American youth become disconnected from the systems that are designed to educate and prepare them for successful careers. These youth join the approximately 6.7 million existing Opportunity Youth in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market (see Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America’s Forgotten Youth). Opportunity Youth face a range of challenges: low performing schools, limited community resources, a lack of family support, and inadequate assistance from systems charged with serving them. Regardless of their specific circumstances, these young people have one thing in common—they have been disconnected from any viable pathway leading to a productive life and career.

The impact of this disconnection is felt not only by Opportunity Youth, but also by the communities in which they live, and the nation at large. Opportunity Youth pose significant costs to taxpayers, as they have lower lifetime earnings and are more likely to need government support (see The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth). At the same time, U.S. businesses are calling for more and better-trained talent to compete on the global stage. Despite high unemployment, there are over three million open jobs in the U.S. that employers are unable to fill with qualified workers. Helping break the cycle of poverty for Opportunity Youth presents tremendous possible savings for society and resources for employers.

Yet the systems that touch Opportunity Youth are highly fragmented today, posing a significant challenge for these youth to reach their educational and economic potential. Greater coordination, support, and alignment between K-12 systems, community-based organizations (CBOs), the postsecondary education system, employers, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, and other key stakeholders are desperately needed if we are to meet this challenge in communities across the country. A collective impact approach, where cross-sector stakeholders and the youth they intend to serve come together to collaboratively identify and solve a complex social problem, is a promising new way for communities to work together to re-engage Opportunity Youth on pathways to success in their life and career.

Communities across the country from Philadelphia to Portland to Alamo are taking action to improve the chance of success for Opportunity Youth. Such efforts have taught us that laying the foundation for a successful collective impact effort for Opportunity Youth takes four steps:

  1. Identifying influential champions and forming a cross-sector group,
  2. Scoping and segmenting the population to define the problem, 
  3. Creating urgency and making the case for change, and 
  4. Establishing financial resources to launch the effort.

Having these elements in place will not only help key stakeholders understand the urgency of the problem, but will catalyze a coalition of actors—including youth, mayors and other public officials, employers, K-12 and postsecondary education leaders, nonprofit service providers, private funders, child welfare and juvenile justice leaders, and others—to engage in the effort over time.

The time is ripe for local communities to identify and engage their Opportunity Youth, and to align and strengthen the fragmented systems and services that support this population. By engaging in collective impact, the many players who seek to support Opportunity Youth can work together more effectively to build the on-ramps and pathways these youth need to attain educational and career success.

Download FSG's new report, Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth, to learn more.

What efforts have you seen communities undertake to successfully improve outcomes for Opportunity Youth?