When it comes to supporting Opportunity Youth — young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or the workforce — what’s your piece of the puzzle?
That question echoed throughout this year’s Opportunity Week in Washington, DC, held November 11-15. Throughout the week, more than 75 organizations participated in a series of conversations and activations around research, policy, and priorities to advance collaboration for and by the Opportunity Youth field, hosted by the National Youth Employment Coalition, National Guard Youth Challenge, the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, the members of the national Opportunity Youth Network and Opportunity Youth United.
On November 17, the National Youth Employment Coalition and members of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign held a joint Policy Day to share updates and urge Members of Congress to increase federal funds for proven pathways to education, training, national service, and careers.
For me, it was the second time I had visited Congressional offices to speak with staffers on behalf of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, but it was the first time I felt prepared and ready to speak up.
“Your piece of the puzzle is essential and necessary.” – Delbria Walton
Part of that had to do with nerves. The first time I had attended a Policy Day convening back in September, I felt like I was dog-paddling: jotting down organizations, titles, and acronyms in my little notebook, trying to keep track of it all. The Reconnecting Youth Campaign is made up of more than 50 partner organizations uniting to call on Congress to increase investment in the evidence-based pathways that reconnect Opportunity Youth to education, national service, and jobs. The Campaign’s scope and diversity are among its biggest strengths, but, as a notetaker, it mostly cramped my hand.
My colleague Delbria Walton, Senior Policy Associate at the Forum for Youth Investment, set the stage for our afternoon on the Hill by calming our nerves in her morning presentation.
“For seven years, I’ve been a practitioner,” Delbria told the morning crowd at the Washington Hilton. “About eight weeks ago, I transitioned into the space of policy and advocacy. One thing I wanted to do today is help us all bridge that gap.”
As she spoke, a control flow graph popped up on the screens beside her. No matter which route you chose on the graph, all roads led to advocacy. Note-takers, digital communicators, bookkeepers — we all, one way or another, have a role to play in the advocacy space. Finding our key issue and uncovering the way to talk about it isn’t a task to complete, but a path forward to follow.
The other reason I felt prepared to speak up was more in-the-moment: I was motivated by the conversation happening around me. After a morning of learning and updates from the field, we broke into small groups to prepare for our meetings on the Hill. Each group contained a mix of young people, advocates, and allies. Guided by a list of our key asks and a few preparatory sheets of paper, I worried that our meetings would simply have us reading a list in our allotted 30 minutes. But since the Reconnecting Youth Campaign is driven by young professionals, community leaders, and individuals from dozens of organizations who have been directly impacted by these issues, our meetings were not about running through talking points. They were naturally flowing conversations.
As Jamiel Alexander, Senior Fellow for Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions and Founding Member of Opportunity Youth United, told a congressional staffer during our first meeting, “I speak from the heart and I always look forward to these meetings.”
What surprised me the most was seeing how the congressional staff reacted. My group’s second meeting was with Senator Manchin (D-WV) office, whose staffers we hadn’t visited before. We introduced ourselves, talked about Opportunity Youth, and why these issues were personal to us.
As Senator Manchin’s staffer learned more about us and our mission, his demeanor softened. “You know, I sympathize with everything you all have brought to the Senator’s attention today,” the staffer told us. “I was a young person who came up through the foster care system. My parents were both addicted to opioids and couldn’t take care of me. I was nearly homeless. Luckily, I had very caring grandparents who were able to raise me, but that opportunity isn’t available to everyone.” The meeting ended with the staffer urging us to send policy recommendations his way, and to follow up with him the next time we were on Capitol Hill.
What I learned on Policy Day is that what really drives effective campaigns is speaking up and forging human connections: making sure lawmakers know who you are, and connecting and sharing insight with other leaders in the Opportunity Youth advocacy space.
Alone, we’re advocates, researchers, neighbors, voters—puzzle pieces in isolation. Once we’re together, the picture can become whole.