Opportunity in Action: A Visit to Iowa•
Iowa is a trailblazer state that has collaborated closely with Opportunity Nation to increase access to opportunity over the years, and a state where organizations are taking action and creating pathways to opportunity for the most vulnerable communities in real-time. It’s the state where we hosted our first statewide forum, the 2015 Iowa Opportunity Forum, in partnership with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and where elected officials have formally proclaimed their dedication to expanding access to opportunity. It’s also the state that first launched the Opportunity State model, Opportunity Iowa, a model that Opportunity Nation is working to refine and replicate in other states across the nation.
Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Iowa to brief Governor Reynolds on the Opportunity Index and Iowa’s Opportunity Score, check in with the Opportunity Iowa founding sponsors and conduct site visits – all of which would inform my research into the cross-sector, statewide, collaborative initiative that is Opportunity Iowa. Some of the Opportunity Iowa affiliated organizations I visited included:
- The Young Women’s Resource Center, a center dedicated to providing health and self- esteem programming and support to young women.
- The Evelyn K Davis Center for Working Families, where I engaged a room full of DMACC YouthBuild participants who were learning vocational skills and training.
- The Bernie & Bernice Baker Boys & Girls Club located inside of the Amos Hiatt Middle School, where students have full access to a roster of activities including field trips, cooking classes, career and fitness sessions five days a week throughout the summer.
- The Iowa Homeless Youth Opportunity Center, a center where young people can eat a fresh meal, wash their laundry, reserve a bed with the “e-bed program” and find information about employment programs.
The success of these programs is evidenced in the fact that Iowa leads the nation in two important education categories with a high school graduation rate of 91.3 percent and, according to the 2016 Opportunity Index, a postsecondary completion rate of 39 percent. Iowa also cut their statewide unemployment rate from 5.7 percent to 3.1 percent between the 2011 Index and 2016 Index. While these achievements are laudable, there are areas for improvement. One is continuing to reconnect young people ages 16 to 24 who are disconnected from school and work. In 2015, there was a slight dip in the number of disconnected youth in Iowa, from 9 percent to 8.8 percent, though that marginal gain was neutralized in 2016 as the rate increased to 9.3 percent. In addition, Iowa consistently lags behind the national average for the number of homes with access to high-speed internet. This touches on the economic inequality that is a growing issue for diverse populations across the state.
These were some of the issues that we raised with Governor Kimberly Reynolds during a briefing with her about the Opportunity Index and increasing opportunity in Iowa. Governor Reynolds responded by outlining a plan to expand fiber optic technology and high-speed internet in rural communities and opportunities to supplement programs like Future Ready Iowa to more effectively reconnect youth who have already dropped out of school and who are not employed.
Governor Reynolds affirmed her commitment to expanding opportunity for all Iowans, a commitment that her predecessor Governor Terry Branstad initiated in January 2012 with the Opportunity in Iowa Month Proclamation – a statewide commitment to the pursuit of opportunity as a core Iowa value.
Opportunity Nation plans on expanding the table to engage and collaborate with more cross-sector stakeholders, local and state leaders and communities across Iowa, as well as in states across the country. We all have a role to play in responding to the fact that all Americans do not have equal access to opportunity, or the chance to achieve their greatest potential.
Learn more about Opportunity Nation’s advocacy efforts, especially during the upcoming August recess, and we welcome you to join our efforts.