Roosevelt Institute Summer Fellows Develop Policy•
Our democracy’s strength lies in engaged citizenship–people rolling up their sleeves and drawing on their personal experience to improve their communities. When neighbors of all backgrounds come together with non-profit organizations, businesses, the faith community, and others to identify challenges and work together toward solutions, we all benefit.
I was lucky enough to witness the beginning of just this sort of collaboration Monday night in New York City. Opportunity Nation’s coalition partner, Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, excels at unleashing the creativity and thoughtfulness of college students to solve problems in their communities. Every summer, the Roosevelt Institute invites approximately 30 fellows each to New York City and three other cities across the country. They are college students from all over the country. It’s a nine week program, and the Summer Fellows are placed in full-time internships to work on issues while they concurrently go through experiences as a cohort, like workshops and a team challenge to solve a local policy issue.
The Network invited Opportunity Nation to challenge their NYC Summer Fellows to tackle an opportunity-related issue in this year’s team-based challenge. We chose the critical issue of youth disconnection, one of the most powerful indicators of the Opportunity Index, which measures a region’s economic, educational and civic health. Opportunity Nation asked the summer fellows to find ways to reduce the number of 16-24 year olds in New York City who are neither working nor in school. These young people – some 6.7 million nationwide — are an untapped resource that we need plugged into meaningful educational and career pathways if our communities are to thrive.
The Roosevelt teams did not disappoint. They analyzed what’s already been tried and with what success in the city’s various boroughs. They consulted data from the Opportunity Index and other sources to confirm where disconnected youth tend to live and what barriers they face to accessing education and jobs. They looked to existing infrastructure and dreamed big about what could be created through collaboration between businesses, non-profits, the city government and young people themselves.
Implementing restorative approaches in high schools to address behavioral problems rather than immediately suspending students was cited as a promising approach to keep more students on track to graduate. This team, pictured above with myself and Opportunity Nation’s NYC intern Ben Miller, was selected as the most promising of the presentations. However, all the groups presented incredibly impressive policy. One group suggested using the public libraries as a staging ground for job-training programs, given their prevalence in virtually every neighborhood. Another wanted to raise funds to buy subway MetroCards for youth, as transportation is often a barrier to getting jobs. The arts, and specifically mentors in a media or production job — a growth industry in NYC — was elevated as another possible solution. Creating an online hub that brings together job training, employment, education and enrichment programs in one easy-to-use spot was another suggestion. And finally, student teachers were identified as an under-utilized resource that could be deployed to schools with higher numbers of at-risk students. This would achieve two aims: strengthen the experience of the teaching corps, and extend the staff capacity at these targeted schools.
I was inspired not only by the ideas but by the comprehensive approach the students took in presenting them—data, pilot programs, research and careful use of funds. The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network is committed to supporting these projects and potentially providing seed money and ongoing assistance to any groups – not just the winners – who put their proposals into action. And the team at Opportunity Nation will be learning from their good ideas that can help inform our work going forward.
How much stronger would our communities and democracy be if more people followed the lead of these impressive students? I look forward to seeing them lead the way.