More Than Words: A Great Member of the Opportunity Nation Coalition•
Right now, nearly 7 million young people in the United States are either not in school or not working, a tragic loss for them personally as well as for our country. One of Opportunity Nation’s main goals, detailed in the campaign’s Shared Plan, is to help youth ages 16-24 find meaningful educational and career pathways so they can reconnect to our communities and our economy.
Michael Evans nearly became part of this statistic. During his high school years he lacked direction and focus and felt he didn’t have a strong support system. He started skipping school and ended up in truancy court. Mid-way through his sophomore year, his family moved from the Boston suburb of Waltham to the town next door, Newton, causing further disruption.
At one of his lowest points, Michael learned about Opportunity Nation Coalition Member More Than Words. This Greater Boston Area nonprofit focuses on connecting at-risk youth who are either court involved, in foster care, homeless, or have dropped out of high school, with a meaningful employment opportunity that provides them a structural and accessible ladder to achievement in both their careers and personal lives.
The Opportunity Index finds that 14.7% of America’s youths aged 16-24 are neither working nor in school. This startling figure highlights a major domestic issue: today’s youths are not engaged in society at an acceptable rate.
More Than Words provided Michael with an unusual mechanism to transform his life. While the mission of the organization is clear, its vehicle – a bookstore – is unconventional.
This organization employs Boston’s disengaged youths between the ages of 16 and 21, offering them a base minimum wage salary with the opportunity to improve their position in a six to twelve month period. The program separates the workers’ “business job” which provides the structure, from the “you job” which helps them develop a concrete, feasible plan for their future. They manage and run a fully functional brick-and-mortar bookstore that also offers online distribution. At the same time, these young people work their way up the employment ladder as the organization helps them to set high standards for themselves. More Than Words asks them to define a ‘Question Zero’, the question before all questions, which drives them to aspire to greater things.
For Michael, his Question Zero was to graduate from high school. By accomplishing this, he knew he would enable himself from sabotaging his future.
Michael joined More Than Words the summer after his sophomore year. He had been working as a volunteer and counselor with Wayside Youth and Family, a youth and family support network located in the Boston suburbs. But this experience wasn’t enough to propel his life path to the next level. He yearned for greater earnings as well as a summertime escape, and fortunately one of his peers introduced him to More Than Words, which is located in Boston and Waltham, Mass.
Getting a job there wasn’t easy. He quickly found that at age 15, he wasn’t old enough to apply.
But More Than Words remembered him. Shortly after his 16th birthday, the bookstore hired him. As Michael approached his junior year at Newton North High School, he was was ready to take charge of his life and earn some money. After a few months of training, Mike soon became an associate. The organization taught him essential workforce skills: organization, professional customer service, marketing strategy and how to set realistic, attainable goals. More Than Words paid special attention to helping him implement these skills into not just his job, but his life at home. After months of hard work, Michael became a senior partner – the bookstore’s highest position.
I asked Michael what it felt like to take a step up the invisible ladder of opportunity. He described his journey as analogous to a stock chart. His stock fell after his freshman year IPO, he said, and it wasn’t until his move to Newton during his sophomore year that he began to feel he had the capacity to reach for the next rung and build his stock. The school’s excellent teachers and guidance counselors made him feel that he could succeed amidst the market fluctuations. But he needed more individual support to learn how to thrive.
Enter More Than Words. Michael describes the program as both ‘strict’ and ‘real.’
“We’re paying you to help your life, and you can take these skills anywhere else in your life,” he said. “They make you understand not to take this opportunity for granted. Some youths didn’t take advantage of their multiple chances and dropped out or gave up. More Than Words holds you to a high standard – you have to be as punctual and professional as possible. Still, they treat everyone like equals. We were all adults and employees, not just teenagers with bad backgrounds.”
What he learned at More Than Words allowed Michael’s stock to finally skyrocket.
So where is he now? This summer he started attending a program called Foundation Year at Northeastern University, “An innovative, first-year college program, Foundation Year supports City of Boston students as they develop the skills to be successful in any college setting.”
“I probably wouldn’t have even known about it without More Than Words,” he said. “I know I could possibly do everything on my own. But I’ve learned a lot from these resources and realize I still might need the help and support, and I’ve started to accept that.”
Michael has started to set realistic goals for himself and manage his time better, all the while maintaining high standards. His life is on a new, positive trajectory, and he hopes to help his peers accomplish something similar.
He also learned about the Opportunity Nation campaign, and knows his work at More Than Words helps to expand opportunity to youth like him.
“I love the idea that Opportunity Nation uses the Opportunity Index to research and narrow down which towns, cities, and communities are lacking certain resources that will effect the success of citizens in that area,” Michael said. “I am a huge advocate in promoting financial literacy and Opportunity Nation has the tools to market it to the programs and communities that need it the most.”
Measure of America’s report on disconnected youth in 2012 found that 39% of these individuals live in poor households, 33% have dropped out of high school, 46% hold only a high school diploma or GED, 13% have disabilities, and 35% of such women have children.
This same report found that Boston is one of the most successful major metropolitan area in engaging its youth, with a disconnected youth rate below 10%. By continuing to provide youth with clear and practical pathways to progress both their careers and their lifestyles with programs like More Than Words, we can ensure that opportunity continues to thrive in America.