Washington Business Journal: Open doors to Black and brown youth to mend a broken system

Urban Alliance CEO Eshauna Smith and DC Executive Director Monique Rizer published the following op-ed in the Washington Business Journal:

In the streets, online, at dinner tables around the world, a reckoning on this country’s history of racial inequity is ongoing. The window for change is open – for now. But with so many reforms needed, we must ensure that Black and Brown youth are not being left behind before that window closes.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity,” while “children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies.” Meaningful change must happen early, before these clouds become impenetrable.

Pictures of Success

Youth of color are growing up in a world in which every picture, every statistic, tells them that success is not for them. We know, because that’s the world we grew up in.

We know how hard it is to dream or strive when you don’t see yourself reflected in the pictures of success across our society. Though the opportunity gap has narrowed for young men and women of color, too many are still looking through the window at achievement, rather than seeing it mirrored back at them.

Thanks to a little luck and whole lot of investment by mentors, employers, educators, and communities, we were able to hack a system that was never designed to work for us. But for too many young people of color, those supports are still not available.

Today, we lead the national and Washington, DC regional efforts of Urban Alliance, providing access to paid internships, mentoring, and skills training to keep hacking that system one young person of color at a time, one job at a time.

Focus on the Next Generation to Improve Workplace Equity

Changing the persistent narrative that people of color don’t ‘belong’ in the board room, the halls of power, the incubators of innovation means changing the system. Opportunity for all can’t be achieved without equal access to the tools of success.

From getting interviewed or hired, to building a professional network, developing the skills needed to keep a job, and advancing in your career, every step of the employment process presents additional barriers for people of color – and those barriers go up early. To meaningfully address racial inequity in the workplace, the solution has to start early as well – in high school, when youth are old enough to enter the workforce and still have time to set their future course.

In the wake of the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder, companies are speaking up about the moral imperative of increased diversity. However, businesses are largely addressing the consequences of systemic racism in the world of work rather than its roots.

It’s not enough.

Real change requires real investment from the business community in the next generation of diverse talent. Diversity and equity can’t be solved on the surface. To ensure a more equitable talent pool, we have to ensure that all young people have access to the networks, skills training, and experience needed to succeed.

75 percent of disconnected youth – Americans ages 16-24 who are neither in school nor working – have a high school diploma. It’s clear that diversity and inclusion initiatives focused on working adults will not help the nearly three in ten current disconnected youth overcome systemic barriers preventing them from accessing upwardly-mobile careers. Action must be taken to break down systemic barriers BEFORE youth leave high school and start out on a path they may not be able to reroute.

The number of disconnected Black youth is almost double that of their white peers – a hidden pool of talent in the backyard of the nation’s largest companies. We urge companies to take stock of how they are investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and whether that is really moving toward a long-term solution.

What talented youth of color need to succeed is equitable access to opportunities. Instead of spending money on the consequences of racial inequity, businesses should be at the forefront of building the next generation of talent by addressing the issue at its roots. Whether that is opening the door to the world of work through a well-designed, skill-building internship or reaching out to give a young person of color access to your professional network, the work starts now – and it starts with each one of us.

Someone opened a door for us in our youth. Someone reached out, believed in us, and helped us believe in ourselves. That first opportunity was exactly what we needed – and exactly what we couldn’t connect to on our own.

To meaningfully address racial inequity, open your doors to Black and Brown youth. Connecting with the organizations in your community doing the work on the ground every day is a good place to start.