On May 2, over 850 local and national changemakers gathered for the 2019 Opportunity Summit at the Town and Country to hear from young adults and experts on topics affecting opportunity youth—those 16–24 who are not working or in school. The summit is a continuation of the OpportunitySD movement to increase opportunity for young adults in San Diego County as they transition from high school into the workforce.
An expert lineup of speakers (including young adults) helped attendees better understand the issues impacting opportunity youth and gave clear direction on how, collectively and as individuals, we can invest in opportunity and make a difference in the lives of young adults.
Youth disconnection is often a term used to describe the issue, and that is a technically accurate term since the focus is on youth neither working nor in school. Opportunity youth is a preferred term since it connotes the immense potential of these 37,000 youth in our region. And as Deme Hill of the Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego said in the closing plenary, today’s young adults are perhaps the most highly connected generation in history via technology, even if they struggle with formal systems. The OpportunitySD challenge is to harness their voices, energy and talents as we transform these systems to better meet their needs.
OpportunitySD Leadership Council member Desjonae Hixon summed up the event nicely: “We are all here on a journey of learning. Learning to support ourselves and our families. Learning skills that are valued in our economy…while also learning how the systems work and don’t work for us.”
Here are some takeaways from the day:
Youth voice is essential at an event about young adult issues.
Over 200 young adults attended the Opportunity Summit, many of whom also helped with planning, and many performed or presented at the Summit. The OpportunitySD Leadership Council met in the months leading up to the event to shape the Summit, providing key insights that guided the content and format.Young artists from MovementBE performed throughout the day, infusing the event with creative energy and powerful youth voices.MovementBE’s purpose is to change the narrative of underserved communities through artistic expression and entrepreneurship. In addition to the on-stage talent, visual art produced by young adults was displayed in the lobby.
Also at the heart of the event was a two-part session on building youth power led by Youth Will (formerly San Diego Youth Development Office), where young adults in attendance bravely shared very personal stories of struggle and triumph. The group later shared a Youth Bill of Rights to close out the day in a moment of solidarity, vulnerability and power.
Members of the Youth Advisory Board of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless—Abrea Ponce and Nyla Vivas—led a breakout session on youth homelessness. “Our goal is to have youth table in all environments,” said Ponce. “There is nothing for us without us.” As the presenters said, youth are their own subject matter experts.
Another young speaker, Berlin Dixon, shared in a breakout session on how RIASEC assessments had changed her life by providing her a clear career pathway to pursue starting in middle school.Multiple attendees left feedback saying youth voice was an integral part of the event.
“Environment and experience matter.” — Dr. Gentry Patrick
UCSD’s Dr. Gentry Patrick brought neuroscience into the conversation. “If you give people novel experiences, it changes the makeup of their brain circuitry and synapses. This is a scientifically proven fact…When you change the environment, you change the functions of the brain. Novel experiences increase synaptic activity.Dr. Patrick’s expertise regarding opportunity comes both from his research, from his own life experiences and from his work on campus supporting students of color aspiring to STEM careers. “Access. Mentorship. Advocacy. These are three key ingredients that drive success. This is how a young kid from Compton became a renowned professor at UCSD today.”
—Dr. Gentry Patrick
“It only took one person to believe in me.” — Mary DalyDr. Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, prepared a video message for the summit that drew from her own experience as a former opportunity youth. One of her themes was the importance of adult allies and mentors, a theme that threaded through the day.
In the lunch plenary, Hyatt Hotels Corporation VP of HR and Global Philanthropy Audrey Williams-Lee shared, “What we have found at Hyatt is the importance of training managers how to mentor, coach people of different backgrounds.”
Koenig’s own experience reporting on the Cleveland justice system for season 3 of the Serial podcast led her to believe that while young people are often empowered to make change in their own lives, it is when the most vulnerable young people have an adult ally that their power increases exponentially. Too often, however, vulnerable young adults do not have reliable adults in their lives; the adults in their lives have failed them. And in other cases, adults are scared to speak up for youth because they are vulnerable themselves if they speak out.
Still, Koenig said, “We shouldn’t be asking young people to be vulnerable and to share their stories unless adults are willing to stand up next to them and do something about it.”
Throughout the day at Opportunity Summit, adult allies showed up for youth. In a session where one young attendee her seemingly unattainable dream of a career in marine science, an older attendee with knowledge in the field offered to be her mentor, and they were seen later in intense conversation. During Roadtrip Nation’s Share Your Road session, older attendees were seen thrusting business cards across the table toward younger attendees. SeaWorld offered an interview on the spot to a young adult with disabilities and an ardent desire to work.
For adults who attended: We encourage you to connect with one young adult this month and ask if they would like to be mentored by you or someone you know.
“Understand your weaknesses but focus on your strengths.” — Ed HidalgoIn a session on helping students find their strengths, interest and values, Workforce Partnership WDB member and Cajon Valley Union School District Chief Innovation & Engagement Officer Ed Hidalgo cited a quote by Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., a psychologist, researcher and entrepreneur behind the development of the CliftonStrengths assessment: “What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than what is wrong with people?”
In the same session, Sarah Burns, director of research and evaluation at the Workforce Partnership, said, “We tell students the “right” pathway is high school to college to success. But actually, there are millions of ways one’s career path can take.”
The possibilities are endless, but it does take coordination and understanding of one’s own strengths, interests and values, as well as aligning them with labor market research. When one can align what they love, what they are good at, what the world needs and what one can get paid to do, the Japanese call this ikigai.
Businesses have a huge part to play in dismantling systems built on bias.“We have a responsibility as a business to ACT. To do something, to get in the game,” said Gap Foundation President Susan Goss-Brown. “It’s not enough to rely on government and nonprofits; business has to play and make a difference.”
OpportunitySD Leadership Council member Khadijah Abdulmateen said, “Systemic barriers make connection to employment and education harder for San Diego’s black youth.”
“We need the private sector to invest in our local youth. We are the workforce you need,” said fellow council member and Workforce Partnership Business Solutions Specialist Josue Hernandez.
Workforce Partnership Chief Operating Officer Andy Hall added, “It’s the systems, structures, and policies that have the power to transform our communities.”
If you missed out on this year’s summit, check out tweets from the day at #OpportunitySD.