The following was written by San Diego Workforce Partnership COO Andy Hall and originally posted on LinkedIn.
Sports always made sense to me. Players and coach know the rules. Game starts. Referees call fouls, arbitrate. Playing field is level. Competitors lay their talents, preparation, strategy and teamwork on the table. Sweat. (Sometimes) blood. Winners. Losers. New opportunity to get better and compete the next day. Growing up where and how I did, I figured life was more or less similar. But I was wrong.
Over the last three years, I have been part of an initiative in San Diego to reduce the number of young adults aged 16–24 who are not working or in school. Recent research found there were 41,000 of these “disconnected” young adults or 10% of all 16–24-year-olds.
And while we talk about rates and percentages, what this initiative is really about is coming of age in San Diego. Growing up. Transitioning from child to adult. Dependent to independent. The years between 16–24 are filled with opportunities, decisions, and consequences that lay the tracks for the rest of our lives.
“Disconnection from school or work between the ages of 16–24 can leave scars that last a lifetime, affecting everything from earnings and financial independence to physical and mental health and even marital prospects.” (Measure of America, 2017)
But unlike sports, the rules of the game when growing up are different depending on who you are and where you live. Youth disconnection rates depend greatly on place and race in San Diego. The eight neighborhoods in San Diego County with the highest disconnection rates are some of the region’s poorest.
San Diego County also has the second highest black youth disconnection rate (26 percent) of the 100 largest US metropolitan areas. The Latinx disconnection rate, at 13 percent, is also above the county average of 9.4 percent.
The reasons for these disparate outcomes are complicated, messy, historical, deep, and interrelated. A basketball analogy—while certainly limited—can be helpful. Just like a player preparing for a game, a lot goes into transitioning from child to adult:
- practice & training: The most obvious training ground for youth to practice their transition to adulthood is the public education system. The Local Control Funding Formula signed into law four years ago by Governor Jerry Brown has reduced funding gaps between high poverty and low poverty districts (gyms with top-of-the-line equipment compared to an outdoor court with no nets). But transitioning from K–12 to post-secondary remains a challenge. 10 to 20 percent of students who enroll in college do not end up attending in the fall. “Summer melt,” as this phenomenon is called, hits harder for low-income students and community-college bound students—with attrition rates as high as 40 percent (Castleman & Page, Social Sciences Quarterly, 2013). These young people signed up for post-secondary practice but didn’t have sneakers, a uniform, or a ride to the gym, so they were left off the team when high school ended.
- pre-game meal: Great care is taken for an athlete’s diet; the right amount of carbs, protein, water, and electrolytes to fuel the body for practice or a game matters. The same is true in the classroom. But 1 in 5 children goes to school hungry in San Diego (San Diego Hunger Coalition). Like an athlete on the court, a child cannot learn or perform to their full potential on an empty stomach. Hungry students tend to get lower grades, get down on themselves, and get tracked into lower-level courses; all things that make them more likely to become disconnected in their transition to adulthood.
- scoring points: In basketball, a free throw equals one point, a field goal equals two points, and longer shots behind the arc are good for three. In the 21st century economy, we place a lot of value on innovation, inventions, and entrepreneurialism. And being good at math and science is all that is needed to score these points (i.e. — make big money), right? Timeout. According to new research from the Equality of Opportunity Project using decades of federal tax return data, third grade math and science test scores, and US patent data, “becoming an inventor relies upon two things in America: excelling in math and science and having a rich family” (Bell, Chetty, Jaravel, Petkova, Van Reenan 2017). While some young people growing up have open three-pointers and are encouraged to take the shot, others are stuck playing defense, barely staying afloat. And our society (the team) is losing out on their talent, the innovations that never were, the points that were never scored.
- fouling out: Each player gets 5 fouls in a basketball game (6 in the NBA) before the player must come off the court. Same rules for all competitors. Nearly 70 percent of the 41,000 disconnected youth in San Diego is not in school and not actively looking for work. They are not in the game either. Benched. How and why young people are taken out of the game depends on who you are and where you are from. In California’s public schools, black male students are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than other students (Wood, J. L., Harris III, F., & Howard, T. C. 2018). Nationally, nearly 20 percent of disconnected black boys and young men are incarcerated, compared to .03 percent of the overall population aged 16–24 (Measure of America). Once released, a criminal record cuts off job prospects. Compounding challenges like homelessness, lack of child care, and transportation have taken thousands of young adults out of the game. Some young people get to play the whole game, others are taken out early.
28,000 of the 41,000 disconnected 16–24-year-olds in San Diego are not in school & not looking for work. Many are locked up. Others homeless. Others without child care or transportation. All of them benched. Taken out of the game.
The OpportunitySD movement in San Diego is made up of people working to rewrite the rules of the game so that all young people growing up in San Diego have a level playing field. Just like the rules should be fair, clear, and carried out consistently and fairly at the start of a basketball game, so too in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
This full-court press for justice is most powerful when done in proximity to injustice. Working as teammates with people and in places that have been stripped of opportunity. When hearing the voices playing the game, feeling their heartbeat, laughing, working and sweating alongside on the same team, we are reminded how badly the “growing up” rulebook needs to be rewritten.
On Saturday, September 29, young adults from Southeastern San Diego, police, firefighters, clergy, education, community leaders, and residents will meet at the Lincoln High School campus to compete in the first annual OpportunitySD Hoops4Hope charity basketball tournament. All proceeds will benefit ConnectingHope, a 501(c)3 nonprofit social enterprise that provides men of color in Southeastern San Diego with job opportunities.
The day will be a pre-season scrimmage for the vision we have for coming of age in San Diego. An even playing field. Same rules for everyone. Multiple people from multiple perspectives cheering each other on to succeed. All on the same team pressing forward for equality of opportunity. The talents, skills, and abilities of the young people in the game should rise on their own merits. This is a world to aspire to. This is a hope to hoop for. See you September 29.