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April 8, 2019

young man at microphone

By Eric Morrison-Smith

It’s no secret that California’s economy is huge—the fifth largest in the world to be exact. With a ranking like that, prosperity, opportunity and self-sufficiency must be rampant.


Though we’re known for our sunshine, palm trees and beaches, those living in many parts of San Diego County experience a different reality. The fact is, there exists a wide disparity between this cool and breezy stereotype and the reality faced by millions of families in California, and thousands here in the county.

In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed and insecure.”

We should not be content. This is no time for contentment.

The reality for many San Diegans is closer to “the lonely island of poverty” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes in his “The Other America” speech. Currently, San Diego has some neighborhoods “flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” while others remain a place where “the buoyancy of hope turns into the fatigue of despair.”

This reality Dr. King describes rings especially true for our opportunity youth—the nearly 37,000 young adults in San Diego County between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not connected to work or school.

Opportunity youth are not unmotivated. Don’t let anyone tell you they are “sitting on the couch waiting for something to happen.”

They are strong, talented and resilient. They are persevering through challenges like living in unstable and substandard housing conditions, attending under-resourced schools and surviving without basic necessities like food security.

Systemic issues like those in public transportation and the criminal justice system have nearly stripped away the possibility of building social and economic capital in underserved communities as a means of improving upward mobility. The cards are stacked against them.

But they are not victims. They’re not giving up. And neither can we.

It’s been my privilege to work closely with opportunity youth for the past year. To see firsthand the untapped potential within them. Their cultural capital waiting to pay dividends for our entire region.

It’s time to unlock their many talents and inspire them to become the type of leaders that help raise up the communities that have often been forgotten. This is the great reservoir of talent our region desperately needs.

We must be bold and build the political will to make investments that will fund effective approaches at the scale required. And if we don’t, the consequences are much more expensive.

Measure of America estimates that for each disconnected youth, the value of lost wages, lost tax revenue and added spending on social services comes to about $44,000 a year. That amounts to over $1.5 trillion. That is not including the losses from growth. For a region to be appealing for investors and new business, we need local talent.

We need diverse leaders who are from or understand the communities being served. For too long, this work has been done by individuals and organizations who assume they know what the right thing to do is, rather than work with the people who understand the issues and are closest to the solutions.

For the African American and young adults who bear the brunt of youth disconnection, it is necessary that they see leaders who understand their unique stories and believe in their capabilities. It will broaden their realities of what is possible and enrich their achievements, which then will enhance our entire region’s economic and social prosperity. The time for good intentions is over. We need inclusive and transformative community impact now.

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