The Ford School of Public Policy ended its yearly policy talk series Monday with a lecture from a University alum.
Melody Barnes, chair of the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, gave a lecture to aspiring policy makers, titled “Creating Opportunity for America’s Youth: Anatomy of a Public Policy Challenge.”
Barnes received her law degree from the University in 1989. Prior to becoming the chair of the forum, Barnes served as an assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2009 to 2012 under President Barack Obama. In her opening remarks, Barnes said she was happy to return to Ann Arbor.
“I don’t think I’ve been back in Ann Arbor for a number of years,” Barnes said. “It’s terrific to be back. I already had a Zingerman’s brownie, so I’m in good shape.”
Barnes’ lecture focused on the issue of young adults in America who are disconnected with the education system — college and high school dropouts — as well as those not interacting with the economy in a significant way or holding jobs that cannot support them or a family. Barnes refers to the estimated 6.7 to 7 million American 16- to 24-year-olds who fall into this category as “opportunity youth.”
Contrary to the common narrative, which categorizes these youths as disconnected and uninterested in engaging in the community, Barnes said she and her counterparts discovered their value while engaging with the opportunity youth.
“I believe that, having spent time with many of these young people, that this is an untapped, but vital resource for our country,” she said. “They have much to contribute in intellectual gifts and in grit, and a view of the world that can help us solve many of the challenges before us.”
Barnes explained the importance of investing in opportunity youth for both moral and economic causes.
During the question and answer period, Barnes said failing to address the challenges faced by opportunity youth costs taxpayers billions of dollars — including loss of federal revenue to funding the juvenile justice system and healthcare, as well as loss in federal tax revenue.
Barnes said society’s perceptions of opportunity youth is one of the biggest roadblocks to finding solutions.
“Included in this is a specific focus on perception change,” Barnes said. “In many ways it is the thorniest and knottiest of all of the problems that we have, and it sits at the base of so many of the other challenges that we’re trying to address.”
The Aspen Institute launched an advertising campaign to attempt to target this challenge, according to Barnes. During the lecture, Barnes showed a commercial in which a girl explains to her interviewer the skills she has gained and can contribute to her job despite the fact that she has not attained a college degree.
“This is one of the things that I see over and over and over again,” Barnes said. “People are willing to believe that there’s that one exceptional person … But 6,000,000 exceptional people? Society seems to be unwilling to believe that that’s possible, but it is.”
For example, Barnes recalled working with Obama to replicate an educational achievement model employed by the non-profit organization Strive Together. The Strive Network found graduation rates were dropping in the region and worked with other public and private institutions to create a network to solve the problem.
“Then they decided, ultimately, to take their work and say we’re not just going to do that here,” Barnes said. “But we can replicate this all over the country, and now that work is taking place in over 34 different cities and the District of Columbia. We’re seeing that kind of progress everywhere we turn.”
The Aspen Institute works in conjunction with the collective impact of the federal government and private institutions. They work to create a collaborative effort by having members of companies and philanthropic organizations to ensure that all parties are working together and not just providing funding. In addition, they include the opportunity youth in the panels.
“You have to bring the very people in the communities that you want to work with to the table to understand what the challenge of the problems is so you can understand that you can go about with their support and their assistance with them as partners to actually fix it,” she said. “Who’s a better expert on the life of an opportunity youth here than an opportunity youth?”
She said the Aspen Institute ultimately wants to create a nationwide network between government, philanthropic organizations, private businesses and opportunity youth.
“To create a learning community, to create a hub, where communities that are doing this work can talk to one another,” Barnes said. “What we have found is that literally communities 50 miles apart, 100 miles apart, didn’t know what they were doing, and, as a result of that, communities were making the same mistakes over and over. We could leap all part that if people are talking to one another.”
Barnes concluded her discussion by highlighting the potential for students to make a lasting impact on the community.
“We can have the kind of success that we want and that we need,” she said. “We can solve these problems if we work collaboratively, and with the benefit of the kind of education that many of you are getting here today, you will be the initial fuel in each of those sectors to make sure that get it.”