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Building ‘Opportunity’ Youth: Breakfast with Melody Barnes

April 17, 2015

Everyone has heard a story of an “exceptional” young man or woman from a hardscrabble background who pulled him or herself up by the bootstraps, got into college, got a job, and is now a successful adult. The media often feature these stories as rare moments of tenacious people beating long odds.

But what if this story wasn’t so rare? What if this could be the story for each of the seven million young men and women ages 16-24 who aren’t currently in school or employed—those deemed “disconnected youth?”

This is the question Melody Barnes – former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council – posed to the more than 50 lawyers and business leaders who joined Children’s Law Center for breakfast Thursday at WilmerHale.

WilmerHale with Melody Barnes

PHOTO LEFT TO RIGHT: WilmerHale’s Howard Shapiro and Chris Herrling, Melody Barnes, WilmerHale’s Brent Gurney, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Brenda Lee

She challenged the group to think about youth in a new way. Instead of “disconnected,” Barnes uses the term “opportunity” youth: young people whose talent and grit will be an essential component of the United States’ role in the global economy.

At Children’s Law Center, we work with “opportunity youth” every day. We see kids become disconnected as the result of preventable circumstances, like an undiagnosed mental illness, or an unaddressed special education need, or trauma that can lead a young person to drop out of school and struggle to get back on a path to independence. We fight to get them back on that path to success.

As current chair of The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, Barnes is an expert on developing public policy that advances community progress and helps our most vulnerable citizens. On Thursday, she emphasized the importance of community programs, data collection and collaboration among advocates as the forces that can effect change for struggling youth.

“We can’t avert our eyes to the seven million young men and women who are disconnected,” Barnes said. “If we invest in them, we can make a difference. And the beauty is, they believe they can make a difference too.”

She pointed out that successful strategies to drive change will need to involve the youth as partners. And, she said that when we empower them to be their own advocates, youth can go from a cohort society perceives as a loss, to an asset.

Judith Sandalow and Melody Barnes

Judith Sandalow with Melody Barnes

Melody Barnes is the first speaker in Children’s Law Center’s 2015 breakfast series, bringing visionary leaders together with District business and legal audiences to discuss trends in education, health and child welfare.

Our next discussion will be June 3 with speaker Dr. Mark McClellan, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration and former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.