Mon, 13 November, 2023

2023 Symposium Highlights 'Opportunity Youth'

2023 Symposium Highlights 'Opportunity Youth'

The Rapides Foundation's Symposium held every September

The Rapides Foundation’s 10th annual Symposium focused on the high number of young adults ages 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working, and provided community members with information to be used in addressing the issue that, if ignored, could have far-reaching effects.

The Symposium presentation, “The Promise of Opportunity Youth,” featured a panel of national experts who discussed the challenges unique to this group and shared what is working in other places. The Foundation holds its annual Symposium to bring attention to a topic of importance and to recognize its September 1, 1994, creation.

Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation, explained that opportunity youth are more commonly referred to as “disconnected youth” because of their disconnection from work and school. “Research shows that these young adults will have significantly lower incomes, are less likely to gain meaningful employment in the future and have poorer health outcomes than their peers,” he said. “A high rate of disconnection is also a challenge for our employers because a large percentage of our population is not engaged in the workforce. However, disconnected youth are often called opportunity youth because of their potential to succeed and contribute to their communities.”

The Central Louisiana region’s disconnection rate is 23.9%, double the national rate of 12.1% and 6 percentage points higher than the rate in Louisiana as a whole. This translates to roughly 8,450 young people cut off from crucial pathways to a fulfilling life.

Rosier told the group gathered at the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center in Alexandria that the Foundation first partnered with Measure of America in 2019 to determine the level of disconnection in Central Louisiana. It then partnered with Jobs for the Future (JFF) to gain insight into potential strategies and interventions for young adults in the region. JFF’s recommendations led to the creation of the Foundation’s Beyond Graduation and Reconnecting Cenla programs.

In 2021, the Foundation awarded a $1.4 million grant to Career Compass of Louisiana to implement Beyond Graduation, a retention strategy to help high school seniors successfully transition to a college or university in the region. In early 2023, it awarded $1.8 million in grants to six organizations under the Foundation’s Reconnecting Cenla Program Grant, which funds programs to reconnect disconnected youth to education and employment opportunities.

Reconnecting Cenla grantees participated in a Pre-Symposium Workshop before the Symposium to gain important technical assistance as they begin their projects.

At the Symposium, Measure of America Director and Co-Founder Kristen Lewis revealed findings of the 2023 Assessment of Youth Disconnection in the region. Among the findings: Disconnection rates are much higher in rural Central Louisiana parishes vs. urban areas; males and females have similar disconnection rates; and the rate of disconnection for white youth, 20.5%, is slightly higher than the rate for black youth, 19.89%.

Follow the link to view the 2023 Youth Disconnection Report.

The four panelists took the stage to share what is working in other parts of the country to reduce young adult disconnection. The panelists were Lewis; Marie Davis, Associate Vice President at JFF; Mimi Haley, Executive Director of the National Youth Employment Coalition; and Felipe Longoria- Shinn, Chief Executive Officer for Central Plains Center for Services.

“Some may ask, why does this work matter?” Davis said. “Teenagers, and those going into adulthood, are the products of our communities, schools and families. What they are going through and what that looks like matters. The benefits of this work are really for the community as a whole.”

In rural communities specifically, barriers to connection – such as lack of transportation, mental health, child care and housing – often exacerbate the problem.

The panelists’ experience ran the gamut from identifying the needs of young adults, creating programs and policies, and amplifying young adult voices to ensure change.

“These numbers should wake us up,” said Longoria-Shinn. “It’s an opportunity when you look at the data to see how much growth you as a community can make and lower those numbers. There are a lot of young people out there who are seeking to be connected and who want to be heard and understood.”

His advice to organizations is to “find your own niche, but be familiar with other resources in the community so you can point youth to the exact resources they need and if possible, make the handoff.”

“The goal is that when a young person comes through the door, they are going to get help,” Haley said. “That comes through community partnerships.”

Haley also reminded those in attendance that, “These opportunity youth are our future leaders. The numbers are high. They are heartbreaking. There are a lot of stories that go with these numbers that are going to be even more heartbreaking.”

She added this reminder for parents, educators and nonprofits.

“Get to know your young people,” Haley said. “Understand what some of their stories are. The numbers are daunting, but there’s so much opportunity there! Approach it one young person at a time. You can’t do that if you aren’t connected.”


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