Ensuring Employment Opportunity for Underserved Youth in Chicago

[Editor’s Note: President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, Shari Runner, spoke at our Business-led Solutions to Revitalize Chicago Communities forum in Chicago June 13, 2017. This forum convened thought leaders from business, nonprofit, public, and academic sectors to work together on actionable solutions to create a brighter future for Chicago.]

There is an immense wealth gap in our nations’ city centers that cause African Americans, particularly our youth, to live quite differently from their white counterparts. Many of the issues we are observing in our communities–the violence, the poverty, the disproportionately high incarceration rates–are symptomatic of structural inequities that cause our Black and brown youth to bury themselves in an underground economy.

And so, there is no more prudent time than the present—during the Chicago Urban League’s Centennial commemoration—to shine a beacon of light on the state of youth unemployment and its relationship to race and equity. Racism has, and continues to be, an ideological and systemic stratification process upon which codified discrimination, including slavery and Jim Crow, were built.  The fruit of inequities racisms continues to bear, gives false credence to a narrative that labels our city – the more melaninated parts of our heavily segregated city – a war zone full of carnage, thugs and gangbangers. This does not represent the full spectrum of who we are and erroneously posits African Americans as liabilities to be managed.  

The strength of our city comes from the people who live and work here; Chicago is almost 30 percent African American and we are, individually and collectively, assets to be recognized.

The pervasive joblessness for our youth reflects a sustained lack of effective private and public interventions, further entrenching racial inequality.  The narrative we construct concerning the plight of African American youth must therefore focus on the root cause of our employment inequities, as opposed to demonizing the survival techniques they have adopted in order to stay afloat.

Our Workforce Development Center powerfully tackles youth unemployment through one of their newest programs, Opportunity Works—a program that provides access to wraparound services, professional development training, job placement, and ensures workplace retention. It targets a generation with a broken educational system, and an age group in critical need of support during a time when traditional job recruitment efforts are not reaching our youth; the new digital divide is detaching them from the labor market. Opportunity Works aggressively and rigorously connects our underserved youth by connecting them with employment opportunities inaccessible to them.

Dismantling youth unemployment for our African American generation requires changing the insidious narratives that impede the very progress we seek to protect.  Programs like Opportunity Works will ensure that the achievements of the African American community are the standard—not the exception.  

The League’s partnerships with organizations—like PwC—work to craft a pipeline of success to ensure the progress of future generations in Chicago. Through cross-sector collaboration within the non-profit, academic, business, and private spaces, the League has worked to combine our efforts through socially infused dialogue. These partnerships act as conduits to incite change.

Black in America—Black in Chicago—means that while all men and women are created equal, the denial and erosion of unalienable rights makes our communities suffer. Too many are prevented from pursuing life, liberty and happiness simply because of the color of their skin. The League has never shied away from leading difficult conversations or defending the rights our ancestors fought and died for. And we never will, no matter how insurmountable the odds may seem.

Youth are our future, and we will continue to protect their potential to flourish in our city, and the world at large.