Youth are not just our future. They are our now.
Like many other children, Justin M.L. Freeman, a graduate of South Side High School, had dreams, goals and hopes for his future. But during his childhood and teen years, he suffered from what he calls “access inequality,” a lack of access to resources that are readily available to others. Because he didn't have the disposable income or access to resources, many of his dreams were deferred as a result of issues that were completely out of his control.
A quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson has had an impact on Justin's life: “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'You are free to compete with all the others.' ... We seek not just freedom but opportunity – not just legal equity but human ability – not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”
According to the 2019 World Population review, more than 25% of Fort Wayne's population is made up of youth age 18 or younger. Data from the 2018 Indiana Kids Count states that 19% of our youth are living in poverty and 40% are on free and reduced lunch programs. However, 67% of our youth are enrolling in college after high school graduation.
We could look at this data and assume that the 67% enrolling in college are the counterparts to the 40% receiving free and reduced lunches, but what if there was an overlap? According to a research article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2019, 20% of college students are from an impoverished background.
Many times our disadvantaged youth are forgotten on the path to community success. If we want a community that is stronger, deeper and better, then we have to look at the people who make up more than a quarter of our population. What are we doing to empower them, motivate them, stand beside them and stand for them?
For Justin, there were people who believed in him, stepped into his life and encouraged him to be a good student, person and leader. Not only did these mentors give him the confidence to succeed, but they were able to give him a window into the future of his dreams, despite his economic hardships.
Upon graduation from South Side, Justin was admitted into the top-ranked Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, where he plans to graduate with three majors in economic consulting, public policy analysis and international business. He is a sought-after speaker for workshops, conferences, school assemblies and community events; he holds many leadership positions at IU, including the Student Government Student Liaison; he works alongside the Kelley faculty and students on issues of diversity, inclusion, and access equality; and he will be interning with a Fortune Global 500 company in Chicago this summer.
These opportunities for Justin were earned, not given. However, in order for him to step into these opportunities, he had to have people in his life to help him look past his circumstances and, instead, see his potential. He was taught that where he started did not determine where he ended.
We need to give our youth a chance now, so that they can have a later.
As a businessman or businesswoman, consider mentoring a young adult and giving them a window into opportunities. Give them the knowledge to grow and the power to lead. It has been said that great leaders are built from the ground up. Think about the impact you could make in our community by building one youth leader.
As a community advocate, consider bringing this issue to the forefront and being a voice for our youth. Ask community leaders to look beyond the typical conversations that surround our area's disadvantaged youth and, instead, look at ways we can empower them now.
Youth are our future. However, if we don't start giving them the opportunities now, what will our future hold?
Amy Hanna is executive director of the RespectTeam, a nonprofit organization that encourages self-respect and respect of others through educational programs, empowerment sessions and engagement opportunities in the community.