Sophia arrived at Covenant House’s Crisis Center with her baby in a stroller and a backpack of her belongings. The 21-year-old mother was referred by an outreach worker who found her and her son sleeping in an abandoned building. Thirteen months later, Sophia has completed job training, found stable employment and is now preparing to move into her own apartment. Her journey has been riddled with challenges, but Sophia is moving forward courageously toward a brighter future.

The Cowen Institute at Tulane University reported last month that there are 26,000 youth like Sophia in New Orleans — so-called “opportunity youth,” ages 16 to 24, who are disconnected from both education and employment. For too many years, these youth have been left behind — growing up in communities without the essential supports they need to achieve the better life outcomes they deserve.

But today, a burgeoning movement recognizes the economic and social potential of this vulnerable population and is invested in helping opportunity youth advance along career and life pathways. As the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund Convening begins this week, we welcome to New Orleans the many leaders who are spearheading this important work both nationally and in local communities and whose dedicated engagement and investment sends a message to our youth that their lives have dignity and value.

The Opportunity Youth Coalition is a strong network of leaders representing 11 local youth services organizations in New Orleans. Together, we are committed to uplifting our youth, advocating for their fair treatment and sharing their remarkable stories of perseverance and triumph.

While we all decry the violence that has overrun our city, we also reject the stereotype of aggressive and violent behavior that has been attached to many of our city’s youth. Those of us who work with these young people on a daily basis know their potential, their giftedness and their courage. We see the tremendous value they will, with appropriate investment and support, contribute to our community.

While Sophia lived at Covenant House, she gained work readiness skills through the Work and Learn Center at the Youth Empowerment Project. Her son, Geoffrey, who suffers from partial paralysis of the face, was able to find support through Total Community Action’s Head Start program. Alone, none of us can solve the problems of youth poverty and social disconnection — but, if we can all agree to the simple premise that Sophia and Geoffrey were born good, surely we have a responsibility to commit ourselves to helping them discover and develop their full potential.

Opportunity Youth Coalition

David Edmond, Glen Armantrout, James R. Kelly, Isabelle Sun, Johanna Gilligan, Keith Liederman, Deirdre Johnson-Burel, Karen Marshall, Thelma French, Erika McConduit-Diggs, Melissa Sawyer, Minh Nguyen

New Orleans