The challenge: Reaching 350 million youth worldwide

There are over 350 million young people worldwide who are not in school, training or regular employment.  Many face challenges to their futures similar to those faced daily by several million American 16 to 24 year olds — crumbling schools, poverty, disinvestment in their communities, dislocation and violence.  Circumstances that easily lead to despair and unrest.
But decades of working with young adults in poverty gives us reason for hope.  Recently in rural San Luis, Arizona, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, something extraordinary happened. Young people from El Salvador, Mexico, and the US, all born into poverty, living with the daily toll of violence in their communities, yet striving to find  pathways to productive livelihoods, came together in the 100 degree desert heat to build homes for low income families.
{mosads}These young builders are part of a global network of YouthBuild programs which enroll out of school, unemployed youth who acquire basic education, job readiness, technical training and leadership skills. They build community assets — housing, community centers, schools, playgrounds and ‘green’ infrastructure while rebuilding their lives.
What motivated impoverished youth to cross national, cultural and economic divides to join together in volunteer efforts?
Joel, son of farmworkers, offered some insight. When his now wife became pregnant, this young American citizen left high school to work in the fields with his father as a broccoli cutter.  But Joel had a dream of a different life: “I always wanted to be a doctor, but given the circumstances it seemed impossible for me to join into college and move in that direction.”
Joel found his way to one of the 260 local YouthBuild programs in 44 states, many of which are funded in part through US Department of Labor competitive YouthBuild grants authorized under WIOA.  With the support of caring adults, Joel came to believe in himself. He enrolled in a college health career program, eventually graduating first in his class and becoming a certified medical assistant supporting his family.
“They taught me the three basics of the modern world: participation, respect and discipline,” Joel shared with the international youth working together that day.
Young people born into similar circumstances face hard choices. Some, like the 70 young people gathered in San Luis, are developing a  motivating sense of self-worth and leadership potential  as the hopeful result  of  giving back to others in need.  They turn away from the illegal activities, or worse… violence and extremism… that many of the world’s 350 million low income disconnected youth choose instead.
This year, April 27th is Global YouthBuild Day, celebrating nearly 40 years of working with this population. Global YouthBuild day is also a call to action, as a challenge of this scale requires governments, the private sector, and the social sector working together on solutions.
We see many in those sectors taking up the challenge.  For example, Prudential Financial, recognizing the stress on countries with high levels of youth facing bleak economic futures, has partnered with YouthBuild USA, Inc. International in the US, Mexico, and Brazil. At ceremonies in Arizona, Prudential senior officials demonstrated a mission to promote financial and social mobility for underserved populations. They also noted that as the fortunes of poor youth rise, demand for their products and services is fueled, further helping the local economy.

At the governmental level, Secretary of State John Kerry has underscored a key role of the US government is to work overseas with public and private sector partners to multiply economic opportunities.. This ‘upstream’ focus of US foreign policy ensures the downstream positive results of an engaged and productive citizenry.
Not surprisingly, the US Department of State has supported the expansion of YouthBuild in such diverse locations as Iraq, South Africa, Bosnia, Mexico, and El Salvador.  It was natural for Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom to attend the San Luis gathering and address the international cohort of students.
The model works. It is replicable in many different settings, having expanded to 21 countries outside the US which encompass industrialized nations, emerging economies and developing countries.  The model helps young people uncover their own talents, provides them with a structure of high standards, training and education and links them to employment and continuing education and training. But the real power of the program was on display in San Luis: young people seeing individual actions improving the world around them and local residents witnessing young people taking responsibility for their own lives and communities.
The impulse of young people to advance their education and livelihood goals while giving back to their local communities and nations is a global force that must be tapped to address many of the challenges facing the planet.  On this Global YouthBuild Day, we know that if the public, private and NGO sectors join together, this positive force can be released around the globe.

Stoneman is Founder and CEO, YouthBuild USA, Inc. and Cross is President, YouthBuild International

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