The City of Chicago will only reach our full potential when every child in every neighborhood has an opportunity to reach theirs. That starts with making sure that every child feels a connection to the values and experiences that most of us take for granted: a parent’s love, a teacher’s praise, a coach’s encouragement, and an employer’s appreciation. Therefore we have a collective responsibility to connect our disconnected youth to the values, expectations, and opportunities that we share as a common foundation.
In my inaugural address, I attempted to start a conversation about the urgent need to prevent another lost generation of our youth. Lacking strong values and support from an early age, a great majority of these youth drop out of school and become jobless. We lose many of them to the gang and the gun. This is not a challenge that the public sector can solve alone. Nor is it a challenge that private or community partners can solve alone. However by working together and drawing on the power of ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things, we can give these youth who may have been born without a prayer their first prayer at getting ahead.
On Thursday I will join CEOs from some of America’s most successful companies to celebrate the launch of their 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. It is a nationwide effort led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz with the goal of connecting America’s most disconnected youth to opportunities and a future in the workforce. Howard and I have spoken many times about the need to connect more of our youth to job opportunities and the role that the private sector can play. His effort will engage more than 3,000 youth here in Chicago and make hundreds of on-the-spot job offers. These CEOs are launching it here in Chicago because they recognize the progress we have made through different entities working together to close the gap of opportunity in our workforce.
I believe that government programs have an essential role to play. I have sat with young men and women participating in our youth mentorship programs like Becoming a Man or “BAM,” Working on Womanhood or “WOW” at Bowen High School, and the youth who are being served by After School Matters. I have seen the difference that mentoring can make. Today we are taking another step forward by announcing our Mayor’s Mentoring Challenge. Working with the Illinois Mentoring Partnership, it is a citywide call for 1,000 new mentors for our youth over the next two years. While these efforts put some of the major building blocks in place, they alone cannot solve this challenge. Nor are they a replacement for involved parents and the collective power of community and faith leaders.
What so many of our disconnected youth are crying out for is an opportunity to gain a sense of self-worth. That starts with having a job. For these young people, a job provides more than just a paycheck. It provides a set of values and life lessons that come from having to show up on time, having to work hard every day, and having to interact with peers and supervisors. When combined with furthering their education, a job opportunity can put them on the path to entering the middle class once and for all.
This summer the City of Chicago has provided 24,000 summer jobs to our youth through our One Summer Chicago program. It has been our largest summer jobs program in history. On Wednesday I joined several youth from One Summer Chicago Plus and participated in a service project in West Englewood. Working with a local artist Amanda Williams, we painted an abandoned house and discussed the impact the project will have for the community.
Ultimately the answer will not be found in any one program alone whether it is public or private. Above all, these young lives cry out for hope, purpose, and faith. These disconnected youth must believe that there is a place for them — in a family, a place of worship, a school, or on any porch or in any office in our city.
When one child is prevented from reaching their full potential, our entire city suffers. Many of these youth may have been born into poverty. But poverty was not born in them. They deserve a city that has great expectations for them. They deserve to live in a city that will never rest until every child has the same spark of hope, optimism, and confidence in their future that we want to see in our own children’s eyes.
Preventing another lost generation of young people is our greatest challenge as a society and as a city and by working together we will answer that call for the next generation of our youth.
Rahm Emanuel is mayor of the city of Chicago.