This is what's next

Brigid Nee

Brigid NeeYear Up Providence and INE Emerging Leader

Words matter. At Year Up, we used to call the young adults we serve “disadvantaged” or “underprivileged.” Now we call them “opportunity youth.” This was not merely a reaction to the overly politically correct society in which we live, but a deliberate language change that shifted the paradigm. Opportunity allows us to think about low-income 18-24 year olds in a completely different way – as assets, not liabilities. Year Up students use “my colleague” instead of “my boy” and “career” instead of “job.” This language matters because it affects how these young adults see themselves and each other, and when a CEO or the mayor comes to our site and greets them with a handshake and refers to them as “professional young adults” and not “at-risk kids,” that matters too.

When we start speaking about opportunity youth as young adults with potential and motivation, we create a different future for them, and we can begin to close the divide that exists between them and the opportunities they need to support themselves and their families. When we prepare a young adult for the workforce, we are not only serving them, but their children, and that is where the real impact of workforce development lies – in the opportunity to empower young parents to create environments conducive for their children’s development.

In fact, a child from a high-income family will be exposed to 30 million more words than a child growing up in poverty. 86-98% of a child’s vocabulary is reflective of their parent’s vocabulary, so it’s no surprise that uneducated parents are not equipped to prepare their children for school. They don’t have the words. Training programs not only equip young adults with the skills necessary for long-term employment, they also encourage them to become lifelong learners and share that attribute with their children.

Research reveals that age 0-3 is critical to a child’s development and educational trajectory. Far before a child has entered school, this gap between rich and poor kids has already formed, and it grows wider as time goes on. This pattern guarantees slower development for children from low-income families compared to their more affluent peers. Year Up recently collaborated with Providence Talks, a city-wide education program that is addressing this very issue by providing parents with targeted literacy coaching. Partnerships like this are essential for serving young adults and their families; we cannot afford to start another school year with 2 out of every 3 children below the expected literacy level. Young adults have the power to change the course that their children are on; therefore, an investment in opportunity youth is an investment in early childhood intervention and education.

Low-income parents have the potential to close the word gap, and ultimately, the achievement gap. Working in a professional environment, and having 1 job instead of 3, will allow young parents to spend quality time with their children and expose them to the vocabulary and stimulation that is so necessary for their development. Let’s not ignore what the research tells us; parents are the single-most influential factor in a child’s development. When opportunity youth become middle to upper class parents, the word gap disappears, and the education and skills gaps are no longer a barrier to self-sufficiency.

These gaps – skills, economic, education, opportunity, word, do not exist in a vacuum. They are deeply connected. The causes of these gaps are related and so are their solutions. Imagine a mile in between 2 boulders, and there is 1 person pushing only 1 of them – that is the current approach to the achievement gap. Now imagine there are thousands of people pushing each boulder towards one another. This is what must happen next – progress and on either side of that mile- long gap – serving young adults and children simultaneously.

What comes next is a generation of children raised by educated and financially stable parents with the ability to provide them with a home that encourages learning and developing. What’s next is every child is prepared for school and the educational divide no longer exists. Opportunity youth are and will be parents, and so it’s our obligation to ensure that they are armed with the tools to ensure that their children may simply be called “youth.”


One Union Station
Providence, RI 02903


(401) 274-4564

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