A Collaborative Response to Local Youth Facing Disconnection

Henry Danner
June 07, 2019

Disconnected youth, more appropriately known as “opportunity youth,” are a unique population with a unique set of needs to match. By definition, opportunity youth are 16–24 year olds who are neither in school nor working. Classifying this special group using the term “disconnected” may lead one to believe that these young people are off the grid, hard to find, and completely lacking linkages to resources. Contrary to this belief, youth dealing with disconnection are actually—and at times unknowingly—connected to supports through varying degrees of separation. The term “disengaged” would more accurately describe these young people, and when the right strategy is employed, the chances of reengaging them increase greatly.

According to a Measure of America (MOA) report, “More Than a Million Reasons for Hope,” in 2016, opportunity youth accounted for 11.7 percent of the the U.S. population (roughly 4.6 million youth). In comparison to the national disconnection rate, the state of New York has a 12.1 percent rate—about 289,000 young people. More locally, the NYC metro area is home to 274,900 opportunity youth, contributing to an 11.8 percent disconnection rate.

Local high school graduation rates are a strong indicator for potential disconnection. According to the NY State Education Department, the 2018 high school graduation rate in District 3 (Upper West Side and part of Harlem) was 75 percent. Out of the 2,247 total students in the 2018 cohort, 558 did not graduate and 132 have been declared dropouts. Many of the students who did not graduate in 2018 are still enrolled in a district school, but may be labeled truant or severely chronically absent, which places them in grave danger of falling behind in credits, aging out of the school system, and ultimately becoming disconnected.

Although there are many ways youth disconnection has been addressed, the one that looks the most promising on the local front is a collaboration among like-minded organizations that fall within the degrees of separation that opportunity youth experience. This can be analyzed through the lens of a recently developed and growing partnership between the Columbia University Office of Government and Community Affairs’ Connecting Youth Initiative (CYI) and the Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub (LRYOH).

Program members participate in a narrative therapy session led by one of LRYOH’s credible messengers mentors, Jason Davis

CYI is a community and school-based service that provides outreach and supportive case management to opportunity youth in Northern Manhattan and portions of the South Bronx. It evolved from the “outreach to disconnected youth” commitment stipulated in the package of benefits and amenities associated with Columbia University’s “Manhattanville Campus Expansion” project. CYI participants are supported with services and opportunities for reengagement in educational and employment programs.

LRYOH is a youth development organization that serves youth 10–24 years old by creating unique programming for local youth and young adults. It is one of the more recent partnerships CYI has made in order to address the need for more intentional programming for opportunity youth in the local community. The extensive attention given to bringing in resources shows that LRYOH’s administrators understand the importance of collaboration and strategic partnership to addressing issues plaguing local youth. Rhokeisha Ford, assistant director of LRYOH, stressed the importance of bringing in partners that can focus on specific needs.

“Partnerships are essential because they provide an opportunity for people to work within their expertise,” said Ford. “When you find a partner that has a lens that zooms in on something specific, there is a higher likelihood of success.”

When taking a team approach to a social issue such as youth disconnection, creating the linkage of services is only one step in a successful collaborative problemsolving process. Engagement and rapport building with both the youth and service providers are key activities that result in effective service delivery. With the CYI and LRYOH partnership, on-site participation is the means by which this is done.

“Having Connecting Youth Initiative staff be a part of that relationship-building with the team and the participants sends a strong message,” said Ford.

As the two organizations look ahead to the future, they will work to demonstrate how collaboration can be beneficial to reducing the number of youth impacted by disconnection. Relying on a strategy that is goal driven, they seek to achieve outcomes that, as Ford stated, give their program participants a “heightened sense of importance.” By exposing local opportunity youth to the variety of organizations working together in their favor, CYI and LRYOH are striving to show “disconnected” youth how well-connected they truly are.

Learn more at https://gca.columbia.edu/CYI.

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of The Columbia Newsletter, which is available for download.