Helping New Orleans' young people see opportunities

By Scott Cowen

In the midst of New Orleans' renaissance, we must ask ourselves: How can this revitalization include our most vulnerable citizens? Young people like Joshua Short, 25, who was raised and, coincidentally, killed on Dumaine Street in October 2012.

Ironically, this senseless act happened just after Josh had attended a Night Out Against Crime gathering. Josh suffered gunshot wounds to the face while he was waiting outside of the house of a young man he mentored.

Josh was one of those young adults who could have been referred to as "disconnected" throughout his late teens and early 20s — out of school and struggling to find stable work. He faced adversity at home, in school and in securing economic opportunities. Like many young people in our city, he was failed by our social systems and supports.

But due to his resilience and potential, Josh was a perfect example of why some might have heard me refer to young people like him as "opportunity youth." Colleagues at the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University met Josh through their work on the Reconnecting Opportunity Youth initiative and were captivated by his strength of character and generosity of spirit.

Josh was lucky enough to have been supported by mentors who understood his needs, recognized his talents and helped him connect to opportunities. Josh's passion for documentary filmmaking was ignited when he was a subject and assistant filmmaker of the documentary, "Left Behind: The Story of the New Orleans Public Schools," with which he became involved through a filmmaker and mentor who saw his potential.

Josh enrolled in the film production program at Delgado Community College to pursue this passion. Josh also was a member of the Fyre Youth Squad — a diverse group of self-determined youth ages 14-24 living in the greater New Orleans area who want to effect positive educational change and create a “world-class” learning environment — and the One World Foundation, which provides national and international social help to poor and at-risk communities.  Josh traveled throughout the country and to India, where he served as a youth delegate, sharing his perspectives with young people from similar underserved backgrounds and inspiring them.

Josh experienced many cultures beyond the Dumaine Street world in which he was raised. He had a ticket out of the city that had not served him effectively for much of his life. However, a ticket out was never what he yearned for. Josh wanted to serve young people in New Orleans, showing them an alternative pathway from life on the street and helping them realize their own potential as Josh's mentors had helped him do.

Within the New Orleans metro area, between 12,000 and 16,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 are disconnected from school and work. We need to better support these youth, who have enormous potential to contribute to their community and have claimed the city as their own during the good times and the bad. Creating more robust pathways to education and employment for all youth, while supporting their basic needs, must be a priority as we continue to build the city that we aspire to become.

USA Funds® is helping to build those pathways through its $500,000 grant to expand the Cowen Institute’s Earn and Learn Career Pathways program to serve more young people and recruit additional employers to participate in the program.

We must follow in the lead of Josh's mentors and lift up the next generation of New Orleanians who deserve much better. Each of us has the responsibility to educate, empower and inspire even our most disconnected youth, so they can not only have futures but also be our city's future.

Scott Cowen is President Emeritus and Distinguished University Professor, Tulane University.