Welcoming the First Cohort of Opportunity Youth Congressional Liaisons

“Wow,” my young colleague said, his voice echoing off the high marble walls in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came here, but now that I have done it, I realize this is what I have wanted to do my whole life: share my story with people who can make a difference.” 

I live for these moments, working in partnership with Opportunity Youth United to help Opportunity Youth—young people ages 16 to 24 who are not connected to school or the workforce—meet with their elected officials. Of all the advocacy activities we do, these are the most likely to change hearts, minds, and policies, and have been the most important driver of the Reconnecting Youth Campaign’s greatest successes: securing a cumulative $195 million additional federal funding for Opportunity Youth programs over two years; securing $518 million in the COVID recovery packages; and potentially billions more in the Build Back Better Act making its way through Congress. 

And yet, returning home after these meetings, I felt that something was missing – but I couldn’t put my finger on what. One day, my colleague Jo Ann Paanio returned in tears from a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill: most of the people of color she saw working there were employed to deliver mail and packages; not employed to use their voices, talents, and perspectives to shape policies. She was right. Only 11 percent of Senate top office staff and just 17 percent of public affairs professionals are people of color. And I realized the problem was me. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted to use all the connections and expertise I have gained through all the white, male, suburban, private school privilege I have benefited from throughout my life and use it to help Opportunity Youth be heard. But real change won’t happen until former Opportunity Youth have the senior government relations jobs leading these campaigns (not to mention occupying the elected positions making the decisions). How do we literally and figuratively change the complexion of who has the jobs building connections and influence with elected leaders? 

Today, our organization is taking another small but important step forward with the launch of our inaugural cohort of Opportunity Youth Congressional Liaisons (OYCL) program.  Over the next three months, seven amazing young people, ages 18-25, will take part in a paid fellowship designed to equip them with the skills and tools they need to directly advocate to elected officials about the issues and solutions they care about. 

Our goal with the first cohort is to learn from these young leaders as we help them not just participate in meetings with their elected officials, but also step into a government relations role by actively reaching out to schedule, design, and host these meetings themselves. We will learn what types of trainings this cohort of Opportunity Youth are looking for, what types of supports they seek, and in what ways they want to make a difference.  

Over time, as the program gets refined and expands, we hope to help Opportunity Youth across the country to build power from the ground up, bringing members of their community to meet with elected officials frequently. For them to forge deep connections with their elected leaders and staff. To become the people to whom officials turn to hear what policies are working, which are not, and what changes are needed.  

We are launching the OYCL program as a three-month learning opportunity, but we would love for this experience to help the young leaders’ career paths as well, even in some small but important ways. Providing some early work experiences and connections to peers, caring adults, mentors, and other nonprofits looking to engage and help develop young leaders as advocates. Over time, we would love for some young leaders who have come through our program to step into policy and government relations jobs, helping diversify the field and leading the change. And from there, ultimately, we hope many of them will see themselves in those very seats of decision-making in federal, state, and local government. 

And I look forward to the day when I turn my own government relations job over to a former Opportunity Youth who not only has even more connections and skills than I do, but also the essential lived experience I do not. 

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More about Thaddeus Ferber