Shoulder to Shoulder: Connecting Youth with the Services They Need to Thrive

Our work with the City of Memphis is showing how to strengthen communities by empowering who have been most disconnected

At Code for America, we believe the best way to improve government services is in deep partnership with the experts on the ground—the dedicated public servants who work on those services day-in, day-out. In our Shoulder to Shoulder series, we’re highlighting how these partnerships build capacity within government and improve outcomes for those who use its programs and services. Together, we’re showing it’s possible to make government work well for everyone.

In this installment, we talk to our local initiatives team, which has been working together with the City of Memphis on Opportunity R3, a program that is removing barriers for young people to further their education or workforce readiness. The program creates four-week cohorts for “opportunity youth”—young people between ages 16–24 who are experiencing disconnection—and provides them with the chance to realize their full potential. To learn more, we spoke with Auriel Rolle-Polk, Associate Program Director for the Opportunity Accelerator with Code for America, Tamika Williams, Opportunity R3 Program Manager with the City of Memphis, and Troy Thomas, an Opportunity R3 alumni and Firefighter with the City of Memphis.

Can we talk a little about how the Opportunity R3 program started? Why focus on people in this specific demographic for services?

Auriel: When the Opportunity Accelerator first started working with Memphis, we sat down with the mayors of both the city and the county and shared a bit about our goal to improve economic mobility and decrease racial inequities. They immediately said, “we gotta figure out something for our young people, especially those experiencing disconnection.” Memphis had the highest rate of disconnected youth—people who aren’t working or in school—in the nation. Our work started as an initial ecosystem mapping, basically just trying to identify the services that already existed and where there were gaps. The city decided they were going to set aside money from the American Rescue Plan Act for opportunity youth, and it all came together to meet the moment. They hired Tamika next to create the curriculum and build the Opportunity R3 program, and she’s taken it from there. 

Tamika: We know there are about 3,000–5,000 high school graduates in Memphis who just don’t know what their next steps are, and some people who haven’t finished high school and aren’t sure where to turn. If you’re sitting idle, some things that seem entertaining can be detrimental to your future. Opportunity youth are young people who need someone to hold open a door for them—but they’re gonna be the ones to walk through it. When we started Opportunity R3, we said we weren’t gonna force anything on anyone. It’s all about letting them choose their path, finding what drives them, learning their passions. It’s us following their lead and giving them the opportunity to get that done. It’s working, too—we’ve been able to get at least 87% of our opportunity youth into their field of choice or back in school after the program. 

Troy: I believe the government is responsible for this because young people are the future. Our actions shape what the city will look like for years to come. We need people to put in work so our city can grow. 

We’ve been able to get at least 87% of our opportunity youth into their field of choice or back in school after the program. 

What’re some of the first things you try to share with the youth in the program to get them motivated?

Tamika: A lot of young people want to serve their city, and they have the ability to. But maybe they made one mistake—maybe their driver’s license got suspended, for example, and they don’t know how to get it back. It’s hard to navigate that. And then you can’t see beyond the next year. When we ask people at the beginning of the program what their long term goals are, a lot of them say, “You mean next year?” So one of the first things we do is show them how to think beyond that, and convince them the next steps are worth it. We say, “You cannot be what you cannot see.”

Troy: I was one of those people. Part one of changing yourself is realizing what the problem is. Sometimes you be the problem. You have to change yourself before anyone else. You have to be accountable to yourself.  My driver’s license was suspended when I started the program, and Ms. Tamika went above and beyond to help me get my license in good standing again. It was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know I needed to do, and didn’t know how to do. She helped me the whole way, and I got my license back eventually—which meant I could become a firefighter. 

It seems like you learned a lot about navigating government services, Troy. What else did you get from the program?

Troy: It taught me a lot of simple life stuff that school doesn’t teach you, like financial advice, public speaking, and relationship building that can last a lifetime. How to capitalize on the stuff in front of you when you have a chance and not let it go to waste. I still talk to people in the cohort, too. I have one friend in the program who’s trying to go into the fire department—and I just graduated from the academy, so I can be his guide through it now. I just tell him it gets better. Going through the academy—it’s hard, and you don’t think you can make it. But it takes drive, it takes heart. R3 taught us that nothing is handed, it’s earned. They can set you up to do great things, but you have to have in your mind that you can do it. You have to have that drive. 

Left: Troy Thomas after graduating the firefighting academy. Top Right: OR3 participants in a session. Bottom Right: OR3 participants with members of the Code for America local initiatives team.

What do you think the city gets out of running a program like this?

Auriel: It’s really an investment in the future. Disconnected young people in Memphis—these are the folks that are going to be taking care of you later on. Troy’s going to be a firefighter who comes to help you when you’re older and you slip and fall. If we don’t invest, we’ll see businesses and people leaving the area. I think it’s a question of, “Are we pouring into the right places, and is that place  better than when we found it?”

Speaking of “better than you found it,” what are your hopes for the future of Opportunity R3?

Tamika: I want us to become a one-stop shop. We can’t prepare our young people for success if they’re getting doors shut in their faces at every turn. If they’re failing background checks, or need an expungement for old court cases or tickets. If they need childcare, or housing, or utility assistance, or healthcare, or transportation assistance—a lot of our participants are on their own and they need help. People in the city really stay in their niche, and if the resources aren’t there already, it’s hard to find them. People don’t want to be looked down on; they don’t want to be seen as a project. I want us to have one place where they feel empowered and able to overcome their struggles. 

Auriel: Right now, OR3 is providing a wraparound, shoulder-to-shoulder experience. I’ve seen Tamika go to different states with people to help them get birth certificates. That’s commitment, but we can’t do that with everyone. It’s a small team doing a lot of work, and there’s 30,000 young people out there we need to get to. I think it’s a both/and situation. How do we continue to walk side by side with people who need that level of support, and how can we create a digital one-stop shop so that people who need these resources but want to navigate it themselves can do that? We’re piloting a digital hub now. People go online for answers, and if we can have a job board, childcare partners, transportation vouchers, all the things you’d need in one place, that might do it. We can have people like Troy telling folks there’s an app they can go to. Suddenly we go from helping 200 young people to 2,000 young people. OR3 can be the blueprint where we lay out all the things young people might need, and we’ll build from there. We can make it so that if you need services, there’s no wrong door to go through—every door will lead you to multiple other services you might need. 

When you have someone like Troy, who’s been through the program, advocating for others to try this out, what broader impact do you think that has on a community?

Auriel: When one person gets plugged into a government program, they expose everyone around them to that. I heard one person say their boyfriend was their ride to OR3, and then they brought him inside to sign up. There’s that informal second tier of best friends, cousins, and siblings. 

Troy: And my perspective of government definitely changed throughout this. If more people knew about this program, they’d see government differently. Sometimes all we see is police brutality. A lot of people don’t get to see that government is out here changing people’s lives. 

Tamika: Most people come to us in survive mode—what am I going to eat? Where am I going to sleep? We want to get them into thrive mode. We also want to show them that government is a thrive partner. Government can create an environment where you can find resources and meet a network of people who are gonna help you succeed. 

I tell young people all the time that opportunities knock but they might not stay. You have to seize them when they arrive. That’s what’s going to change systems. 

How can other local governments follow the example Memphis is setting?

Auriel: A big part of this is setting aside money to really do this the right way. Helping someone expunge a record costs money. A lot of barriers young people face because of poverty, and to remove those barriers, there needs to be money. That also allows you to hire passionate people like Tamika. I fundamentally believe that government can be better and should be better. This program has shown me that systems are made up of people—to fix government, there’s a lot of levers that need to be pulled in order to make change. But Troy is a firefighter now because of that change. That reminds me what’s possible. 

Tamika: I think it’s important to remember in work like this that there will be draining days, days where you feel like you can’t do it. But we have to keep showing up. You need a diverse team to lean on. I tell young people all the time that opportunities knock but they might not stay. You have to seize them when they arrive. That’s what’s going to change systems. Troy is one of the first living witnesses that innovation is happening in government in Memphis.

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