Here’s how to turn troubled youth into opportunity youth

We already know that Austin Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionally represented in the counts of people in jail, people who don’t finish high school and people who are unemployed.

And we already know that our city’s local ordinances and policies have negatively affected these populations in the past and that those negative effects still linger today.

Now Austin is going to get a chance to take a hard look at its government and get to the roots of why it’s working against Blacks and Hispanics.

“It’s important for Austin to address racial inequity, not just because of it’s a problem,” says Mayor Steve Adler, “but also because our city helped create it.”

Mayor Adler at Living Cities event, photo by Ben Hecht
Mayor Adler at Living Cities event, photo by Ben Hecht

Last week, the national initiative Living Cities announced it would support Austin and four other cities that demonstrate a commitment to improving racial equity and advancing opportunity for all.


The study will focus specifically on assessing how government operations impact people of color, especially how they affect “opportunity youth” — adults and young people of color ages 16-24 who are disproportionally out of school or work.

Whatever the outcome of the city’s examination of its policies, we already know what works to help young people succeed: privilege and opportunity. 

Here’s how to turn “troubled youth” into “opportunity youth”: The first time a teenager gets in trouble at school, some of them are given a second chance. And a third and a fourth chance. For some of them, an adult intervenes, lending support and guidance. Some of these teenagers are then given the space and opportunity to discover something that truly inspires them… and their attitude turns around. At that point they realize what they want and what it’s going to take to get them there.

It might take years, but that troubled teen can be transformed into an engaged young man. As long as he’s given the chance.

Unfortunately in Austin, many Black and Hispanic teens aren’t given that second chance.

“The affluent kids knows he’s got enough resources to keep him afloat until he gets it together,” says Carl Settles. “Our kids, if they slip up once or twice, they just don’t get any chances.” And in Austin, that happens to more Black and Hispanic young people than it does to Whites and Asians.

Settles is the founder of E4 Youth, an Austin nonprofit that works with schools and other organizations to identify young people of color with creative talent. E4 programs foster that talent by exposing them to creative professionals in Austin. It offers job-shadowing programs, industry tours, mentoring, training and more.

The secret, says Settles, is to focus on what the young people care about, not what classes or skills they should have. “I see a lot of the tech and STEM stuff going on,” he says, “but I just feel like it’s wrong-headed because it makes the thing more important that what you can actually do with the thing.”

Settles and students from E4 Youth
Settles and students from E4 Youth

He tells the story of a young man he met five years ago who had written a film that got into a part of the Cannes Film Festival in high school. At the time, when Settles reached out to him, the young man blew him off. But about a year ago, he reached out again. “His job at the time was calling bingo games. Now he’s got a scholarship to be in the portfolio program by Will Chau of GSD&M.

“We’re paying for these people to be incarcerated and unemployed instead of giving them the chance to benefit our community,” says Settles. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

See these Austin nonprofits for ways you can help turn “troubled youth” into “opportunity youth.” 

E4 Youth is seeking volunteers in the creative fields (advertising, marketing, coding, application development, film, music, journalism, events and more) who can help mentor its program participants or help tell the organization’s story.

Latinitas empowers young Latinas using media and technology, enabling them to create original media projects that tell their own story. Right not it’s looking for summer volunteers who can work directly with the girls to make multimedia content like video games, online magazines and more. Being bilingual helps but it’s not required. See the online application for more information or sign up for the June 14 volunteer information session.

Channel Austin’s iYouth provides young filmmakers (middle school and high school) to meet professionals in the industry and get hands-on experience. Right now it’s raising money for scholarships for underprivileged youth to attend the Filmmakers Boot Camp, which takes place this week. The Boot Camp costs $100 per student and gives them a chance to participate in a the iYouth Film Festival later this summer.

EcoRise is looking for green professionals in water conservation, renewable energy, green building, organic farming and more to share their knowledge and work-life experience with young people as a guest speaker or project mentor. EcoRise offers school-based programs that empower youth to tackle real-world challenges by teaching sustainability, design innovation and social entrepreneurship.


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