Opportunity Nation: Help young Americans reach economic mobility

In our democracy, we teach our children to speak up for themselves. We sign petitions, attend school board meetings, slap bumper stickers on our cars. We vote. Every day, millions of Americans exercise their cherished constitutional rights in ways large and small — our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As Congress struggles with gridlock, partisan division and pressures exerted by paid lobbyists, it is more vital than ever that our commonsense voices are heard on critical issues facing our nation and its future. This is particularly true if we are to expand economic mobility to more Americans — a goal with bipartisan support and growing urgency in the global economy.

At Opportunity Nation, we believe it will take all of us, working together, to achieve this goal. One of the most powerful tools we have as Americans is citizen advocacy. We can all support programs and policies that are designed to accelerate economic, educational and civic well-being and bring them to the attention of our elected officials.

Opportunity Nation is a bipartisan, cross-sector, national campaign dedicated to expanding opportunity, particularly for young adults, in all 50 states over the next 10 years. Our 250 coalition partners, including the United Way of Miami-Dade, Young Invincibles and Miami Dade College, engage and reach 100 million Americans each day. As we travel around the country sharing our resources and tools, we have learned from people of all ages, walks of life and political beliefs about their desire to work hard and achieve the American Dream.

Yet we know this beacon of hope is at risk. Today, a child born into a low-income household in Canada and nearly a dozen European countries has a better chance of improving his or her economic situation than a child born in the United States.

Just 6 percent of American children born to parents at the bottom of the income distribution make it to the top.

Nearly 7 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in school and not working.

As Americans, we know we are fortunate to have the ability, even the obligation, to stand up for causes we believe in. The advent of the Internet has meant that more of us can communicate with our elected officials about issues that are important to us, via email chains, online petitions and social media.

But the deluge of impersonal email in inboxes has not necessarily translated into more effective communication or powerful advocacy. A 2011 survey of citizen involvement by The Partnership for a More Perfect Union found that even as more Americans are reaching out online to members of Congress, nearly two-thirds of congressional staffers report that the Internet has lowered the quality of constituent messages. Instead of passionate phone calls and persuasive letters, they receive form emails or Facebook “likes” that can be short on policy and reason. It turns out that even in the Internet age, a personal touch can trump technology.

According to a report by the congressional Management Foundation, “Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill,” everyday voters “have more power than they realize.” One of the most influential ways to sway an undecided member of Congress is a personalized letter sent via email or the U.S. Postal Service or a face-to-face meeting.

Ninety-seven percent of the congressional staffers who were surveyed said that constituent visits to Washington D.C. had a positive influence over their bosses — even more than that of lobbyists and news editors.

We are thrilled that from June 11-12, Opportunity Nation will embark on our first Hill Day, rallying support around issues we believe will open doors of opportunity for young Americans. Two dozen Opportunity Leaders and Scholars representing 12 states will travel to the Capitol. They will meet with their elected officials, demonstrating their support for legislation such as the CAREER Act to improve workforce training, and the American Dream Accounts Act, which would create college savings accounts and provide financial advice to low-income students.

We will also tell elected officials about the great work happening in Florida by Opportunity Leaders and Scholars such as Michael Long, chairman of the Florida Student Association. Mike, 21, launched SailFuture, a nonprofit that matches young professionals with low-income youth who have spent time in the juvenile justice system, and together they learn to sail. He was named the “Youth Success of the Year” by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Not everyone can hop on a plane and meet with their senators and representatives. But we can all write personal emails and letters and make phone calls to elected officials — strategies that we know yield results. With so much at stake, making sure our voices are heard is more important than ever. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Walker Moseley serves as a Diplomas Now program manager with City Year Miami. Mark Edwards is the executive director of Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit, bipartisan, national campaign to expand economic mobility in the United States.

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