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Group encourages young professionals to remain in South Florida

South Florida has had a “brain drain” problem for years.

The region ranks seventh in the nation when counting college students per capita, but the Miami metro area measures poorly when it comes to residents aged 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree — only 29 percent in 2012. This puts it in the bottom quarter among the top 50 metro areas, according to Census data.

For Brenda Pacouloute, 31, the lack of educated young people in Miami has a different significance for her.

“It’s almost not normal to see successful black people in Miami,” said Pacoulote, a first-generation Haitian-American.

She is a part of an organization that includes South Florida natives, and a few transplants, who want to encourage kids in high school and young adults in college to stay in Miami and be civically involved. And they’re doing it in ways as diverse as the cultures of the area.

The nonprofit New Leaders Council, and its three-year old chapter in Miami, are dedicated to the education of a new generation of leaders and providing those leaders with the tools they need to succeed.

Saturday evening at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design, 100 NE First Ave., 19 of the council’s fellows celebrated the completion of a five-month curriculum, in which the mentoring program paired leaders in the South Florida community with the council’s fellows and alumni.

Webber Charles, 34, said that a bigger network of like-minded people, who also have similar goals, is a more effective way of helping the community.

“If we work in silos we can only get so much done,” Charles said. “But in a group, we have collectively affected hundreds of people.”

The mentors helped the fellows build relationships, increase their professional network within the community and complete a capstone project — something educational that involves Miami and its younger residents in some way, and can exist on its own.

For example, Pacouloute’s project was a symposium called “Women of Excellence in Leadership” for young girls in their senior year of high school or in college. It taught them etiquette, leadership and how to network.

“My whole idea was to provide an opportunity for them to develop these skills hoping that it would turn into career opportunities for them in the end,” Pacouloute said.

Leigh-Ann Buchanan, a 28-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, who moved to South Florida 12 years ago, founded a leadership program in Ghana.

“We are all stakeholders in the future of Miami,” Buchanan said. “We all have a responsibility of giving back and being impactful.”

The kids are teenagers in 10th, 11th and 12th grade from schools in Liberty City, Overtown, Hialeah and a few south Miami-Dade high schools.

“They’re really superstars,” Buchanan said of the kids.

She said one of law professors from the University of Miami encouraged her to apply to the NLC because she does a lot of work across the country on Stand Your Ground laws and that the experience would help her advocacy work.

“It was a life-changing experience,” said Buchanan, who has been a lawyer for six years. “You get to form strong relationships that expand beyond the business setting. And I feel energized and engaged to be around people that actually care.”

She said Miami needs people who are civically engaged and socially conscious to “take it to the next level of international acclaim.”

Charles, a Haitian-American from Opa-locka, has a three-part capstone project that involves giving an outlet for the best and brightest high school students in Miami to tell their own stories.

“I wanted to create something to show the dichotomy of what the media represents about us and what we actually think,” Charles said.

This first part of Charles’ project, which took place in May, was a screening of a film called “One Day We’ll All Be Free,” about the desegregation of Miami. It was done in partnership with the Black Church Alliance, the UM Center for Ethics and Public Service, NLC and Ransom Everglades School.

The second part is a photo exhibition of “emotional photographs of black Miami” that Charles said will take place sometime in September or October, the first nine weeks of the school year.

The sustainable part of his project is tentatively a blog that high school kids in the county can use to develop their communication skills, their ability to write, think critically and produce high-quality content.

“I think it’s a very powerful process that connects the kids to the city that they may not be connected to at the moment,” Charles said.

The retention of black professionals is a challenge in Miami, Buchanan said. But the connections she made while with NLC helped her decide to stay in Miami, and that those bonds can do the same for people who are not sure whether to remain or leave for potentially greener pastures.

“If you form a bond and you have, not only a professional safety net, but a personal safety net that exists within a community than you’re less likely to leave for other opportunities,” Buchanan said.

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