Connecting young people to the opportunities in MLK’s dream

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry

When we think of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we tend to think of the stunning crescendo. We remember the urgency with which Dr. King cast his beautiful vision of a color-blind nation, an America where freedom rings from every mountaintop for every girl and every boy.

But there’s another line, near the beginning of that speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that captures the spirit of a project I look forward to putting into action this year.

“We refuse to believe,” Dr. King said, “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Since I took office in 2015, I’ve seen just how important it is for Nashville’s young people to have opportunities to work. Opportunity teaches responsibility. It provides income.

Most importantly, it offers hope.

When we held the Youth Violence Summit and brought together 400 students from Nashville’s high schools a year ago, they told us there wasn’t enough for them to do after school or in the summertime. There were too many ways to lose focus, too many temptations to get off track.

Brandon Ramsey, a student at Hillsboro High School, summed it up perfectly when he told us, “Nashville, if you want us to walk a tightrope, then give us a safety net!”

Inspired by the wise words of Brandon and other students, as well as the experiences of cities from Boston to Seattle, I’m proud to say that Nashville will give thousands of young people such a safety net when we launch Opportunity NOW in June. With the help of employers and donors from the private, public and nonprofit sectors, we’ve set a goal of putting 10,000 youth ages 14 to 24 to work in paid, meaningful summer internships and jobs.

Whether they’re about to start high school or ready to join the workforce permanently, each of these young people will learn what it means to have a job: Showing up on time, following directions, working in teams, getting things done and, yes, getting paid.

We learn how to work by working, and I believe the work experiences our young people will get from Opportunity NOW will change a lot of lives – and even save a few.
Starting next month, young people and employers will be able to start making connections through an online portal accessible at on.nashville.gov. Some job opportunities may be available immediately, and summer internships will be awarded beginning in April. Four days of training will start the day after Memorial Day, followed by six weeks of work beginning Monday, June 4.

When we connect youth to opportunity and jobs, we can connect them to hope. I want our youth to have what everyone in our city should have – a chance to succeed.
As Dr. King said, the “vaults of opportunity” are far from empty. Let’s open them up so our young people can not only survive, but thrive.