Jun 1, 2012

Try to picture 14,000 youth.

Fourteen thousand exceeds the number of registered students at Tulane and the University of New Orleans. It’s a greater number than the combined enrollments of Loyola, Dillard and Xavier Universities. Fourteen thousand youth is about a third of the total number of students that attend public schools in Orleans Parish. The number is approximately 4000 seats shy of a full house at a Hornets game. If a company hired 14,000 youth it would be the largest employer in the city.

According to a report from the Greater New Orleans Data Center, 14,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 in the New Orleans metro are neither enrolled in school nor employed. Disconnected youth is the latest tag used to describe this horrible state of anomie. Fourteen thousand youth in the New Orleans metro are adrift and disengaged from the social anchors that could instill the type of character that incite youth to fight injustice instead of producing it.

Eighteen year-old Leo Riles is one of those disconnected youth. Riles turned himself in to authorities this past Thursday in connection to the Central City shooting that left two people dead, including a five-year-old birthday party celebrant. Two younger teenagers, including a 13-year-old who wore an ankle bracelet, were arrested in connection to another homicide on the same day. The 13-year-old was court ordered to abstain from criminal activity and to not attend school. The court also chided him with an 8 p.m. curfew. However, the judge was handcuffed by the same problem our community faces. What do we expect a boy who is obviously troubled to do to prevent such baleful behavior between his curfew times?

Let’s say the 14,000 youth reenter the school system or a university. What capacities do our schools have to teach a child who exhibited behaviors that compelled a judge to order that child to not attend? Austerity measures in public higher education and constant tuition hikes in the private sector limit universities’ abilities to take in the youth who need postsecondary training the most. Delgado is the most realistic postsecondary destination for youth in this position, but it’s already brimming with students.

Recovery rhetoric has stayed clear of the 14,000 number like it’s a separate parish. Our current school reform efforts simply don’t address the 14,000 youth who have created their own bizarro school district. In addition, bringing in a wiz kid from Connecticut won’t make one of the 14,000 go away. We’re not going to non-profit or incubate our way out the problem, and no one company will save us.

Let’s say that Costco, which will open a new facility on Carrollton, hires these youth to fill all of the 200 positions and work the 120 construction jobs it creates. We would need 43 Costcos to open, and hope they would hire people with limited skills and education.

However, that’s exactly what we need to do.  It may be unrealistic to bring in that many major companies, but we should expect current employers and schools to hire and train the most challenging young people. More importantly, we have to make visible the 14,000 in our recovery rhetoric and actions.

We will never live up to our responsibilities if we don’t change the mirrors we use to judge ourselves. If you don’t see the 14,000 youth when describing how the New Orleans renaissance is looking, then you too are living in another moral universe.