03.02.2012

The Index Travels North: Alaska & North Dakota

In addition to bringing students into the fold as Opportunity Scholars, OpportunityNation works hard to reach out to the members of local communities who dedicate their lives to the themes of economic opportunity and social mobility. These community leaders embody the commitment, awareness, and selflessness that drive the OpportunityNation campaign. It is these assets on the ground that advance the cause each and every day. By supporting and engaging with these Opportunity Leaders, OpportunityNation is creating a grassroots framework for positive change.

One Opportunity Leader in Fargo, North Dakota is working every day to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth in her community. As the Street Outreach Coordinator for YouthWorks, Kristie Eschen creates hope and opportunity for homeless and street youth with little left to draw upon from society for support. Efforts like hers, far removed from politics, are driving the nation’s push for better access to economic opportunity and social mobility.

Despite its low unemployment rate and ranking at 12th in the nation for opportunity according to the Opportunity Index, North Dakota’s families and communities are not immune to economic woe. The Index shows a great divide in opportunity between the prosperity in Fargo and the city just across the river in Minnesota.

Eschen finds it troubling that “communities that work so closely together would receive such different grades.” The work she does aims to bridge that gap, both between these physically divided and divergent cities, and the interconnected communities that make up the social landscape. Young adults still struggle to find jobs and affordable housing. Even when things appear good on paper in North Dakota and Minnesota, there are still those in our community who would benefit from our continued support and engagement.

Kristie Eschen is a powerful example of this point. The work she does provides “education, prevention, and early intervention services to runaway, homeless, and street youth” in order to build a foundation for their future. By engaging these individuals on the street in a familiar environment, her program demonstrates “a sense of caring and concern and a willingness to help.” These connections develop the trust which can by leveraged by such outreach into positive growth.

Moving farther north we see other Opportunity Leaders making similar contributions to their communities. Edward King of Fairbanks, Alaska – population 35,000 – has found the Opportunity Index a useful asset in the work he is doing. King works with the Rescue Mission in Fairbanks, as well as a runaway youth center to help families in need. Although the Opportunity Index places Alaska at 18th in the nation, King recognizes it as “a great tool to gather and compare information,” and has drawn on valuable insights from its data.

The Opportunity Index reveals below average pre-school enrollment and on-time high school graduation for Alaska. King describes a culture of self-reliance and a tendency to remain within local towns as contributors to a lack of emphasis on education. However, King is active in “mentoring and counseling the students, encouraging them to have a longer term vision and bigger dreams.” While we are all free to choose our own path in this country, it is imperative that America maintains the opportunity to provide a real choice to our coming generations.

Despite these efforts and recent investment by the state in education, King recognizes the importance of community involvement and investment. His goal is to help develop a community action plan in order to “shift the focus of the community onto accomplishing measurable goals.” Concrete and realistic benchmarks are critical to empowering a community and establishing progress. According to King, the action plan will lay out a vision for the community’s safety net and ladder of opportunity.

“By strengthening the rungs of that ladder,” King describes, “we can provide the means to escape the poverty trap for those willing to put in the effort to climb.” Back in Fargo, Eschen’s program “is designed to give youth a safe and positive place to come have a snack and meet their basic needs” while learning positive skills.” Separated by thousands of miles, the work they are doing advances a common cause inherent in the OpportunityNation campaign. Both King and Eschen are leaders in developing economic opportunity and social mobility for youth in their communities.

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