It’s not every day that Aletha Pearson, 23, joins the mayor for coffee to discuss issues facing her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
Pearson was one of 20 community leaders and constituents invited to a local Starbucks store by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. Together with Starbucks, they kicked off a series of town hall meetings to find solutions for the city’s opportunity youth – those 16-24 year olds who are neither in school nor employed.
The event (Sept. 25) was the first of six meetings that are part of Solutions City℠, a national initiative conceived by Starbucks and mayors in five U.S. cities, to bring together residents and local leaders at neighborhood Starbucks stores to address civic challenges.
Addressing the first town hall on Thursday, Pearson recalled her personal journey from dropping out of Phoenix’s school system to growing up in an unstable, often demoralizing, home environment. She knew what it was like to feel disconnected from the community, much like the estimated 183,200 other young men and women in Arizona who go each day without access to educational or career paths.
“I finally decided I wanted to change my life,” she shared. “I wanted to surround myself with people who believed in me. I wanted to become independent.”
Pearson eventually found the Promise of a New Day Housing Program in Phoenix, where she received education support, kitchen services training and the opportunity to build a support system with mentors and counselors. Today she is attending a local community college and studying towards a career in culinary arts. Pearson is also learning ASL interpretation, so she can “communicate and connect with more people, no matter what their circumstance.”
Pearson’s story, however, is not the norm. Nationally, there are nearly 7 million young Americans who are disconnected from the economy, with many lacking the skills needed to find and secure a job.
“In Arizona alone, disconnected youth are expected to cost our state a lifetime social loss of $127 billion,” said panelist Harry Garewal of the Partnership Forum on Disconnected Youth in Phoenix. Garewal previously led the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and served on the governing board for the Phoenix Union High School District.
“We can’t afford to ignore the economic impact of this enormous population. Now, more than ever before, we need to work together to bring these young men and women back into the economy.”
Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner joined Mayor Stanton and Garewal at Thursday’s town hall, and agreed that instead of viewing them as a deficit, communities need to look at these young people as an opportunity. “We need to ask ourselves, what kind of Arizona do we want to live in?” Dr. Scribner said. “Our schools are a ten year indicator for our city, and our city is an indicator for our state. The best solutions for our state could come from right here, in this room.”
Panelists agreed that businesses like Starbucks have a critical role to play.
“There’s a shift in how corporate America views the opportunity youth population,” said Blair Taylor, executive vice president and chief community officer for Starbucks. “We’re seeing that with the right skills and training, this untapped pool of talent could be of huge value to the workforce.”
Over the next year Mayor Stanton will host five more events, each featuring prominent community leaders and youth and education experts who will review the impact of opportunity youth and together, find ways to amplify the best solutions.
“Phoenix residents are taking ownership of addressing the problems facing youth in our community – and they often discuss solutions to those problems through meetings at coffee shops,” Mayor Stanton said. “Solutions City invites local leaders to start the conversation and creates a community space at their local Starbucks to help foster real solutions.”
Similar Solutions City town hall meetings are already underway in Sacramento, California and Columbus, Ohio, where Mayor Kevin Johnson and Mayor Michael Coleman are meeting local constituents and community leaders in Starbucks stores to find solutions to the challenges facing the city’s opportunity youth. Another series of town halls will kick off next month with mayors in Baltimore, Maryland and Orlando, Florida.
For Starbucks, the launch of Solutions City in Phoenix is part of the company’s growing efforts to work with others to create pathways to opportunity for young people, both within and outside the company. Most recently the company partnered with Arizona State University to launch the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, giving thousands of Starbucks partners (employees) in the United States the opportunity to finish their college education, with full tuition reimbursement and no obligation to stay with the company after graduating with a bachelor's degree in one of 40 areas of study.