The worst thing you can tell someone is that they can’t. That they can’t get a job; that they can’t go to college; that they can’t support their family; that they can’t raise themselves out of poverty. Unfortunately, we live in a world where certain people are told that they can’t from the day of their birth based on factors that they cannot control. At my time at Year Up, I have witnessed firsthand the power of empowering people who have been previously oppressed. Year Up takes an individual approach of giving their students a high amount of support but also demanding a high amount of accountability. A common theme at Year Up is that the students are told it’s up to them to take the opportunities that Year Up provides; that their success or failure is on them or only them.
I think this rhetoric is incredibly powerful. Systemic inequality ensures that many don’t have equal opportunities or opportunities at all. Just because someone doesn’t have the same opportunities, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same talent. I think that too often we enjoy looking at everything that is wrong in our society without actually doing anything to help the individuals who are actually oppressed. The students at Year Up don’t want endless intellectualization about their circumstances or excuses to be made for them because of where and to whom they were born. What they want, almost unanimously upon speaking to them, is to be given a fair shot—they want an opportunity. Year Up provides students with a six-month intensive skill-training program in a high support, high expectation environment. Students are then placed in an internship with a Fortune 500 company. This effectively gives students opportunities that they were previously denied.
So, in conclusion, I think that it is important that when we converse about the systemic oppression that certain groups face, we make sure that we are also doing something that will tangibly help them—tangibly give them an opportunity. Because the reality is, most people don’t want a handout, they want a hand up.