The following op-ed was produced by United Way president and CEO Dan Leroy and board chair and former BCS Associate Superintendent, Susanne Swanger. It was published on 3/12/23.
We Must Unite Around Our Youth
As reported in a recent AC-T article, during a recent Buncombe County Commissioners' work session, county staff members presented disturbing numbers about stark racial disparities in student performance in Asheville and Buncombe County. These disparities are far from new—in our community and across this nation—but they are no less “appalling," as Commissioner Al Whitesides put it, and they demand an urgent and unwavering response from all of us.
While statistics like these are difficult to hear, they shine a bright light on systemic racism as a root cause and demonstrate the importance of pursuing equity-centered solutions. At the same time, if we aren’t careful, sharing these statistics without proper context can reinforce harmful false narratives that further isolate youth of color, blame them for falling short, and limit their potential. In truth, it is the historical and persistent lack of opportunity in Black and Brown communities that produces these disparities. Therefore, the solution lies in looking deeply into our own institutions and practices to identify and eliminate these racial and economic “opportunity gaps,” and working together to ensure that every child has what they need to succeed.
During the course of the presentation, Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, was clear about the fact that this issue is larger than the schools themselves, and that it requires our whole community to take action. She specifically named United for Youth and MyFutureNC as two groups focussed on closing these gaps through collective impact.
United for Youth (U4Y) is a multi-generational, cross-sector, “cradle to career” network built on the principle that "Equity and Educational Excellence are Inseparable." United for Youth partners collectively sign on to a bold community goal: “By 2035, ALL Asheville City and Buncombe County students graduate from high school ready and fully prepared to pursue their goals and dreams.”
United for Youth partners, including Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, local government, and representatives of a wide range of local health, social service, higher education, and youth services community partners each make their own explicit contributions toward this goal and agree to hold themselves and each other accountable for achieving it.
In addition to being a partner, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County has made United for Youth the centerpiece of our impact strategy by serving as a backbone agency, aligning and supporting dozens of community partners working collectively to achieve the bold community goal—and for good reason. At a time of ever-increasing social and economic divides, we know that education is the key to social mobility and that graduating from high school is a powerful predictor of the future health and financial stability of an individual and their community. We also know that academic success is too often derailed by things like poverty, hunger, homelessness, interpersonal violence, and access to health care—and that all of these challenges have been shown to disproportionately impact Black, and Indigenous communities and other communities of color.
What do these United for Youth partnership commitments look like? Each partner creates their own plan based on their unique abilities. For example, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is crafting mentorship opportunities for high school and college students and addressing public policy efforts that support early childhood and child care/child development opportunities. Read to Succeed trains and supports volunteer reading tutors working with K-3 students. And at the same time, both Asheville City Government and Buncombe County Government have listed numerous ways they can contribute, from participating at a leadership level within the group to adopting collaborative measurement practices and ensuring that education is centered within their own strategic plans.
To achieve this bold community goal, and once and for all eliminate the opportunity gap, United for Youth needs you too—your wisdom, your ideas, your voice, and your talents. This goal is too big and too important for anyone to sit on the sidelines. We must unite and embrace the success of our youth as our collective responsibility. Whether you choose to volunteer for a U4Y partner as a board member, a mentor, or a reading buddy, advocate for more equity-centered policies and procedures, or donate to a U4Y partner, you are needed.
Because if we expect our youth to become college, career, and community ready, we must first demonstrate that we adults are ready to support our youth—in every way possible—to pursue their goals and dreams.
Visit unitedwayabc.org/u4y to learn more about the work our community is tackling together and to find opportunities to volunteer with a local partner today.
Dan Leroy, President and CEO, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County
Susanne Swanger, Retired Associate Superintendent, Buncombe County Schools, and Board Chair, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County